The identity of the novel's protagonist is swallowed up by his name. In the eyes, words, and thoughts of others, he is nothing but his role, a role which provides for his readers false hopes and, for his colleagues, a target for their cynicism. Miss Lonelyhearts also feels that his identity is buried in this role, and thus he is obsessed by the idea that he must be helpful to those in trouble. A twenty-six-year-old reporter for a New York newspaper, the son of a New England Baptist minister, Miss Lonelyhearts is given little history. He has been to college, and he once had artistic ambitions. He has a girl friend with whom he has broken off before the novel's action brings them together again. Fragments of his memory appear in his dreams. The disjointed and vague presentation of his background, however, is in keeping with his disjointed and compulsive character and life.
He is ambitious enough to want to become a gossip columnist, which might ease his financial problems and enable him to marry, but the main aspect of Miss Lonelyhearts' character that the novel is concerned with is the existence within him of major tensions and conflicts: between his animal lusts and his inability to satisfy them tenderly; between his desire to believe in decency and hope for other people and his perception of their selfishness and oppressed circumstances; and between his desire to see the world and his own powers realistically and his compulsion to regard himself as a real-life savior. Engulfed by these conflicts, Miss Lonelyhearts slowly loses contact with reality and innocently promotes his own destruction.