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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp | Summary



Miss Lonelyhearts next falls ill and stays in bed for several days of sleep. On the third day "his imagination began to work." He imagines a pawn shop with many items in its window: "fur coats, diamond rings, watches, shotguns, fishing tackle, mandolins." He then imagines piling these items together in various shapes. Finally he settles on the shape of "a gigantic cross."

The cross gets too big for the pawnshop, so Miss Lonelyhearts moves it to the ocean. The waves toss up more junk to add to his cross. Exhausted by his imaginary task Miss Lonelyhearts falls asleep.

When he wakes, Betty is there. She has brought soup. He asks her to stay and apologizes for the way he treated her. She says it's his job causing him to act that way. He says quitting his job wouldn't help. Speaking in the third person he tries to explain his situation. "A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper." The man starts out treating the job like a joke, "but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him." He sees the letters are "profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice" and "inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering." He begins to think he is the butt of the joke.

Betty talks about her childhood, and then "Shrike burst[s] into the room." The drunken Shrike shouts. Betty leaves. Miss Lonelyhearts turns his face to the wall. Shrike shouts at him anyway. He outlines the options Miss Lonelyhearts has: retreat to rural life, run away to a South Sea island like the famous painter Gauguin, live for sensual pleasure, or devote himself to art.

But Shrike says there are objections to all these alternatives. He says he and Miss Lonelyhearts are different: "God alone is our escape." He then rants in a jokey way about "the First Church of Christ Dentist ... Preventer of Decay."

Shrike then dictates a letter to Christ, for Miss Lonelyhearts to write. Shrike addresses the letter to "Dear Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts." Speaking from Miss Lonelyhearts's perspective Shrike says he reads Christ's "column" and admires it. He asks for advice.


For a healthy young man Miss Lonelyhearts takes an awful lot of sick days! Of course he drinks huge amounts of alcohol, which could lay anybody low. But Miss Lonelyhearts's illnesses serve the novel by allowing him to have more imaginative, symbolic thoughts. He thinks in a dreamlike way when he has a fever. In this chapter he imagines objects symbolizing suffering. The valuable pawned objects—fur coats, watches, shotguns—symbolize the beginning of suffering, the moment a once-prosperous life starts to go wrong. Miss Lonelyhearts calls these items "the paraphernalia of suffering." The people who pawned them are in some kind of trouble, in need of cash and without other resources. As Miss Lonelyhearts's vision goes on and he adds other items to the giant cross, the objects become less valuable, more degraded. Soon he is making a cross out of junk washed up by waves: "bottles, shells, chunks of cork, fish heads, pieces of net." Yet it is a cross he constructs.

The chapter title, "Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp," makes reference to The Pilgrim's Progress, a 17th-century Christian allegory by John Bunyan. In literature an allegory is a work in which things and people stand for and have meaning in abstract concepts. The Pilgrim's Progress tells the story of a representative everyman, named only Christian, as he travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The Celestial City stands for heaven. On his way to heaven, the pilgrim runs into all kinds of obstacles and sinful distractions, including "the Slough [swamp] of Despond." Like Christian in the Slough of Despond, Miss Lonelyhearts is at a low moment in his journey, and far from salvation in his pilgrimage through his own times.

The alternatives Shrike offers to Miss Lonelyhearts are also literary. When he describes the retreat to a life of farming, he says, the "ways and means" of the world "are too much with you." He says Miss Lonelyhearts, by "getting and lending and spending" is "lay[ing] waste [his] inner world." This is a reference to a sonnet by the 19th-century Romantic English poet William Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much with Us." He was a "Romantic," not because he wrote about love, but because he was part of the literary movement called Romanticism. Works by Romantics highlighted the beauty of nature, the importance of emotion rather than reason, and an examination of the numerous meanings of the self. Wordsworth's sonnet begins with lines that echo Shrike's:

The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

The speaker in the poem says he sees the ocean but can derive no pleasure from it. He concludes by wishing he were a pagan. Even though paganism is an "outworn creed," he could at least see gods emerging meaningfully from the ocean. So although Romanticism is often about natural beauty, this poem is about being disappointed by natural beauty without higher meaning. In Shrike's version, too, the retreat to nature is not enough. But ultimately Shrike suggests Christianity, not paganism, as a belief system of sorts.

The literary critic Harold Bloom has suggested Shrike is a Satan figure, a tempter. He tries to turn Miss Lonelyhearts away from his Christian journey, keeping him in the Dismal Swamp. Shrike does this by painting the alternatives as sexually fulfilling. In the country life, Miss Lonelyhearts's gait will become "the heavy sexual step of a dance-drunk Indian." Sowing seeds in the earth will be sexual: "you tread the seed down into the female earth."

The South Sea idyll is also a sexual and literary one. The picture Shrike paints resembles the plot of 19th-century American writer Herman Melville's novel Typee (1846). In Typee a sailor deserts a whaling ship and lives with the Typee people in Polynesia. The tempter Shrike also makes this life look sexually intriguing: "You live in a thatch hut with the daughter of the king, a slim young maiden." At the same time his characters Shrike and Miss Lonelyhearts are trying to figure out how to solve the problems of life, West is giving examples of how literature has suggested solving those problems by other writers who have influenced his thoughts.

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