Course Hero Logo

Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Miss Lonelyhearts Study Guide." Course Hero. 3 Nov. 2017. Web. 6 June 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, November 3). Miss Lonelyhearts Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Miss Lonelyhearts Study Guide." November 3, 2017. Accessed June 6, 2023.


Course Hero, "Miss Lonelyhearts Study Guide," November 3, 2017, accessed June 6, 2023,

Miss Lonelyhearts | Themes



There is a cruel streak running through Miss Lonelyhearts's pity. He feels pity for the letter writers "Desperate, Harold S., Catholic-mother, Brokenhearted, Broad-shoulders, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband." But when he feels pity for someone, it quickly turns to the desire to do something cruel to the pitiable person. So when Betty shows how vulnerable she is, he feels pity and the desire to hurt her. "She was like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one want to hurt it," he thinks. There is also by the same token a streak of pity running through his cruelty. When he twists the old man's arm, it is because the old man reminds him of his pitiable letter writers: "all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent."

This relationship between pity and cruelty might not be a peculiarity of just Miss Lonelyhearts's. "Oh, poor you" is easy to twist into mockery for anyone, perhaps because pity is somewhat abstract. Someone who pities does not see an individual, only a concept, the pitiable one. Likewise Miss Lonelyhearts does not see his letter writers as individuals. They are the objects of his pity, but they are therefore objects to him, just things.

The novel's chief examples of pity turning to cruelty use animals as metaphors, because pity often is dehumanizing. Betty is like a kitten Miss Lonelyhearts wants to hurt. The old man reminds Miss Lonelyhearts of "a small frog" he once stepped on by accident. "Its spilled guts had filled him with pity," but his pity changes when he becomes overwhelmed by the frog's suffering. Then "his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead."


In Miss Lonelyhearts people cling to dreams to ease their suffering. "Men have always fought their misery with dreams," Miss Lonelyhearts thinks. In the past, Miss Lonelyhearts thinks, people had powerful dreams, namely religion. But now, Miss Lonelyhearts notices, the dreams have decayed. The dreams on offer "have been made puerile [childish] by the movies, radio and newspapers." This childishness can be seen in the name of the garage Miss Lonelyhearts visits in Connecticut, the "Aw-Kum-On Garage." The dreams in Miss Lonelyhearts are cute and silly and weak, with little power to really help people. As an advice columnist Miss Lonelyhearts sees himself as part of this betrayal of the once-powerful dreams. In the first chapter, "Miss Lonelyhearts, Help Me, Help Me," Miss Lonelyhearts tries to tell his readers "Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams and peace." He stops writing, disgusted at the lies he is telling.

Eventually Miss Lonelyhearts notices almost anything can serve as a dream with which to fight misery. But most of these dreams don't do a very good job of it. When Miss Lonelyhearts goes on a date with Mrs. Shrike, he notices the nightclub is a dream of an exotic land where people enjoy themselves. The nightclub is called El Gaucho, and its décor offers an illusion: "Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods ... all these things were part of the business of dreams," thinks Miss Lonelyhearts. Even Mrs. Shrike's story about her father is a way to stave off misery. "Parents are also part of the business of dreams," Miss Lonelyhearts thinks. Miss Lonelyhearts is uninterested in these kinds of dreams but sympathetic to people for having them. He thinks they turn to exotic nightclubs and fantasies about their families "because they wanted to talk about something poetic." He hopes to reinvigorate such dreams by dreaming what he calls "the Christ dream."


From the beginning Miss Lonelyhearts is shown as a type of Christ figure, but sacrifice in Miss Lonelyhearts never works. At the very start of the book Shrike addresses a mock-solemn prayer to Miss Lonelyhearts, as though Miss Lonelyhearts were Christ. "Body of Miss Lonelyhearts," says Shrike's prayer, "nourish me. / Blood of Miss Lonelyhearts, intoxicate me." Shrike's prayer imitates the Christian rite of the Eucharist, in which believers partake of the body and blood of Christ. Shrike is a mocker, trying to bring religion and Miss Lonelyhearts down to the level of a trashy newspaper column, a mere stunt for bringing in advertising dollars. But initially Miss Lonelyhearts resists the Christ role. He does not want to be Shrike's fool, and as he says, he is afraid of something that stirs in him when he shouts the name Christ.

In Christian dogma, Christ is said to have saved the believers through his sacrifice, by dying and then rising again. But sacrifice in Miss Lonelyhearts is a botched affair, ending either in mockery or failure. In the chapter called "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb," Miss Lonelyhearts dreams he is trying to lead an audience in prayer. But the prayer coming out of his mouth is one "Shrike taught him." The prayer says, "we are of those who wash solely in the Blood of the Lamb." Shrike mockingly says he is Christian, saved by Christ's sacrifice. But Miss Lonelyhearts goes on to dream of a botched act, in which he cruelly bludgeons a wounded lamb. At the end of the novel Miss Lonelyhearts will finally sacrifice himself, shot while trying to "succor" Doyle, one of his readers, "with love." But Miss Lonelyhearts's self-sacrifice, such as it is, is also botched, a tawdry event in a hallway, witnessed by almost no one, and ending the novel on an absurd note of mistaken violence.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Miss Lonelyhearts? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!