The World as Seen by Nathaniel West
The traditional human condition plagues every individual; each suffers, and consequently, thirsts for personal freedom and utter fulfillment in whatever way possible. While Western culture recognizes this tendency as rooted in religiousness or spirituality, most Eastern philosophy understands this human characteristic as ultimate, drawing no line of separation between the “religious” individual and the truth-seeker. By whatever name, all humans walk this same path in pursuit of meaning and enlightenment amidst moral and philosophical chaos. With Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West gives the most pessimistic account of this struggle a reader can imagine, exploring the dark fate of an advice columnist naively hopeful despite an unpromising world. Although West’s scrutinizing depiction of futile human virtues might cause Mahatma Gandhi to turn over in his grave, the novel’s real intellectual probing lies in the problematic steps the characters take to alleviate real, human alienation.All the characters in West’s novel take certain steps to cover moral isolation and confusion. Even Shrike, the most loudly vocal in his essential rejection of mankind, uses wry sarcasm and savage mockery to feign a higher status for himself in the world. Predominantly critical of religion and those faithful, he condemns spirituality as a useless hunt for the soul – a position in blind contrast with the views of the protagonist, Miss Lonelyhearts:”In this jungle, flitting from rock-gray lungs to golden intestines, from liver to lights and back to liver again, lives a bird called the soul. The Catholic hunts this bird with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures, the Negro with blood. I spit on them all. Phooh! And I call upon you to spit. Phooh! Do you stuff birds? No my dears, taxidermy is not a religion (7-8).”Shrike initially appears to be Miss Lonelyhearts’ antagonist and yet is not quite; while vocally hateful toward religion and the unexplainable devotion of its participants, he merely experiences in a more aggressive form Miss Lonelyhearts’ same dilemma with faith. Shrike detests the notion of unfettered worship, yet he is obsessed by it. Whether or not masked with words of sarcasm, he continually assumes a God-like role himself or gives Miss Lonelyhearts the title. In the same majestic speech where he defies religion, he mockingly states, “I am a great saint. I can walk on my own water (7).” Meanwhile, he calls the advice columnist Miss Lonelyhearts one of “the priests of twentieth-century America (4).” Shrike has simplified existence to his own bare reality where all is corrupt and any romantic ideals are in vain. While he may intend for his outlandish proclamations against human gentility to be entirely believable, his constant prodding at Miss Lonelyhearts for his inability to give the suffering sufficient advice reveals Shrike’s own parallel plight of despair. Neither of West’s central characters has any idea what the cause of suffering is or how to stop it; while Miss Lonelyhearts will attempt spiritual redemption to live life in one piece, Shrike remains twisted in a bleak world of overcompensating cynicism.West places his characters in a world that is intensely horrible, where all individuals represent the desperate cases that write in to Miss Lonelyhearts. West’s irony lies in the fact that although Miss Lonelyhearts is tormented by the pathetic displays of suffering that surround him, Miss Lonelyhearts is in fact the most desperate of them all. However, the reader only understands Miss Lonelyhearts’ personal struggle by the ability to see the world through Miss Lonelyhearts’ eyes. After a failed sexual experience with Shrike’s wife – not surprisingly keeping with themes of corruption – Miss Lonelyhearts arrives at his office the next day, a “cold, damp city room (24).” Looking at his desk and seeing piles of unopened letters wanting insightful advice, he sees:A desert, he was thinking, not of sand, but of rust and body dirt, surrounded by a back-yard fence on which are posters describing the events of the day. Mother slays five with ax, slays seven, slays nine…Babe slams two, slams three…Inside the fence Desperate, Broken-hearted, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest were gravely formingthe letters to Miss Lonelyhearts out of white-washed clamshells, as if decorating the lawn of a rural depot (25).West repeatedly combines elements of nature with those of modern civilization that are cheap or ominous and looming, like a desert that desperate people decorate like a lawn. The city streets outside Miss Lonelyhearts’ office are putrid with impurity: “the air smelt as though it had been artificially heated (4).” On the way to have a drink with his fellow escapists, he observes the scenery: “As far as he could discover, there were no signs of spring. The decay that covered