Summary and Analysis
Chapter 6 - Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike
The heading for this chapter is less pictorial and satirical than most of the other chapter headings. It focuses on Miss Lonelyhearts' adulterous desire for Mary Shrike and on her grotesque teasing of him. During the course of the chapter, there is an ironical reversal of roles as Miss Lonelyhearts, the unsuccessful seducer, becomes the victim. He is not so much caught in the act of attempted adultery as he is lured into a situation where he will become a pathetic butt for an elaborate practical joke.
After being delivered home unconscious the preceding evening, Miss Lonelyhearts awakened in a numb and desperate state. Later, during a walk through the park, his sexual urges are aroused by sight of the phallic, Mexican stone obelisk. These sexual desires are visibly surfacing for the first time in the novel. Miss Lonelyhearts wants a woman. It would be a pleasure to seduce Mary Shrike because he could pay Shrike back for tormenting him.
Mary Shrike is a woman of complicated and ambiguous sexuality. Her name suggests the Virgin Mary, and there is something virginal about her, but when she gets excited she gives off a sexual odor. Miss Lonelyhearts needs violence to stir his desires, which helps explain his sexual encounters with Mary Shrike and, later, with Fay Doyle. Mary's use of her breasts for flirtation connects sexual attraction with evasion and death. She is obsessed with the fact that her mother died of breast cancer, and, curiously, she hides a medallion between her breasts. When its inscription is finally revealed, we learn that it is an award for a 100-yard dash. West, in a moment of high irony lets us see that her breasts represent flight from men.
Miss Lonelyhearts' difficulty after becoming sexually aroused with Mary stems from his hidden shame about sex and his need of violence to arouse himself. Mary's telling Miss Lonelyhearts on the telephone that she is finished with Shrike, and Shrike's welcoming Miss Lonelyhearts to his home for "a date" with Mary indicate that the Shrikes have a sick relationship. They are unconsciously conspiring to torment Miss Lonelyhearts and themselves in order to keep their marriage going. When Mary declares to Miss Lonelyhearts that she is finished with Shrike, she is lying more to herself than to Miss Lonelyhearts.
Shrike makes what he terms "a clean breast" of his sexual situation with his wife and confesses to Miss Lonelyhearts that his wife's castrating coldness ("a knife in the groin") drives him to other women. The "clean breast" recalls Mary's shame and her using her breasts to flirt with Miss Lonelyhearts. Mary is really a cold person, but Shrike gets the most he can out of her. Realistically, Miss Lonelyhearts should have taken warning from Mary's revelation that Shrike lets other men excite her so he, Shrike, can reap the sexual rewards, but Miss Lonelyhearts seems to listen to all of this revelation as though he were in a trance.
Miss Lonelyhearts and Mary go to a dining club called El Gaucho (the cowboy); the name of the club satirizes Miss Lonelyhearts' intentions towards Mary, a point illuminated by his thoughts about men who want to cushion their heads on breasts. Ironically, however, Miss Lonelyhearts cannot get himself sexually excited, and throughout their dinner, Miss Lonelyhearts becomes increasingly aware of how the restaurant's artificiality parallels the social stereotypes that are oppressing him. This awareness and Miss Lonelyhearts' frustrations make him fear that he is becoming sick, a fact emphasized by his self-deception that sex with Mary will make him happy.
As Mary enjoys describing to Miss Lonelyhearts in detail how her mother died of breast cancer, we realize that she is pitying herself and longing for a martyr's role, feelings reinforced by her declaration that her father was cruel to her mother. Miss Lonelyhearts recognizes that Mary's account of her father as a great portrait painter is the stuff of dreams (another evasion of reality), and that Mary may be making up this entire story. Miss Lonelyhearts' disgust with all this fakery contributes to his inability to become sexually excited, and when he takes Mary home, his desperate kisses and attempts to undress her outside her door reveal his total frustration as he furiously tries to bring his dead desires to life. Meanwhile, Mary is imaginatively drifting off into her own self-pitying dream world, and her verbal repetition that her mother died of breast cancer is designed to discourage Miss Lonelyhearts, who has now been trapped by both Mary and Shrike. At this point, Mary and Shrike will have managed to work their aggressions off or to excite themselves sufficiently to enjoy sex, and Miss Lonelyhearts is left out in the cold with his own "knife in the groin." The Christ-figure in him fears or rejects sex, while the aggressor in him does not seem aware of his need to associate sex with violence. At the end of the chapter, Shrike appears as both satyr and voyeur. Although he is a "dead Pan," he is not quite as dead as Miss Lonelyhearts, who has become ill and sexually unresponsive because of the conflict between Pan and Christ within himself. However, one could also argue that Miss Lonelyhearts' conflicts are a sign of his greater moral sensitivity and are thus expressions of a different and deeper vitality.