Summary and Analysis
The first chapter's caption heading is one of the novel's best. It suggests Miss Lonelyhearts' isolation as he sits at his desk while disembodied voices cry at him in desperation for help which he cannot give. As the novel begins, Miss Lonelyhearts is mockingly identified with Christ by Shrike, the feature editor of the newspaper. Miss Lonelyhearts accepts the identification seriously, only to be tormented by it until, as the novel progresses, he becomes ill and eventually goes out of his mind. Shrike's first utterance is parody, and almost everything he says throughout the novel will be parody. The phrase which Miss Lonelyhearts uses — "A clear white flame" — alludes to Walter Pater's (an English poet) desire for life to burn with a hard gemlike flame. Later, Shrike parodies the idea of a man of eighty-six, so full of positive energy, that he begins to learn Chinese, a feat that is more than likely impossible. Shrike believes such ideas are nonsense, and he mocks them for the sheer pleasure of being nasty, but also to cheer himself up.
The letters that Miss Lonelyhearts must respond to with comforting advice are semi-literate expressions of agony, written by people who are aware of their desperation but have little understanding of its causes. Their letters' garbled style reflects the writers' inability to express the parts of their experience together into a coherent pattern. This disjunctive style may seem humorous to the reader who might unconsciously feel superior to such inarticulate people. Each letter, however, describes a helpless victim. "Sick of it all" is victimized by the combination of her husband's sexual appetites and her mechanical adherence to religion. Being a good Catholic means obeying absolute rules, not acting with common sense. Rather than offering help, then, religion oppresses her. The girl without a nose is the prey of meaningless fate. She wants to be cheerful, but her parents make things worse by offering her explanations that are at best irrelevant and at worst designed to make her feel guilty when she is really innocent. Her father is nice, but he acts cruelly, either out of ignorance, or from unconscious resentment at having such a disfigured daughter. The third letter writer's sister is also an innocent victim; she has been exploited by a stranger and now faces rejection and punishment from her parents, for she is pregnant through no fault of her own. Her only champion is her devoted younger brother, who is kind but completely helpless. All these people are pathetically alone, made to suffer by self-righteous relatives or by the brutality of strangers. Two of the letter writers must endure the consequences of other people's crude sexual needs, and the other one is frustrated in her desire for life's normal intimacies. Their relatives are the ones who most need help — help in understanding the plight of their despairing family members — but they could never recognize this. These cruel relatives in the letters resemble many of the novel's main characters in their blindness to any needs other than their own.
Like the letter writers, Miss Lonelyhearts is a victim — of Shrike, and of himself. This chapter contains the only physical description of Miss Lonelyhearts. His being a Baptist minister's son accounts for his puritanical streak. The cleft in his chin implies a devilish, sensual side to his character, a capacity for lust and contempt. He wants to turn to Christ, but his awareness that his religious enthusiasm will make him ill, and thus bring on Shrike's rancor, shows that his faith is artificial, excessively intellectual, and aesthetic. Shrike can successfully penetrate Miss Lonelyhearts' pretenses. He is not really his own man, but Shrike is not to blame for this, for Shrike's mocking voice echoes only the self-mockery inside Miss Lonelyhearts himself.