the surface of the mottled ground was not the kind in which life generates (4).” It is this waste land of nature’s decay and pitiful human suffering that always proves to incite guilt in Miss Lonelyhearts, even after a half-rewarding trip to the country with one girlfriend Betty. Throughout the novel, West repeatedly warns the reader that natural innocence cannot save Miss Lonelyhearts: the noise of birds and crickets is a “horrible racket” (37) in his ears; in the woods, “there was nothing but death -rotten leaves, gray and white fungi, and over everything a funereal hush (38).”Miss Lonelyhearts is paradoxically alienated in a world where everyone he knows and doesn’t know is alienated. In a manner somewhat similar to Shrike’s, Miss Lonelyhearts often takes on the critical eye, acknowledging all glaring flaws in the modern, material society and those who thoughtlessly participate. In the bar Delehanty’s, where his primary goal is to escape the disorganization outside, Miss Lonelyhearts cannot stomach those around him who attempt to do the same thing in a different way:But the romantic atmosphere only heightened his feeling of icy fatness. He tried to fight it by telling himself it was childish. What had happened to his great understanding heart? Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes – all these things were part of the business of dreams … For the time being, dreams left him cold, no matter how humble they were (22).Miss Lonelyhearts cannot fathom the idea of entertainment being a proper mode of distraction, nor does he appreciate art for the sake of art. He no longer wants to humor people like Mary who like to tell lavish tales “because they want to talk about something poetic (23).” Miss Lonelyhearts again attributes human suffering to modern culture within the confines of his own room: in a whirlwind of delirious imagination, “He found himself in the window of a pawnshop full of fur coats, diamond rings, watches, shotguns, fishing tackle, mandolins. All these things were the paraphernalia of suffering (30).” West, by all means, tells more than the plight of Miss Lonelyhearts; it is the terrible state of all human beings that brings Miss Lonelyhearts himself to utter despair.West sets the stage for mankind’s doom, and his novel’s characters heartily follow through. Extended to extremes, human alienation cries out through the inarticulate scribbles on letters to Miss Lonelyhearts, Shrike’s disgusted mockery of the pleas, and the platitude responses of Miss Lonelyhearts himself. A scene beginning in the novel’s opening chapter “Miss Lonelyhearts, Help Me, Help Me” clearly defines the hopelessness of the characters’ moral brokenness; Shrike mockingly dictates to Miss Lonelyhearts an answer to a letter, suggesting, “Tell them about art. Here, I’ll dictate: Art Is a Way Out. Do not let life overwhelm you … Art Is One of Life’s Richest Offerings (4).” West satirically capitalizes the platitudes thrown about by the characters so that they resemble headlines. The choice that his central struggling characters be the men behind the curtain of the mass media only magnifies the novel’s ironic statement: modern humanity ceaselessly searches for eternal truth while their minds are conditioned by advertising and materialism. Thus, the civilization described through West’s eyes is as antagonizing as any of the novel’s characters; the contrast between a brutal, random world and Miss Lonelyhearts’ desperate attempts to escape it is so sharp it suggests conspiracy.Despite the persistence of the opposing outside world, Miss Lonelyhearts writhes confusedly in his search for meaning and escape. While he has proclaimed modern modes of entertainment and enjoyment the “business of dreams” (22), his own idiosyncratic obsessions likewise fail to give him long-term comfort. In various instances, Miss Lonelyhearts’ feelings of imbalance manifest themselves in what he calls an “insane sensitiveness to order (10).” The chapter “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb” closes in on his frustration with disorder, the “Fat Thumb” representing his tongue’s inability to move when he tries to speak to his girlfriend Betty. Rushing through the streets to see Betty, “chaos was multiple. Broken groups of people hurried past, forming neither stars nor squares … no scale could give them meaning (11).” In this moment still early in the novel, Miss Lonelyhearts expresses his displeasure with uneven physical characteristics while simultaneously dealing with the greater disorder – vast human suffering.Throughout Miss Lonelyhearts, the reader will find all of the columnist’s romantic relationships devoid of love. He knows that love in any form could prove a soothing escape, and yet each of his attempts fail. He clings to Betty for the sense of order she gives him: “She had often made him feel that when she straightened his tie, she straightened much more. And