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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Quotes


All of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts, Help Me, Help Me

The narrator is referring to the heap of letters on Miss Lonelyhearts's desk. He receives "more than thirty letters" on most days, and they're all alike. They all describe suffering. Everyone who writes thinks they are unique in having their life go wrong, but Miss Lonelyhearts can see how common the story is.

In an extended metaphor, West compares suffering to dough, and he compares whatever gives the letters their similarity to "a heart-shaped cookie knife." The word "heart" recalls Miss Lonelyhearts's pen name, while also making the letters seem sweetly familiar. The horrible pain of the letter writers, forced into the newspaper column format, becomes distorted into something inappropriately cute—a cookie, a heart-shaped cookie.

It is typical to refer to things that are all alike as being shaped by a "cookie cutter." West uses the unusual phrase "cookie knife," bringing the words "heart" and "knife" close together. The "heart-shaped ... knife" foreshadows the overwhelming cruelty of Miss Lonelyhearts.


Her world was not the world.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb

Miss Lonelyhearts has become obsessed with order. It pains him to see the disorderly world, with its mobs of people and its unevenly spaced lampposts. Disorder pains him because it reminds him of the chaotic, messy suffering of his letter writers.

He seeks out Betty precisely because of her orderliness. She likes to straighten his tie. She keeps the "objects on her dressing table" in order. He thinks "if her world were larger," she would also keep that larger world in order.

But when Miss Lonelyhearts meets with Betty he is disappointed. Her domestic sphere, her range of concerns, seem small to him. This is when the narrator comments, "Her world was not the world." Her small part of the world "could never include the readers of his column."


She was like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one want to hurt it.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb

By the time the narrator says this, Miss Lonelyhearts has already been hurting Betty for some time. Miss Lonelyhearts calls her "a kind of bitch" and mockingly nicknames her "Betty the Buddha." The insults cause her to lose her trust for him, and she moves away from where he sits on the couch.

Betty is showing her vulnerability and her pain when she reacts to the insults. However, any time Miss Lonelyhearts feels pity he soon feels rage, too. He is enraged by his own helplessness, since he is unable to comfort Betty or his letter writers. His pity quickly turns to cruelty.


He felt as though his heart were a bomb.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man

Miss Lonelyhearts has just been thrown out of Betty's apartment, having finally hurt her so much she rebelled. But the encounter did not satisfy Miss Lonelyhearts. His desire to "hurt the pain," as the narrator says elsewhere, is still unsatisfied. In this tense state Miss Lonelyhearts does not know what to do: "He was too excited to eat and afraid to go home."

The narrator tells readers Miss Lonelyhearts feels his heart is "a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion." The explosion would "wreck the world without rocking it."

Miss Lonelyhearts's heart, like anyone's, is metaphorically the organ of sympathy, love, and fellow feeling. But Miss Lonelyhearts's heart is a bomb because the more sympathy he feels for the letter writers, the closer he is to exploding in rage at being unable to end their suffering. The novel is about that growing tension and that explosion. However, Miss Lonelyhearts does fail to "rock" the world, in that he does not save it or change it before meeting his final "accident."


Like Shrike, the man they imitated, they were machines for making jokes.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man

The narrator refers to Miss Lonelyhearts's friends in Delehanty's speakeasy. They make vicious and cruel jokes about "female writers," taking satisfaction in stories about the women being subjected to sexual violence.

These men try to empty themselves of feeling and become "machines for making jokes." But their cruelty is animated by a feeling of their own, which they cannot bear. They were disappointed in their belief in "literature ... Beauty ... and personal expression." When these ideals let them down they did not turn to money, because "they were not worldly men." Instead they have nothing but the pleasures of "childish" jokes.


Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike

In the chapter called "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb" Miss Lonelyhearts drowsily thinks about "how dead the world is, a world of doorknobs." Now the world seems alive but Miss Lonelyhearts feels dead to himself. Only sex ("friction") and anger ("violence") seem to rouse him, so he seeks out Mrs. Shrike. He is looking for sex, but it's possible he might be satisfied by violence instead. In the end Mrs. Shrike provides him with neither, and he continues his search.


Like a stupid detective who is searching for the clue to his own exhaustion.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip

Miss Lonelyhearts is sitting in the park and "examining" the sky. His close examination of the sky prompts the narrator to compare him to "a stupid detective ... searching for the clue to his own exhaustion." He is a stupid detective because he is looking for the clues in the wrong place.

The "stupid detective" is a common theme in literature: a character who is smart about everything except him/herself. Oedipus, in the 5th-century BC play Oedipus Rex, is smart enough to answer the Sphinx's riddle and rule Thebes wisely. But he cannot see that the answer to Thebes's woes is himself. Likewise Miss Lonelyhearts is the cause of his own exhaustion and will bring about his own destruction.


He said it wasn't the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts in the Country

Miss Lonelyhearts is with Betty on a vacation in the countryside. Everything seems idyllic, a rural paradise. Betty and Miss Lonelyhearts eat and swim and make love. Deer come out and stand around, as though in a paradise where deer have nothing to fear from humans.

Miss Lonelyhearts goes to the cutely named Aw-Kum-On garage to a buy a newspaper. He tells the proprietor about the deer, trying to share the experience with him. The proprietor airs his anti-Semitic views. In the garage man's view, the countryside in Connecticut is lovely because there are few Jewish people there, or "yids" in the garage man's malicious slur. West does not say how or whether Miss Lonelyhearts reacts. But the abrupt shift in register, from cute and happy to vile and anti-Semitic, shows Betty's paradise is false. Soon after, Miss Lonelyhearts returns to the grim city. Though West had moved far from his ancestors' Jewish religion, the inclusion of the man's comments shows a continuing awareness of his own identity.


