Tuesday, November 23, 2010

374. Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

History: This book was published in 1933. The general theme of the novel is one of extreme disillusionment with Depression-era American society, a consistent theme throughout West's novels. However, the novel is a black comedy, characterized by an extremely dark sense of humor and irony.
The novel can be treated as a meditation on the theme of theodicy, or the problem of why evil exists in the world. The novel's protagonist is psychologically and "spiritually" overwhelmed by his perception of Evil. He then tries different approaches to tackle this question (religion, logic, love, existentialism) but they are all ultimately proven inadequate.
Although the characters of Miss Lonelyhearts are grotesque caricatures, the periodic letters sent to Miss Lonelyhearts, which describe real people with real insoluble problems, serve to ground the novel's Expressionism in reality.
Many of the problems described in Miss Lonelyhearts describe actual economic conditions in New York City during the Great Depression, although the novel carefully avoids questions of national politics. Moreover, the novel is particularly important due to its existential import. The characters seem to be living in an amoral world. Hence, they resort to heavy drinking, sex, and parties. Miss Lonelyhearts has a "Christ complex", which stands for his belief in religion as a solution to a world devoid of values. However, he approaches the status of an absurd hero insofar as his religious convictions further his depression and disillusionment. Ironically, he is shot at the moment he thinks he has had a religious conversion.
Plot: In the story, Miss Lonelyhearts is an unnamed male newspaper columnist writing an advice column which is seen by the newspaper staff as a joke. As "Miss Lonelyhearts" reads letters from desperate New Yorkers, he feels terribly burdened and falls into a cycle of deep depression, accompanied by heavy drinking and occasional barfights. He is also the victim of the pranks and cynical advice of his feature editor at the newspaper, "Shrike" (a type of predatory bird).
Miss Lonelyhearts tries several approaches to escape the terribly painful letters he has to read through religion, trips to the countryside with his fiancee Betty, and sex with Shrike's wife and Mrs. Doyle, a reader of his column. However, the Miss Lonelyhearts efforts seem to sink him more and more into a "dismal swamp of despair." After his sexual encounter with Mrs. Doyle, he is invited to dine at the Doyles' and ends up beating her up in an effort to fend off her sexual advances.
In the last scene, Mr. Doyle hides a gun inside a rolled newspaper and decides to take revenge on Miss Lonelyhearts. Miss Lonelyhearts, in turn, is in the grips of what he understands to be a religious enlightenment (but which seems like religious mania), and he simply runs toward his doom. Mr. Doyle shoots Miss Lonelyhearts, and the two men roll down a flight of stairs together. It is implied, but not stated outright, that Miss Lonelyhearts dies in this encounter.
Review: Miss Lonelyhearts receives hundreds of letters every week--it's his job to respond to them for his newspaper column. At first, he took the job because it seemed easy and the other newspapermen treated it like a joke, but now he finds that the letters, which detail an amazing panorama of human misery, are haunting him and pushing him to the brink of an existential breakdown. To make matters worse, he is hounded by his editor, Shrike, who torments him with elaborate jokes at the expense of his religiosity and inner turmoil. "The Miss Lonelyhearts," says shrikes, "are the priests of America," but Miss Lonelyhearts is a priest who lacks any answers to the question of why evil exists in the world. Miss Lonelyhearts looks to art, love, sex, and religion to temper his misery, but finds that he cannot escape the horrible emptiness of the letters.This is a brief but savage attack on the emptiness of modern life. Nathanael West here addresses the central dilemma facing modern man; having abandoned God, where do people turn for answers?
Opening Line: “Miss Lonelyhearts, help me, help me.”
Closing Line: “They both rolled, part of the way down the stairs.”
Quotes: "He crushed its head with a stone and left the carcass to the flies that swarmed around the bloody flowers."
"He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust."
Rating: Good but depressing.

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