he had once thought that if her world were larger, were the world, she might order it as finally as the objects on her dressing table (11).” Ironically, Miss Lonelyhearts knows the senselessness of this idea; in the same chapter of the “Fat Thumb,” he recalls a time where he had asked Betty to marry him simply for the “job and her gingham apron, his slippers beside the fireplace and her ability to cook (12).” Then, alluding to his greater pain, he acknowledges being “merely annoyed at having been fooled into thinking that such a solution was possible (12).” Since West comically puts forth that Miss Lonelyhearts “only knew two women who would tolerate him” (19), the wandering columnist is bound to travel between the empty attentions of Betty and Mary Shrike, the wife of his coworker. Again, his relationship with Mrs. Shrike largely centers on what it does for him: “When he kissed Shrike’s wife, he felt less like a joke (19).” Miss Lonelyhearts repeatedly declares that through his dismal work of answering letters, he has become the “victim of the joke (32).” Although he is pained by the world at large, he also bitterly refutes a reality where he must “examine the values by which he lives (32).” The interior of Miss Lonelyhearts is a moral waste land, and he therefore seeks to satisfy himself with surface qualities and short-term pleasure.As a result of his unsteadiness, Miss Lonelyhearts predominantly concerns himself with seeming rather than with being. Not having enough of a sense of himself to just be, he focuses on what roles he must take on in order to survive. West largely equates Miss Lonelyhearts’ position as an advice columnist with that of Christ; while Miss Lonelyhearts clearly fails to fill those shoes, his feigned compassion throughout the novel represents his useless attempts at acting virtuous and saint-like. Christ is a name which has subconscious magic for him, which expresses somehow his love and pity for humanity which he can’t express and which slips off continually into futility and oblivion. Yet he is bound to fail at “the Christ dream” (39) because of the distance that separates him from the morally elevated figure. West opens the novel describing Miss Lonelyhearts as “the New England Puritan (3).” Unfortunately, the lineal descendant has come to a spiritual dead-end road in front of the typewriter. Reading pitiful letters, he realizes, “Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business (3).” Having no solid identity or beliefs, Miss Loneyhearts grasps on to virtuous facades and vows of humility.Discouraged by his failure to redeem himself in nature during the trip to the country, Miss Lonelyhearts again searches for a tool to cope with humanity. He feels he has failed the “Christ dream,” yet only for his “lack of humility (39).” Miss Lonelyhearts vows to take on a role that is so feeble and delicate that any intrusion by another person might break it – he repeatedly acknowledges that Shrike’s presence would put his humility on trial, so he avoids him. He dodges Betty “because she made him feel ridiculous” and “he was still trying to cling to his humility (43).” The ultimate test comes with the arrival of the cripple into the speakeasy; even his physical presence is an automatic threat to Miss Lonelyhearts, who battles with contrasting notions of compassion and disgust. Hobbling in, the cripple “made many waste motions, like those of a partially destroyed insect.” Again and again, West forces the reader to face images of worst-case scenarios, and so incites the greatest degree of confused emotions. Thematically, the pathetic cases who either write in to Miss Lonelyhearts or pass him on the street have physical disabilities or deformations that are contrasted with notions of love:He saw a man who appeared to be on the verge of death stagger into a movie theater that was showing a picture called Blonde Beauty. He saw a ragged woman with an enormous goiter pick a love story magazine out of a garbage can and seem very excited by her find (39).With images like these, Nathanael West nearly screams at the suffering reader in a suffering world, “Why bother?” Miss Lonelyhearts’ attempts at satiating his desire for wholeness with love and religion can only be seen as ridiculous in the face of the inevitable fate West presents.More than just roles to fill, religiousness and holiness are distorted throughout West’s novel to represent what appears to him to be a great human misdirection of emotions. The book’s desperate cry of pain and suffering comes to a focus in what Miss Lonelyhearts calls his “Christ complex.” As he leaves the office and walks through a little park, the shadow of a lamppost pierces his side like a spear. Jesus Christ, Shrike says, is “the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts (6).” Miss Lonelyhearts has nailed an ivory cross to the wall of his room with great spikes, but it disappoints