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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience | Summary



The next morning Miss Lonelyhearts has a fever, which he welcomes. "[The fever] promised heat and mentally unmotivated violence." He focuses on the image of the crucified Christ hanging on his wall. Everything else in the room seems dead to him. Then the entire world seems to be a fish, which "suddenly [rises] to the bright bait on the wall." Miss Lonelyhearts decides, "Christ is life and light."

From the bed he shouts, "Christ! Christ!" He feels grace, "clean as the inner petals of a newly forced rosebud." He feels delight, "and his nerves ripple under it like small blue flowers in a pasture." Miss Lonelyhearts now feels identified with God. "His heart was the one heart, the heart of God. And his brain was likewise God's." He ecstatically feels "God approved his every thought."

Then the doorbell rings and Miss Lonelyhearts goes to the hall. He sees Peter Doyle and rushes to meet him. Doyle is coming up the stairs, carrying a bundle wrapped in newspaper. Doyle shouts something, but Miss Lonelyhearts can't understand. Miss Lonelyhearts perceives Doyle's shout as "a cry for help from Desperate, Harold S., Catholic-mother, Brokenhearted, Broad-shoulders Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband." Betty appears at the street entrance and tries to intervene. However, her presence panics Doyle, who feels she has cut off his exit. Miss Lonelyhearts' final act is to rush toward Doyle "to succor him with love."

Doyle tries to escape Miss Lonelyhearts's embrace but cannot. In the struggle "the gun inside the package explod[es]." Miss Lonelyhearts falls down and both men tumble down the stairs as the book ends.


"Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience" is a tragicomic ending for West's novel. If the chapter ended with Miss Lonelyhearts' being shot, that might be tragic. It would certainly be a dramatic exit. But Miss Lonelyhearts gets entangled with the ungainly Doyle and they roll "part of the way down stairs." Like an actor bungling his or her exit, Miss Lonelyhearts remains uselessly on stage after the dramatic high point of the gunshot, rolling down the stairs. This way of letting the air out of the scene makes it darkly absurd. He cannot even manage to roll all the way down the stairs. Instead he stops halfway, a fitting symbol of his position between Christ-like savior and devilish cynic.

Miss Lonelyhearts's career has been built on the premise he understands his readers. Betty thinks she understands Miss Lonelyhearts and knows how to make him happy. But no one in this final scene understands anyone. Betty intends to defuse the confrontation, but Doyle misunderstands her intentions and he panics. Doyle tries to say something to Miss Lonelyhearts, but Miss Lonelyhearts hears instead all his letter writers, an abstract amalgam of suffering humanity. Doyle seems not to understand his own intentions. He brought a gun to Miss Lonelyhearts's apartment, but at the last moment he tries to get rid of it. He apparently fires it accidentally.

It seems likely Miss Lonelyhearts is dead at the end. If so, his death does not have the sacrificial meaning he hoped for. Unlike Christ's death, Miss Lonelyhearts's tragicomic shooting does not save anyone. Miss Lonelyhearts is like the wounded lamb in the underbrush: the victim of a botched sacrifice. His attempt to raise a trashy advice column up to the level of spiritual succor has failed. His failure is symbolized in the fall down the stairs. Instead of ascending to heaven like the Christian Everyman of A Pilgrim's Progress, Miss Lonelyhearts falls to earth and his passionate needs remain sadly unfulfilled.

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