Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 - Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp
The Dismal Swamp of the chapter's title is the actual name of an enormous swamp located in Virginia and North Carolina. Miss Lonelyhearts' swamp, however, has no geographical location; it comprises the despairing depths of his consciousness and all the impossible solutions to life's ills, solutions which Shrike ridicules towards the chapter's end. Miss Lonelyhearts' recent encounters with Betty and with the clean old man have left him stunned. His experience with Fay was even more disorienting, and now he has slept for two days. He wakes up on the third day, a time scheme that parodies Christ's resurrection on the third day. In his daydreams, Miss Lonelyhearts tries to battle the disorderliness of nature and his own animal-like urges. Then he has fantasies of making a gigantic cross from assorted objects, both natural and manmade, suggesting that — try as he will — he cannot create religious order from any source.
Betty, now playing the role of mother, arrives to nurture and heal Miss Lonelyhearts, and to steer him towards a more sensible job. Miss Lonelyhearts answers her with his most serious and straightforward speech in the novel. He admits that he took his present assignment in the hope of its leading to an assignment as a gossip columnist (a lucrative but not very savory job), but now he finds himself trapped because he sees the gravity of his correspondents' plights and their faith in him. Because of his compassion, he has become their victim, and in order to advise them honestly, he must continually examine his own values. Betty responds as if she has understood nothing. She thinks him a fool because she can't understand his feeling of responsibility to the letter writers. She looks on his weakness as merely a foible. She seems not to recognize or believe in sin.
Just as Mary Shrike and Fay Doyle seemed to have rehearsed parts of their life history — confessions to gain Miss Lonelyhearts' attention, Betty now tells him about her childhood on a farm, hoping to impress him with her innocence. Unlike all the others, Betty seems to know that Miss Lonelyhearts needs healing, and she is trying to convince him of nature's curative powers. But Miss Lonelyhearts' thoughts, actions, and fantasies in the novel's earlier chapters reveal that he experiences nature as being made of lust and disorder.
Shrike suddenly bursts into this scene like a devil, and he and Betty become, figuratively, Miss Lonelyhearts' good angel and bad angel. Shrike has heard enough of Betty's talk to enable him to attack the idea that nature is curative. Shrike now begins savagely to parody various modes of escape from life's torment. He agrees that Miss Lonelyhearts is an escapist and pretends to think that Miss Lonelyhearts is seriously considering, but rejecting, Betty's suggestion for escape; thus, Shrike will propose something more effective. Shrike then proceeds to ridicule all modes of escape. First, he makes fun of the idea of country life and its simple, uncorrupted joys. His allusion to William Wordsworth's sonnet "The World Is Too Much with Us" implies that the attractions of country life are mere literary fantasy. His description of such life is heavily sexual, including a reference to bestiality, and it implies that country life is crudely lustful, self-deluding, and mindless.
Miss Lonelyhearts' thought that Shrike has made him sick by smothering Christ in words suggests that Miss Lonelyhearts was seduced by Shrike's rhetoric. Miss Lonelyhearts wants Christ for a crutch, but he cannot have faith because he recognizes his own Shrike-like nature. Miss Lonelyhearts' sickness, then, results from his inability to either accept his own urges or to actually fight against them.
Shrike's satire against superficial solutions to life's problems takes the form of parodies of movie scenarios. The South Seas idyll portrays an impossible dream and makes fun of people who, in fantasy, defy social aspirations that they actually love. Next, Shrike parodies the hedonistic way of life — the pursuit of pleasure amid artistic masterpieces — by inventing another scenario, in which people both enjoy and suffer from decadent sensual behavior, but willingly pay the price. Shrike, becoming more hysterical, proposes that the creation and enjoyment of art can make up for all of life's miseries. Suicide and drugs get very brief mention because they are more readily available "cures" for suffering and don't satisfy our fantasies as much as the other escapist ideas do.
Shrike's last and most savage attack is on religion. Shrike's First Church of Christ Dentist is an allusion to the Christian Science faith (The Church of Christ Scientist believes that faith can overcome physical limitations and disease and that only lack of faith causes them). Changing Scientist to Dentist reduces this and other religions to the desire only for relief from physical discomfort. This Christ Dentist prevents not sin but decay — that is, bodily ills and imperfections. The new church doesn't believe in sin. Shrike implies that the God of this church is the kind of God whom the modern world calls upon. The new trinity of "Father, Son, and Wirehaired Fox Terrier" mocks the idea of domestic comfort as the goal of prayer. The fox terrier, which makes every home a cliché of completeness and fulfillment, is substituted for the holy spirit; thus, West, through the mouth of Shrike, implies that the dreams and values of our culture have driven out the spirit.
Shrike then composes a letter from Miss Lonelyhearts to Christ, in which he cleverly emphasizes that Miss Lonelyhearts can find no comfort in bodily pleasures, nor in spiritual things, and he satirizes the idea of Miss Lonelyhearts as saint. Shrike's concluding request for a quick reply from Christ sneers at the impossibility of Miss Lonelyhearts' replying adequately to his readers. Shrike is enjoying tormenting Miss Lonelyhearts and himself. There is no need for Miss Lonelyhearts to reply to Shrike's tirades, for it is clear that Miss Lonelyhearts can find no answers. Shrike has reduced every aspect of existence to a sentimental, hackneyed, literary plot. His attitude contrasts with Miss Lonelyhearts' taking his readers' letters about suffering seriously. Shrike is suggesting to Miss Lonelyhearts that the only replies possible to such letters are lies, but Miss Lonelyhearts has already realized that, for himself, words only obscure moral problems.