him: “Instead of writhing, the Christ remained calmly decorative (8).” Religiousness serves Miss Lonelyhearts in more ways than one; although providing a path for him to find love, it simultaneously satisfies his lustful attraction to suffering. He remembers being a boy in his father’s church and being stirred by shouting the name of Christ. Unfortunately, he recognizes, it is not faith but hysteria: “For him, Christ was the most natural excitement (9).”Miss Lonelyhearts’ incessant attraction to the physical and spiritual being of Christ is, of course, laden with his powerful, underlying homosexuality. West includes this characteristic as a kind of explanation for the degree of Miss Lonelyhearts’ alienation. It explains his acceptance of teasing dates with Mary and his coldness with her; he thinks of her excitement and notes: “No similar change ever took place in his own body, however. Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile (19).” It explains his compulsive gestures with Betty and Mrs. Doyle, the latter a woman he has no attraction to, and yet tells her she’s pretty out of pressure to say what’s expected of him. Furthermore, his only real spiritual consolation comes in a moment of hand-holding with Mr. Doyle, the slow, crippled man. After this moment, Miss Lonelyhearts delights in “the triumphant thing that his humility had become (47).” In a most clear depiction of Miss Lonelyhearts’ revelation, he now feels when Mrs. Doyle comes near him, “like an empty bottle that is being slowly filled with warm, dirty water (50).”It comes as little surprise to the reader that the cripple finally murders Miss Lonelyhearts, for he is the ultimate test of both the columnist’s feigned understanding heart and his attempt at spiritual escape. In the final chapter, “Miss Lonelyhearts Has A Religious Experience,” West expresses his ultimate statement about the human desire for truth – in his eye, a system gone absurdly awry. In a parody of the crucifixion, Miss Lonelyhearts meets his end at last, not as a martyr, but as the victim of the joke. Burning with fever one day in his room, Miss Lonelyhearts rushes downstairs to embrace Mr. Doyle, who unfortunately carries a pistol. As Miss Lonelyhearts attempts to miraculously embrace all suffering mankind with love, Doyle tries to toss away the gun, and Miss Lonelyhearts is accidentally shot, dragging Doyle down the stairs in his arms. The image of his death is unarguably homosexual, and thus, largely focused on Miss Lonelyhearts’ enduring alienation even unto his death: “He did not understand the cripple’s shout and heard it as a cry for help from Desperate, Harold S. Catholic Mother, Broken-Hearted, Broad-Shoulders, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband. He was running to succor them with love (57-58).” There is no truth for Miss Lonelyhearts, only scribbled pleas and jumbled words.Ultimately the novel cannot justify or even explain suffering, only proclaim its omnipresence. Miss Lonelyhearts cannot answer the letters because he has found that his values do not, cannot, justify genuine suffering, even his own. Hence, he is the victim of the joke: the advice-giver is himself sick-of-it-all, in desperate need of advice. Miss Lonelyhearts’ crisis is intensely personal, for he has found his values, not just wanting, but false. He becomes a misnomer; the name suits him, for his heart is as lonely as any of his correspondents. West presents the reader with an image of helplessness among humanity that is submissive and pathetic; he scorns the vast number of individuals who seek spiritual aid. For whatever reason, West chooses to put human emptiness under a microscope, and proceed to discover nothing about it except that it exists. Yet, a peculiar strength lies in the novel’s uncanny depiction of the means taken by the characters to be fulfilled. Through scrutinizing the vain efforts of people to play virtuous roles, West calls upon the reader to examine his own values as Miss Lonelyhearts must. With violent, shocking pace, Miss Lonelyhearts shares the author’s bitter sense of civilization’s falsity. Nathanael West’s world, however, leaves no room for growth.
Symbolism in Nathanael West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’