Crowds of people moved through the street with a dream-like violence.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts Returns

Miss Lonelyhearts is on his way back into the city, after his country idyll. As soon as he reaches "the Bronx slums, Miss Lonelyhearts knows Betty has failed to cure him." In these slums the "crowd of people" move "with a dream-like violence."

The people the narrator goes on to describe are not doing anything violent. Violence seems to have been done to them; they have "broken hands and torn mouths." Likely they suffered this violence in the tumult of the crowd. Their violence is "dream-like." Miss Lonelyhearts continually links dreams and alienation from normality with violence as characteristic of modern life at that time. The entire novel seems to develop itself as a violent dream of suffering and botched redemption.


The same reason that an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts Returns

Miss Lonelyhearts has just returned to the newsroom for the first time after his sickness and then his restorative trip to the countryside. He should probably take it easy. Instead he reads a Miss Lonelyhearts letter. The narrator explains he reads the letter for "the same reason that an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain."

This is Miss Lonelyhearts's familiar emotional logic. Faced with pain, his own and others', he tries to drive the pain out with violent anger. "Hurting the pain" is an illogical process that only causes more pain. In a sense, writing the novel was for West an abuse of his own pain with modern life and society, just as Miss Lonelyhearts takes pleasure/pain in the mounds of misery-filled letters.


But that is the way I feel about life and me I mean.

Broad Shoulders, Miss Lonelyhearts Returns

The letter writer who calls herself "Broad Shoulders" adds a postscript to her letter. She doesn't want Miss Lonelyhearts to think her nickname is literal. She tells Miss Lonelyhearts she is not literally broad-shouldered. Instead that is the way she feels "about life and me I mean."

In the original letter West used as a template for this one, the letter writer Broad Shoulders also added a postscript to explain her nickname was metaphorical. She wrote that was how she "felt about life and me." West extends her PS, adding the "I mean." The small change increases her letter's clumsiness. The letter goes nattering on after the point has been made, just as the sentence goes running on with an extraneous "I mean." West highlights the clumsy, awkward way with words Miss Lonelyhearts's letter writers have. The pathetic aspect is on full view, perhaps making readers as uncomfortable as Miss Lonelyhearts when faced with such suffering examples of humanity.


He felt like an empty bottle ... slowly filled with warm, dirty water.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit

Miss Lonelyhearts is at the Doyles' apartment. Earlier, in Delehanty's speakeasy, he felt religious exaltation as he held Doyle's hand and read his letter. Now he has just been trying to share this feeling with the Doyles. He has tried frantically to convince them, by raving about "the black Christ-fruit, the love fruit." When that fails he feels like "an empty bottle, shiny and sterile."

But things get worse for Miss Lonelyhearts. Doyle leaves, and Mrs. Doyle tries to seduce Miss Lonelyhearts. She dances lewdly and she keeps "press[ing] her open mouth against him." This is when the narrator remarks Miss Lonelyhearts feels like "an empty bottle ... slowly filled with warm, dirty water." As sex so often does for Miss Lonelyhearts, Mrs. Doyle's actions repel him. He suffers them rather than enjoys them, feeling stained by her.


He begged the party dress to marry him.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Party Dress

The narrator is describing Betty the way Miss Lonelyhearts views her. She is not a person but a thing, a party dress. Miss Lonelyhearts too is a thing; he is a "rock." Since a rock has no feelings, Miss Lonelyhearts is not sincere in his offer of marriage to "the party dress." Instead love and marriage are trials, temptations the Christ-like Miss Lonelyhearts exposes himself to. When Betty has accepted his proposal and Miss Lonelyhearts leaves, he feels nothing for her: "the rock had been thoroughly tested and been found perfect."


His heart was the one heart, the heart of God.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience

The narrator is describing the culmination of Miss Lonelyhearts's identification with God. At first Miss Lonelyhearts is "conscious of two rhythms," his own and God's. The rhythms are "slowly becoming one." When that process is complete, Miss Lonelyhearts's heart is the heart of God. He feels too that "his brain was likewise God's." This expression of mystical religious experiences seems to make no logical sense.

However, West suggests Miss Lonelyhearts's experience is a delusion. Although he is suffused with mystical certainty, he cannot correctly interpret the things that happen immediately after. Doyle arrives, gunning for Miss Lonelyhearts, but Miss Lonelyhearts mistakes Doyle for a suffering soul in need of succor. In fact Miss Lonelyhearts is not completely wrong; West has shown Doyle is a lonely man who needs comfort. But Miss Lonelyhearts botches his role of succorer and redeemer.


A cry for help from Desperate, Harold S., Catholic-mother, Brokenhearted, Broad-shoulders, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.

Narrator, Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience

Peter Doyle shouts something to Miss Lonelyhearts as he rushes up the stairs toward him. Miss Lonelyhearts cannot understand it, just as he could not understand Doyle's jumbled, hurried speech in Delahanty's. But Miss Lonelyhearts's misunderstanding also shows his own bias. He feels pity for people, but his pity is somewhat abstract. His pity holds people at a distance. So instead of hearing Doyle, he hears an abstracted collection of all his letter writers.

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