Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man
The scene described by this chapter's heading does not appear until the last third of the chapter, but its image looms symbolically over the entire chapter. Here, minor characters, as well as Miss Lonelyhearts, take fiercely aggressive stances against innocent people, male and female, who seem intolerable to him because of their suggested sexual behavior or lack of it. Still resentful against Betty, Miss Lonelyhearts' anger rises within him like a bomb. Instead of coming to terms with his aggressiveness, he jokingly thinks of it as an assassination attempt against the president. The group of Miss Lonelyhearts' friends at Delehanty's who fulminate against women writers and declare that these women need to be raped are echoing Shrike's and his own feeling that artistic activity is merely a "precious" mask for repressed sexual and sadistic desires. Miss Lonelyhearts correctly, but hazily, realizes that they are attacking something-abstract ideals — that they and he formerly believed in. In jest, they mock the names of women writers into ridiculous combinations: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (a sentimental poet), Mary Roberts Rinehart (a mystery story writer), and Willa Cather (a serious novelist); the changing of Cather to Catheter plays on the idea of bodily elimination and catharsis.
Miss Lonelyhearts' friends are imitating Shrike as they analyze Miss Lonelyhearts' motivations, and they are at least as accurate as Shrike in plumbing Miss Lonelyhearts' feelings. A real religious experience for Miss Lonelyhearts would be merely personal and therefore meaningless because it would concern only his own soul, not his relations with others. This idea underlies the statement that they all have no outer lives, only inner ones; but there is also satire here, for the inner lives of these other men are not genuine either — unless selfishness is the only truth.
Miss Lonelyhearts, nevertheless, still wants a religious experience, and he sees their jibes as a hurdle over which he cannot leap. This power to hold him down is the same force that Shrike exerts over him. Then, as Miss Lonelyhearts begins to feel warm and good from the whiskey, he remembers a tender scene from his childhood. The memory of his playing the piano while his sister gravely danced creates within him a sense of order and harmony. This mood is broken when Miss Lonelyhearts receives a punch from a man he accidentally collides with and apologizes to, making him realize that his acts will continue to be rebuffed. Knowing that many things will keep him from ever being truly Christ-like, he rejects his fantasy of order. He wishes to forget about Christ; he wishes that he could be transferred to the sports department.
When Miss Lonelyhearts goes out with Ned Gates into the park and abuses the "clean old man" physically and verbally, he is reversing his usual role as Miss Lonelyhearts, for the old man wants no attention, help, or understanding from him. But Miss Lonelyhearts insists on giving all of these, brutally and satirically. He and Gates are acting out in words the rape which his drunken friends had proposed for certain women writers. Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing were serious, early twentieth-century investigators of sexual behavior — forerunners of Alfred Kinsey and his associates. Miss Lonelyhearts' and Gates' behavior is a parody of those men's concerns. Miss Lonelyhearts pretends sincerity, but his use of the word "pervert" reveals his true attitude — a mixture of anger and disgust with sexuality. The scene also introduces a homosexual motif into the novel.
Miss Lonelyhearts' customary pity turns into cruelty — an expression of his pent-up aggressions and his desire to crush those whom he can't help. He tries to summon up sympathy within himself as he asks the old man to relate his life story (perhaps wishing to continue his usual priestly role), but when the old man refuses, Miss Lonelyhearts, identifying the old man with his readers, twists his arm savagely in a punishing gesture. The aggressions he had earlier displayed in the dream of the slaughtered lamb (a dream which was, in part, filled with compassion) and in the scene with Betty (where there were sexual overtones) have now become more direct and inexcusable. Miss Lonelyhearts, a man who wishes to be like Christ and to save all the loveless people in the world is himself quite incapable of love, and he feels more of Shrike's disgust with sexuality than he is aware of. The final gesture in which Miss Lonelyhearts is knocked unconscious is especially appropriate to his mood, for a temporary darkness is the only remedy for his mounting frustration.