With its alternately overt and subtle use of symbolism, Nathanael West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ works on three separate yet interrelated symbolic levels: a simple symbolic level, in which objects, people, and events in a particular scene are representative of one small symptom of the overall weariness experienced by Miss Lonelyhearts; a more detailed symbolic level, in which objects, people, and events in a number of scenes unite to represent the larger and wider constitutive elements of Miss Lonelyhearts’ disillusionment; and a complex symbolic level, in which all of the above elements come together in order to represent Miss Lonelyhearts himself, and the essence of his attraction to suffering.Miss Lonelyhearts’ frustration and torment first truly come to the fore in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb.’ “When he touched something it spilled or rolled to the floor.” Miss Lonelyhearts can’t do anything right, not even simple things like picking up an object without dropping it. But more importantly, he can’t make anything right in the larger portrait of his overall life: his minor foibles in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb’ are each, in their own way, symbolic of different aspects of his life as a whole, and each one is a microcosmic piece of the macrocosmic puzzle of his existence.”The collar buttons disappeared under the bed” – his professional appearance is in disarray. “The point of the pencil broke” – his career as a serious writer is on the rocks. “The handle of the razor fell off” – he can’t even take care of the simplest aspects of his purely biological, human needs. “The window shade refused to stay down” – he has no privacy, and the decay of his life is put on stage for all to see. “He fought back, but with too much violence” – he can’t even act properly on his irrational animalistic impulses. “…and [he] was decisively defeated by the spring of the alarm clock” – he is ultimately conquered by the tedium of his depressive daily routine. He flees from his apartment into the streets, only to find still more disorder, more than he can handle, until he realizes who he must turn to so he may seek some reassurance – namely, Betty. Ultimately, he is misled in doing this, as well.”[Betty] had often made him feel that when she straightened his tie, she straightened much more.” Of course this is the case, being not only symbolic in itself of the overall influence Betty once had on Miss Lonelyhearts’ life, but also being symbolic as a double entendre of the correlation between Betty and order, between order and some kind of sexual satisfaction, and thus between Betty and that same sexual satisfaction. But when Miss Lonelyhearts arrives at Betty’s apartment, his idealized conception of her does not hold up to reality. “She came to the door of her apartment in a crisp, white linen dressing-robe that yellowed into brown at the edges.” She is cloaked in a veneer of purity that is found to be, upon closer inspection, somewhat tainted.This makes Miss Lonelyhearts self-conscious, and the only cure for his self-consciousness is aggression: “only violence could make him supple.” But of course we remember that, earlier, he was unable to act violently without messing it up. Things are no different this time. “He tried to reply to her greeting and discovered that his tongue had become a fat thumb.” For someone who communicates with the outside world by hand, by use of his thumb – by way of words produced by his fingers rather than his tongue, or his mouth – are we then to believe that the supposedly meaningful things he wishes to say to Betty would be no more valid or profound than the perfunctory advice he gives to the readers of his column? Certainly, his sudden disdain for Betty mirrors his disdain for those readers, and not without reason: their romantic and sexual problems mirror his own romantic and sexual problems, and if Betty represents the wellspring of those problems in his life, then, on a broader spectrum, people like Betty represent the wellspring of those problems in the lives of his readers: “Her world was not the world and could never include the readers of his column.” She is, in effect, the spokeswoman for her kind, whose constant provocation of other peoples’ emotional devastation constitutes the bulk of Miss Lonelyhearts’ daily life. And if Betty embodies and symbolizes the cause of his romantic and sexual problems, and if people like her represent the cause of his readers’ problems, and if his readers’ problems are Miss Lonelyhearts’ own problems – if they represent, in turn, everything he hates about his own life – then Betty is the umbrella beneath which everything that is at once alluring and disgusting resides: she is the repulsive beauty – a symbol, made flesh, for the hideousness of the unattainable ideal.But Miss Lonelyhearts has another place he turns to in order to seek refuge from the frustration Betty stirs within him: “He had spoiled his chances with Betty, so it would have to be Mary Shrike.” Before he meets with Mrs. Shrike in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike,’ everything seems to have returned to some kind of order in his life. “From where he lay he could see the alarm clock. It was half past three.” His routine now makes him complacent in his drunkenness. “He shaved, put on a clean shirt and a freshly pressed suit” – everything is under control once again, at least on the surface. But beneath the surface he is not at ease, and this unease is made evident in three ways.First, he is drunk, and