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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Symbols



Early in the novel Miss Lonelyhearts sits in the park under a thoroughly secular, nonmiraculous sky: "[The sky] held no angels, flaming crosses, olive-bearing doves, wheels within wheels." But in the chapter called "Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp" Miss Lonelyhearts is much further in his project of trying to dream "the Christ dream," as he says. He is sick again, and his "imagination begins to work." He imagines himself making a giant cross. At first he makes various shapes out of pawned items ("old watches and rubber boots ... umbrellas and trout flies"). But then he lights on the idea of a cross, and as the cross grows bigger he runs out of pawned items. He moves the (imaginary) cross to the sea shore and adds to it with "marine refuse—bottles, shells, chunks of cork, fish heads, pieces of net."

For Christians worldwide the cross is a symbol of Jesus's crucifixion, and of everything associated with it—the resurrection into eternal life, and the resurrection of believers after death. Miss Lonelyhearts's cross stands for his attempt to raise up the suffering and seemingly worthless refuse of his column into a path of salvation for himself and his readers. He will ultimately fail in this attempt.

The point of the Miss Lonelyhearts column, from the newspaper's perspective, is to entertain readers, gain more subscribers, and sell ads at higher prices, based on number of subscribers. Thus Shrike's disapproval when Miss Lonelyhearts suggests suicide: "Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper." When Shrike suggests the purpose of the column is salvation, he is joking. Shrike's joking religious allegories bring spirit down to the level of matter. "The Susan Chesters, the Beatrice Fairfaxes and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America," Shrike says, referring to a list of well-known advice columnists. (He refers to the real-life newspaper column West based his novel on, "Susan Chester.") Shrike does not mean to elevate columnists to the level of spiritual advisers, but to bring the spiritual down to the level of tacky, sentimental advice to the lovelorn masses of society.

Miss Lonelyhearts sees the joke, but he tries to make the process work in reverse. He tries to raise cheap kitschy advice, along with pawned watches and fish heads, up to the level of spirit. But his failure is signified in the final chapter. Instead of ascending to heaven in glory, Miss Lonelyhearts falls down the stairs and rolls around to doom with the clumsy, crippled Doyle.


In general a lamb is a Christian symbol for Jesus, who is said to have sacrificed himself to save Christians. In the Old Testament, in Exodus 12, the story is told of how the Israelites were freed from bondage to Egypt. It involved each family sacrificing a lamb and painting the blood of that lamb on their house's doorframe. In the New Testament, in the Gospel of John, the prophet John the Baptist says of Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" The "lamb" Jesus does this by letting himself be sacrificed.

In Miss Lonelyhearts these resonances are important. But the lamb in the novel also stands for Miss Lonelyhearts himself. In "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb" Miss Lonelyhearts dreams about sacrificing a lamb. He is back in college, pulling a drunken stunt with his friends. They have been arguing about the existence of God and have gone out at dawn to buy more liquor. They pass a market stall selling livestock and propose to buy a lamb and roast it over an open fire. Miss Lonelyhearts agrees, but only on the condition they ritually sacrifice the lamb first.

Miss Lonelyhearts attempts the sacrifice. He chooses a stone to use as an altar and lays the lamb on it. He chants, "Christ, Christ, Jesus Christ," again identifying the lamb with Jesus. When he and his friends have "worked themselves into a frenzy," Miss Lonelyhearts brings the knife down to kill the lamb. But the blow only wounds the lamb, who runs away into the underbrush. Miss Lonelyhearts and his friends flee. When Miss Lonelyhearts returns, on the pretext of ending the lamb's misery, he brings the runaway back to the altar stone. He kills the lamb by bashing it with a stone, a bloody and horrible death.

Like the lamb, Miss Lonelyhearts suffers a botched sacrificial death. In the chapter called "Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience," Miss Lonelyhearts rushes toward Peter Doyle, but he thinks Peter Doyle represents all his suffering letter writers. He intends to "succor them with love." Succor means comfort and is generally only used in a Christian context. Betty intervenes, trying to halt the confrontation, but her action only further panics Doyle. The trapped Doyle tries to get rid of the "package," the newspaper-wrapped gun, and only succeeds in firing the gun at Miss Lonelyhearts. Although readers can assume Miss Lonelyhearts dies, his death does not have the sacrificial meaning he hopes for. The letter writers are not comforted by his death. Like the wounded lamb in the underbrush, Miss Lonelyhearts lands in an undignified tangle with "the cripple" as they "roll part of the way down the stairs." The entire story of the sacrifice for the sufferings of others thus ends in a grotesque and absurd way consistent with the extreme nature of the story in all its dark and comically depressing tone.


Mrs. Shrike wears a medal on a necklace. She often leans over and invites Miss Lonelyhearts to look at the medal, a flirtatious way to have him look at her cleavage. Miss Lonelyhearts has difficulty reading the medal's inscription. Initially the medal stands for the mystery of femininity: tantalizingly close, appealing, and ultimately unknowable.

At the end of Part 2 of Goethe's epic play Faust from the nineteenth century, the chorus sings in praise of the "ewig-Weibliche," the "eternal feminine, which draws us onward." Faust is an apt comparison for Miss Lonelyhearts, because both are modeled on allegories of Christian salvation. In both works, a Satanic figure tempts the main character: the devil or Mephistopheles in Faust, and the devilish Shrike in Miss Lonelyhearts. In both works the love of a woman offers a possibility of salvation from dangerous excesses of ego. But the femininity in Miss Lonelyhearts is not eternal. It is diseased, mortal, and devoid of spiritual significance. When Mrs. Shrike leans over the table toward Miss Lonelyhearts, she remarks her mother died of breast cancer in just this pose. As she tells the story of the breast cancer death and displays her cleavage to Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Lonelyhearts finally gets a good look at the inscription on the medal. It is nothing but a high school memento: "Awarded by the Boston Latin School for first place in the 100 yd. dash." The medal ultimately shows Miss Lonelyhearts that a woman cannot save him in the decayed and dangerous society he inhabits, for love is also reduced to the status of trite clichés and emptiness.

Questions for Symbols

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Oates has specifically mentioned the "Death and the Maiden" folktales as one inspiration for this story (see "Death and the Maiden" under " Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory "). Some literary critics have
Read the following passage and identify at least 3 elements of figurative language; explain how each element brings out the theme of the passage. "The Wrong Place" by Susan Michalski Lana woke up, cur
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