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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts, Help Me, Help Me | Summary



An advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch sits at his desk trying to write. The narrator refers to him only by his pen name, Miss Lonelyhearts. He reads a prayer written by his sharp-tongued editor, Shrike. The prayer is addressed to "Miss L," and it mocks Christian prayers to Christ: "Soul of Miss L, glorify me ... In saecula saeculorum. Amen." The phrase in saecula saeculorum is Latin and is often translated as "forever and ever."

Although the deadline is 15 minutes away Miss Lonelyhearts is still working on the first paragraph of his column. He writes, "Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith ..." Then he can't go on writing. His letter writers are truly suffering. "The letters were no longer funny," the narrator remarks.

A woman who signs her letter "Sick-of-it-all" asks for advice. She is pregnant again although childbearing is hard on her, after "7 children in 12 years." She and her husband are Catholic and very religious, she says.

Miss Lonelyhearts also reads letters from Desperate and Harold S. "Desperate" is a girl who was born without a nose. She wonders why God has punished her. Harold S. has a deaf-mute sister; he believes a man on the rooftop "did something dirty to her" without her consent. He is afraid to tell his parents, who will beat her. He fears his sister might be pregnant.

Miss Lonelyhearts starts writing his column. His editor, Shrike, reads over his shoulder and says, "Why don't you give them something new and hopeful? Tell them about art." Shrike dictates a sarcastic column called "Art Is a Way Out." He sketches the beginning of the column and then tells Miss Lonelyhearts, "Go on from there."


The narrator says Miss Lonelyhearts "no longer" finds the letters funny, indicating he did find them funny at first. But now it is clear to Miss Lonelyhearts that his letter writers suffer deeply, and his inability to help them pains him.

The letters Miss Lonelyhearts receives to him demand a theodicy. Theodicy is a justification of why a good, all-powerful God permits people to suffer. The letter from Desperate, the teenage girl born without a nose, particularly poses the problem of theodicy. "What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate?" she asks. If it is punishment, what was newborn Desperate punished for? Her father has told her that "maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his [her father's] sins."

The letter writers in this chapter are all victims and all women, except for Harold S., the brother of the rape victim. These victims are so downtrodden they think they are to blame. Sick-of-it-all is abused by her husband and betrayed by her religion. She would like a break from childbearing but feels her religion won't permit it. She stops short of blaming her husband, although her husband shares responsibility for the pregnancies. Desperate also appears to accept blame. When her father tells her perhaps she is being punished for her sins or his, she rejects only the latter possibility: "I dont believe that because he is a very nice man." She does not reject the idea she is being punished for her sins.

The editor, Shrike, emphasizes Miss Lonelyhearts's religious function with his sarcastic prayer. However, Miss Lonelyhearts has no spiritual aid to offer, and this greatly pains him. He can only offer fine but empty words about "dreams" and "faith." The form of the column constrains him. It would take more than a newspaper column to help his letter writers. Although Miss Lonelyhearts doesn't get around to writing his column in this chapter, many solutions are mentioned. Three important ones are suicide, dreams, and art. In later chapters Miss Lonelyhearts will see there is real spiritual hunger even in the people who consume the tackiest commercialized dreams, such as movies. In this chapter Shrike says that to him art is "a way out," but his jokey manner makes even that doubtful.

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