Nathanael West first got his idea for Miss Lonelyhearts in 1929 when a friend who wrote an advice column for the Brooklyn Eagle showed him some of the agonized, pathetic, illiterate letters he received. West was deeply moved, and taking these letters with complete seriousness, he immediately began to plan a novel based upon them. He worked on this novel for about three years, usually writing no more than 100 words a day, frequently changing his plans and rearranging his material. In early versions, the hero was called Thomas Matlock. The shift to "Miss Lonelyhearts" enabled him to concentrate on the trapped obsessiveness of his hero and to emphasize the impersonality implicit in his relationships with the other characters and in their relationships to one another. West sometimes conceived of his work as a comic strip in novel form, which helps to account for its condensed, episodic form and its characters who are tagged by basic mannerisms and symbols. At this time, West also believed that a deep psychology was irrelevant to fictional characterization, so he used action and minimal dialogue in a behavioral way to suggest whatever depths his characters possessed or were lacking. But despite this mood, West produced a novel of great psychological sensitivity.
Miss Lonelyhearts is a product of social and literary currents of both the 1920s and the 1930s. From the thirties, West brought the scorn of artists for a commercialized culture which followed the gods of advertising slogans and adapted churchly religion to material values. He also employed the symbolic methods of writers such as Joyce and Eliot, who used repeated motifs (small themes often attached to physical details), and he also used mythological archetypes in order to represent social ugliness which these writers despised. But unlike these writers, and unlike such witty satirists as Aldous Huxley, West did not play off the sensitive but often narrow-minded artist against a crassly commercialized world. In fact, West's novel, like his other works, has no heroic figures and no figures of significant resistance or revolt. This technique links him to the social and literary values of the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression, for West's social anger, as far as it can be determined, is directed not against a society that tortures a few sensitive souls, but one that crushes or leaves empty all who live in it. Uncharacteristic of the 1930s, however, are West's doubts about all absolute values and of the possibility of people treating one another according to truly humane values.
Miss Lonelyhearts can be read with ease and speed; it is engrossing entertainment, but West's methods create problems of interpretation. In addition to condensation, symbolism, and caricature, West frequently alludes to literature, art, and the Bible — and almost always for satirical purposes. The majority of these allusions appear in Shrike's speeches. Another problem when one evaluates this work is the tone which West adopted towards the assorted letter writers and many of the other characters. West uses a great deal of what is now called black humor. Suffering is often presented in grotesque forms, and it is often expressed, especially by the letter writers, in such an inarticulate fashion that the reader does not know if tears or laughter is the appropriate response. But probably the greatest difficulty in interpretation results from West's ambiguous attitude towards the protagonist.
Some of these problems can be partially resolved by grouping and contrasting the major characters. Miss Lonelyhearts is flanked by Shrike and Peter Doyle, who are probably alter egos for Miss Lonelyhearts. Shrike represents the articulate and cynical disillusionment in Miss Lonelyhearts, which strikes out against all assertions of positive value. Doyle, on the other hand, suggests the inarticulate side of Miss Lonelyhearts' nature, that part of him that can only express resentments incoherently. The three important women in the novel — Betty, Mary, and Fay — form another group which revolves around the character of Miss Lonelyhearts. Each of them projects her own variety of innocence, and each one acts victimized, but actually they all victimize Miss Lonelyhearts, and, in addition, Mary and Fay (with Miss Lonelyhearts' help) victimize their husbands. From Miss Lonelyhearts' encounters with these women flow many of the important sexual themes of the novel.
In interpreting Miss Lonelyhearts, it is necessary to pay close attention to all religious allusions, the discussions of religion, and the intellectual debates. The greatest difficulty in this area is in determining what attitude to take towards Miss Lonelyhearts' religious strivings — whether the reader is to see Miss Lonelyhearts as a tormented soul with genuine and admirable religious yearnings, or whether Miss Lonelyhearts is primarily a satirical portrait of intellectual despair, sickness, and hysteria masquerading as religious fervor. This problem requires the consideration of whatever positive vision may underlie West's largely nihilistic treatment of life.