Critical Essay Miss Lonelyhearts: Problems of Interpretation


Our analysis emphasizes the idea that Miss Lonelyhearts is a study in nihilism; that is, all human motives are selfish, and the universe is empty of any power that can judge people, set things right, or provide guidance to help them improve. The efforts of Miss Lonelyhearts and Betty, the novel's most attractive characters, to love each other and to help suffering humanity bog down in self-contradictions. Miss Lonelyhearts' selfish desires, combined with his competitive enthusiasm for a mystical religious faith, lead him into dangerous and foolish behavior. Religion is a delusion which he cannot fully accept until he is almost out of his mind. Shrike is explicitly a nihilist, and although on the surface he is an antagonist to Miss Lonelyhearts, he suffers inwardly from conflicts very similar to Miss Lonelyhearts'; he can be seen as the voice of one side of Miss Lonelyhearts. We may pity Miss Lonelyhearts, but we can foresee no way out for him. Modern popular philosophy and religion, pursued by Miss Lonelyhearts, and satirized and mocked by both Miss Lonelyhearts and Shrike, sell people myths that encourage them to accept their miserable situations with unthinking cheerfulness rather than to struggle against them rationally. The idea of suffering as being creative is exposed, for the suffering of Miss Lonelyhearts, his friends, and his correspondents produces nothing of value. This hopeless world destroys Miss Lonelyhearts, and it victimizes and entraps the other characters. The dark and tragic conclusion to the novel suggests that the remaining actors in this drama, as well as Miss Lonelyhearts' correspondents (who are the embodiments of all the ills of wretched mankind) will continue to live in misery. There are no solutions to their problems and no ease for their pain.

A complementary view is that the novel is a study in psychopathology that presents a vivid gallery of distorted and maimed human types. With this theory in mind, one can note the disturbed sexuality of most of the characters; some of this can be traced to their backgrounds, which are not filled in very extensively by West, but which are sufficient to account for some of the characters' conflicts. This approach may suggest (as it has to some critics) that Miss Lonelyhearts suffers from an Oedipal fixation, an ambivalent terror of women, and latent homosexuality. We have argued that the novel's homosexual themes relate to Miss Lonelyhearts' and Peter Doyle's inability to experience human affection in a way that does not feel shameful. It is unlikely that West would deliberately use a latent homosexual as his main instrument of satire, but he does seem to have considerable insight into how disturbances in human relationships are connected to uncertainty about sexual roles, an insight also revealed in many details not connected to homosexuality.

The nihilistic and psychopathological interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but their interrelation raises the question of West's intention. He has put no tenderly loving, thoughtful, or even slightly self-analytical characters into the novel. He has written a passionate, angry, and vivid book, and how do these characteristics relate to his nihilism? One answer, perhaps, is that his book is intended to be an unrelenting attack on the Christlessness of the modern world, so unrelenting that it will allow the reader no easy exits from its dilemmas, but, rather, compel us to examine the real world for evidence of positive values. This view, however, must account for the fact that West excludes touchstones for such positive values. Sentimental as this view of the novel may seem, it is not completely unreasonable, for West's angry and nihilistic manner resembles that of other despairing writers who have wished the world were different. If West's novel is seen as a voice from his own secret grief, a voice muffled by its merciless cynicism, the novel can then perhaps be taken as a protest that the love, sincerity, truthfulness, sacrifice, and devotion missing from its world ought to exist.

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