Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts
(1933) follows a jaded newspaper reporter who runs the lonely hearts’ column and finds himself tormented by the painful letters he receives. One of West’s most popular novels, the book received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Critics praise it for its blend of expressionism, distortion, and humor. West was a distinguished twentieth-century American author. He was born Jewish, but he changed his name. He died in a car crash one day after his best friend, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, passed away.
The unnamed protagonist works as a newspaper columnist in New York City. He works under the name “Miss Lonelyhearts” because he gives advice to broken-hearted people. The column receives around thirty letters every day. No one takes his job seriously, least of all his editor, Shrike.
One day, Shrike jokingly compares Miss Lonelyhearts to Jesus because he spends all day pretending to care about people. Miss Lonelyhearts does not find this funny. He does care about the anonymous people who write to him. He takes his nickname, Jesus, very seriously. He likes to think that he is a prophet.
Nursing lonely and broken hearts across New York City finally takes its toll on the reporter when three very tragic letters cross his desk. They make him forget what it is like to report on happy things. There are so many depressed and desperate people out there. Shrike finds the whole thing amusing because Miss Lonelyhearts takes his job too seriously.
After their shift one day, Shrike takes Miss Lonelyhearts out for beers. Shrike pokes fun at some of the recent letters. For example, one eighty-six-year-old man plans to teach himself Chinese. Shrike laughs because the man won’t live long enough to reach his goal. Miss Lonelyhearts says that Shrike only mocks people because he is insecure about his own abilities. Shrike claims that he is not disillusioned or incompetent—he’s honest.
Miss Lonelyhearts remembers recent writers. He talks about a woman who hates her husband’s high sex drive, and the family tormented by religion. He also talks about a father who shuns his daughter because she is disfigured, and a young girl who ends up pregnant after a man rapes her. There is nothing funny about any of these letters; Miss Lonelyhearts leaves the bar feeling worse than ever.
The next day, Miss Lonelyhearts visits his new fiancée, Betty. He proposed to her two months ago and he has not visited her since. It is unclear why he bothered proposing because they don’t fancy each other. Betty eventually sends him away, and he plans to drown his sorrows. Luckily, his friends invite him to a local speakeasy, and he heads there.
When Miss Lonelyhearts arrives, he interrupts a conversation between his friends. They are talking about how women often deserve rape because it keeps them submissive. Rape reminds women that they are not equal to men. Thinking this is preposterous, Miss Lonelyhearts tells his friends they are wrong. They complain, saying that writing the column isn’t good for him. Miss Lonelyhearts cannot believe these people are his friends.
The next day, a miserable married woman writes to Miss Lonelyhearts. Her husband is disabled, and he doesn’t satisfy her sexually. She asks Miss Lonelyhearts what she should do. Miss Lonelyhearts eventually meets her, and they have sex. He doesn’t feel good about it because she is married and depressed. He feels that he took advantage of her, even though she claims otherwise. He vows never to do this again.
Later, Betty comes over. She notices that he is tired and he looks guilty about something. He blames his exhausting day job. She says that, if working on the column makes him feel so sick, he should quit. He doesn’t tell Betty about sleeping with another woman because it will only hurt her feelings.
Shrike visits and Betty leaves. Shrike tells Miss Lonelyhearts to stop moping around. Miss Lonelyhearts complains because life seems so hopeless. Everyone is miserable. Shrike tells him to join a monastery or worship God if all he wants is hope and joy. Real life is painful and often disappointing. Miss Lonelyhearts knows that Shrike is right.
Everything gets worse when the disabled man writes to Miss Lonelyhearts. He wants advice because his wife doesn’t love him anymore. He invites Miss Lonelyhearts to his home. When he arrives, the man’s wife is there. They pretend they do not know each other, because Miss Lonelyhearts refuses to admit he slept with her. Miss Lonelyhearts counsels them both and they make up before he leaves.
Miss Lonelyhearts visits Betty. He says that they should marry soon. He plans to quit his job because he wants a new life. Betty says this is a great idea because, although she didn’t tell Miss Lonelyhearts earlier, she is pregnant. Miss Lonelyhearts praises God for this news, and he takes it as a sign that leaving the column is the right thing to do.