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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb | Summary



Miss Lonelyhearts goes home to his rented room, "a room that was as full of shadows as an old steel engraving." Its only furniture is "a bed, a table, and two chairs." Its only decoration is "an ivory Christ that hung opposite the bed." He goes to bed, bringing a copy of the 19th-century Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.

Miss Lonelyhearts turns to "a chapter devoted to Father Zossima." The priest Zossima advises his listeners to "love a man even in his sin," because such love resembles "Divine Love and is the highest love on earth." Miss Lonelyhearts considers this "excellent advice" but thinks Shrike makes "a sane view of this Christ business impossible," and the tension between these views of religion troubles and motivates him to go on looking for some answers.

He recalls in childhood his experiences in the church where his father preached. Back then he "discovered ... something stirred in him when he shouted the name of Christ, something secret and enormously powerful." He did not explore this "something" or "allow it to come alive."

He now knows what the thing was: "hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life." He thinks of "how dead the world is ... a world of doorknobs." He then falls asleep and has a dream in which many of his past torments come back to bring him pain.

In Miss Lonelyhearts's dream he is "a magician who did tricks with doorknobs." He leads the audience in prayer. Then the dream shifts to his old college dorm. His college friends Steve Garvey and Jud Hume are there. They have been drinking and arguing "about the existence of God."

They run out of whiskey. They go out to buy some applejack from a bootlegger. They happen by the livestock market. Jud suggests buying a lamb to roast over an open fire. Miss Lonelyhearts says they should first sacrifice the lamb to God.

They buy a lamb and "parade it through the market." They walk through a meadow and pick flowers. On a rock on a hill they lay down the flowers and the lamb. Miss Lonelyhearts chants a prayer.

When it becomes time to follow what they take to be some religious ritual, Miss Lonelyhearts botches the killing. He only wounds the lamb and breaks his knife on the stone. He tries to cut the lamb's throat but the stub of a knife is too short. The wounded, bleeding lamb escapes. Miss Lonelyhearts and his friends flee down the hill. Then Miss Lonelyhearts begs his friends to go back and "put the lamb out of its misery." His friends refuse but Miss Lonelyhearts returns. He crushes the lamb's head with a stone and "leaves the carcass to the flies that swarm around the bloody altar flowers."


In the description of Miss Lonelyhearts's mercy killing of the lamb the narrator mentions the "bloody altar." Thus although the lamb had run away into the underbrush, Miss Lonelyhearts drags it back to the rock altar to crush its head there. He could have accomplished the mercy killing anywhere. Taking the lamb to the altar suggests he wanted to complete the mockery of the religious ritual.

But even though he succeeds in killing the lamb, the scene described does not suggest a completed sacrifice. It is more like an abandoned, broken-off sacrifice, or a parody of a religion. Miss Lonelyhearts says no further prayer and there is no ritual bloodletting with a knife. He savagely crushes the creature's head and leaves the bloody carcass to the flies.

All this occurs in a "dream." But Miss Lonelyhearts's dream is in fact most undreamlike; events make a type of real-life sense, even if they are grotesque. Miss Lonelyhearts's thoughts are much more dreamlike before he falls asleep, as he sits and recalls his childhood experiences in church. He comes up with a dreamily poetic image for the "something" the name of Christ awakens in him. He calls it, "hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life."

For Miss Lonelyhearts this hysteria is an excessive emotional state of religious madness that does not offer access to a spiritual truth or the true world. Instead hysteria is a mirror-covered snake, tempting and full of illusions. In the snake's mirrors "the dead world" seems to come alive, but only with "a semblance [appearance] of life." The image of the tempting, mirrored snake is rich and poetic, more dreamlike than anything in his dreams. After a pause, he comes up with an image for the dead world; it is "a world of doorknobs." Perhaps he means it is a world of dead objects, as cold and inert as a doorknob. The doorknob may be an appropriate image for the world's deadness because of its similarity to the phrase "deader than a doornail." A trace of this image carries over to Miss Lonelyhearts's dream of Christ: "a magician who did tricks with doorknobs."

Miss Lonelyhearts is a kind of priest in this dream and chapter. But many elements prevent a purely religious interpretation, just as many elements prevent a purely satirical interpretation. When he was in college, if the dream is an accurate memory, Miss Lonelyhearts was already mocking religion. He arranged a drunken parody of a religious ritual. It was not just any one, but the sacrifice of a lamb is an image of the crucifixion of Jesus, who is sometimes called the Lamb of God. But college-age Miss Lonelyhearts's sacrifice remains a travesty. The character Miss Lonelyhearts seems stranded between the two attitudes, spiritual and satirical. Like the book itself, West's Miss Lonelyhearts is both emotionally moving and blackly humorous.

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