he continues to drink: “He found a little whisky in the medicine chest and drank it.” Alcohol, throughout the novel, is symbolic of both Miss Lonelyhearts’ sexual and romantic anxiety, and of the gateway to sexual experience; that is, these two symbols work in a complementary fashion insofar as alcohol alleviates his anxiety in order to open the gateway to sexual experience (even if Mary Shrike refuses to accommodate him) for he cannot bring himself to initiate any such experience without being somewhat inebriated. Alcohol, then, represents freedom from one’s self.The second way in which Miss Lonelyhearts’ unease is made evident is by way of his process of purification: “He undressed slowly and took a bath. The hot water made his body feel good” – he is clean after this bath, purified as though newly baptized, for the clothes he had been wearing were the ones in which “he had been dumped the night before.” But even water can refresh him only physically, for the third way in which his unease is made evident is through the observation that even though the alcohol gives him freedom from self and the water gives him newfound cleanliness, “his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat.” ‘Lonelyhearts,’ we now see, is not just a pseudonym; it’s also a self-prescribed adjective for his personal identity. And so, when Shrike delivers his monologue to Miss Lonelyhearts, we realize just how congealed that lump of icy fat must be. “My good friend,” says Shrike, “I want to have a heart-to-heart talk with you. I adore heart-to-heart talks and nowadays there are so few people with whom one can really talk.” The irony here is that Miss Lonelyhearts’ heart isn’t really a heart at all; it’s ice, it’s cold and cannot be warmed by either the alcohol – which “warmed only the lining of his stomach” – or the hot water, or coffee, or exercise; in fact, he believes that only sex can warm his heart, and that is not something that Shrike can offer – how, then, is a “heart-to-heart talk” even possible? “It’s better to make a clean breast of matters than to let them fester in the depths of one’s soul,” says Shrike, although this is exactly what Miss Lonelyhearts is doing. Moreover, even though he consciously seeks sex to warm his heart, Miss Lonelyhearts could not escape the omniscience of ‘sex’ if he tried: Shrike speaks several times about making “a clean breast” of matters, and of course Miss Lonelyhearts’ sexual impulses are sparked by the sighting of a “stone shaft [casting] a long, rigid shadow… lengthening in rapid jerks… red and swollen in the dying sun, as though it were about to spout a load of granite seed.” The phallic pillar is not so much symbolic of sexuality in general as it is of Miss Lonelyhearts’ need to express his own sexuality; he observes that its shadow lengthened “not as shadows usually lengthen,” and as a result of his unusual perception of this shadow, we are led to believe that it is all in his head.It is with this unease in check that he visits Mary Shrike, his only alternative to Betty, although she is similar to Betty in symbolic terms. The literal difference between Mary Shrike and Betty is made apparent in the realization that “only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile,” and since he has already exercised his violence on Betty he now seeks Mrs. Shrike for sex. However, before he meets with her he notices a poster in Delehanty’s advertising mineral water, which depicts “a naked girl made modest by the mist that rose from the spring at her feet.” Although her figure is largely obscured, her breasts are not, and Miss Lonelyhearts cannot help but think of Mrs. Shrike when he sees the poster, and so the illusion is ruined: water, which the nude woman is intrinsically linked with, is no longer a purifying force as it was when he took his bath; it has been corrupted on a titillating sexual level. As a result, Miss Lonelyhearts “felt colder than before he had started to think of women” – the ice in his heart strengthens, does not melt, and once again, women are the cause of the problem. Mrs. Shrike thus becomes Betty: alluring, but destructive, and unattainable not in a sexual sense, but in an emotionally-fulfilling one. On the aforementioned detailed symbolic level, the two women develop a symbolic partnership in Miss Lonelyhearts’ mind to represent women in general, and on a more complex symbolic level, women in general come to symbolize of the root cause of his problems.Where, then, can he turn? There is only one way for Miss Lonelyhearts to melt the ice in his heart; it is to follow a path that he would recommend to all of his problematic readers if only it would not be the butt of Shrike’s jokes: “Christ [is] the answer.” But in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit,’ which follows directly on from the fall-out in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Cripple,’ Miss Lonelyhearts