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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan | Summary



After his workday Miss Lonelyhearts heads to a speakeasy, a bar selling alcohol illegally during Prohibition.

Miss Lonelyhearts walks through a park on his way to a speakeasy called Delehanty's. He sees no signs of spring in the park, just "exhausted dirt." He thinks about the letters from his readers. He decides they all need a drink. He sits down on a bench.

After a rest Miss Lonelyhearts enters Delehanty's, which is in a basement. He is relieved Shrike is not there, but after he has had three drinks Shrike appears. Shrike jabbers to Miss Lonelyhearts about the Renaissance and religion. Miss Lonelyhearts notices Shrike "practices a trick much used by moving picture comedians—the dead pan." (Nowadays usually spelled deadpan.) Comic actors can increase the comedy of their performance by keeping their facial expression neutral. This expression is called a deadpan. Shrike does this, yammering and shouting while not reacting to his own material.

A girlfriend of Shrike's, Miss Farkis, is there too and is interested in what Shrike says about religion. She asks a question about "the new thomistic synthesis." (Thomism refers to St. Thomas.) Shrike disdains her question as a remark of "stinking intellectuals."

"America has her own religions," Shrike tells Miss Lonelyhearts. He takes out a newspaper clipping: "ADDING MACHINE USED IN RITUAL OF WESTERN SECT." A cult will use adding machines in a prayer for a condemned man, William Moya. Moya "killed Joseph Zemp, an aged recluse, in an argument over a small amount of money."

Miss Farkis finds the clipping funny and she laughs. Shrike reacts by "rais[ing] his fist as though to strike her." The shocked bartender insists they leave the barroom and go into a private room. In the private room Shrike again raises his fist and then changes his gesture to a caress for Miss Farkis. "The trick worked," Miss Lonelyhearts notices. Miss Lonelyhearts thinks Shrike's talk about religion is "a seduction speech" aimed at Miss Farkis.

Shrike then explains what he calls "Shrike's Passion in the Luncheonette." By "Passion" he means the suffering of Jesus Christ, leading up to his death on the cross. Shrike compares Christ's wounds to "the mouths of a miraculous purse in which we deposit the small change of our sins." Shrike then asks his listeners to consider their own bodies. He describes what is "under the skin of man" as "a jungle" of "over-ripe organs and weed-like entrails." This jungle contains "a bird called the soul." Shrike concludes by saying he spits on all religions, which kill the soul.


While he sits in the park Miss Lonelyhearts sees things reminding him of his newspaper job. The gray sky looks like paper that has been "rubbed with a soiled eraser." It is empty of religious signs. "It held no angels, flaming crosses, olive-bearing doves, wheels within wheels." Instead the sky holds "only a newspaper struggl[ing] in the air like a kite with a broken spine." Miss Lonelyhearts lives in a secular age. The heavens are empty. In the place of saintly visions, he sees only the broken-backed mass media.

Miss Lonelyhearts tries to make a joke to himself, about his problems and his suffering letter writers. "Ah humanity ..." he says, trailing off. His joke may be an allusion to the famous last lines of the novella Bartleby the Scrivener, by the American writer Herman Melville. Bartleby worked in the dead-letter office of the United States Post Office. Bartleby was exposed to human suffering in the dead-letter office, sorting letters of consolation or hope that never reached their addressees. "On errands of life, these letters speed to death," the narrator of Bartleby muses. He concludes by lamenting, like Miss Lonelyhearts, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"

Then Miss Lonelyhearts notices his joke "has a dying fall." In music a dying fall is the end of a cadence, fading or slowing or diminishing. Miss Lonelyhearts's joke has a dying fall in that it trails off at the end. This famous phrase—a dying fall—is in the opening of Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. Duke Orsino says, "If music be the food of love, play on. /... That strain again! It had a dying fall." Duke Orsino is enjoying his sorrow. Although the novel Miss Lonelyhearts is gritty and realistic, West is aware of literary history and makes allusions to it. Melville and Shakespeare are two of many other great writers West includes for their exploration of human misery and doubt.

In this chapter Shrike is revealed as a sadist. His name, Shrike, is also the name of a bird of prey. A shrike can impale insects, birds, mice, or lizards on thorns or spiky plants, saving the creatures to eat them later. The editor Shrike also toys with his prey. He uses the "trick" of getting Miss Farkis to accept a caress from him by first threatening to hit her. He appeals to her by being mean.

Miss Lonelyhearts notices Shrike's other trick. He makes what he says funnier by keeping a deadpan expression. The silent film comedian Buster Keaton was famous for such a deadpan expression, earning him the nickname "the Great Stone Face." He noticed when he took pratfalls on stage, "the more serious I turned, the bigger laugh I got." This chapter is the opposite of a deadpan. It puts on a smiling face, letting readers see how sad the story is. Miss Lonelyhearts tells himself a joke; Shrike keeps up his long, funny patter about the "Supreme Pontiff of the Liberal Church of America." But what Shrike and Miss Lonelyhearts talk about is sad. Miss Lonelyhearts's letter writers suffer. And "America has her own religions," as Shrike says, but the sect he describes is a sad one, worshiping money, gadgets, and killers.

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