finds Christ because of Shrike’s jokes about the subject, not merely in spite of them: “He smiled at Shrike as the saints are supposed to have smiled at those about to martyr them.” With this newfound faux-confidence, he dismisses Shrike and turns his attention to the cripple, Doyle, and once again, alcohol is both a symbol of, and a conduit for, freedom from one’s self. It becomes a real source of confidence: “They left the speakeasy together, both very drunk and very busy: Doyle with the wrongs he had suffered and Miss Lonelyhearts with the triumphant thing that his humility had become.”In the scene that follows, Miss Lonelyhearts has dinner with Doyle and his wife, and unlike the unresponsive Betty and Mrs. Shrike, Mrs. Doyle openly expresses her desire for Miss Lonelyhearts. Her husband naturally disapproves of this, and the ensuing argument takes a turn for the surreal when Mrs. Doyle “rolled a newspaper into a club and struck her husband on the mouth with it… He growled like a dog and caught the paper in his teeth. When she let go of her end, he dropped to his hands and knees and continued the imitation on the floor.” The newspaper is largely symbolic of Miss Lonelyhearts himself, his work and his reputation – he writes for the newspaper – and there is a certain measure of irony in watching one of the readers of his column take that newspaper and use it to whack the subject of her letter to Miss Lonelyhearts in the mouth; Miss Lonelyhearts’ words, quite literally, are ‘going to the dogs,’ and two individuals who would otherwise be the very subject matter of his column seize the medium in which that column appears and use it not only to attack and silence each other, but as a plaything which they tear to shreds.Symbolically, then, Miss Lonelyhearts decays in front of this couple as much as he had deteriorated earlier, in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb.’ “[Doyle] growled like a dog and caught the paper in his teeth” – once again, Miss Lonelyhearts’ career is on the rocks, and he has found himself in a situation that would otherwise involve only the readers of his column. He is therefore not superior to his readers, not qualified to give them advice, because he is one of them. “Miss Lonelyhearts tried to get the cripple to stand up and bent to lift him; but, as he did so, Doyle tore open Miss Lonelyhearts’ fly, then rolled over on his back, laughing wildly” and once again, Miss Lonelyhearts’ privacy, indeed his sexuality, is open and on display for all to see. “[Mrs. Doyle] turned away with a snort of contempt.” Once again, women in general are the ‘repulsive beauty.’ What alternative is there? “The cripple returned [Miss Lonelyhearts’] smile and stuck out his hand. Miss Lonelyhearts clasped it, and they stood this way, smiling and holding hands, until Mrs. Doyle re-entered the room. ‘What a sweet pair of fairies you guys are,’ she said.” Again Miss Lonelyhearts’ sexuality is a problematic area for him, more-so because its orientation is being called into question. But rather than turn to violence, as he did before Betty, or desperation, as he did before Mrs. Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts turns to the ways of Christ – he turns to compassion – and offers Mrs. Doyle advice on how to care for her husband. And once again, he cannot get it right, he messes it up: “With the first few words… he had failed to tap the force in his heart and had merely written a column for his paper.” We have come full circle, and we see now that Miss Lonelyhearts’ mishaps in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb’ and ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike’ are, on a smaller scale, symptomatic of the greater mishaps of his exceptionally misguided life, and those very same mishaps reach a peak in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit.”Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb’ opens with the words: “Miss Lonelyhearts found himself developing an almost insane sensitiveness to order” – in fact, we might question the validity of the disclaimer ‘almost.’ When he visits Betty he finds that “her [sense of] order was not [significant]” – naturally, since she is not symbolic of order. The same is true of Mrs. Shrike: “I’ve had a tough time… When I was a child, I saw my mother die. She had cancer of the breast and the pain was terrible.” She is a mess; a symbol of, and walking prototype for, Miss Lonelyhearts’ column. Mrs. Doyle, however, is a near-perfect fit for Miss Lonelyhearts in terms of sexual partnership, but for one flaw: even though she openly advances on Miss Lonelyhearts in a sexual manner, and even though she is kind to him and respects his profession, she laughs at him when his fly is open: “You were a scream,” she says. And so, even in her near-perfection, Miss Lonelyhearts once again responds the only way he knows how: with hostility and violence. “He struck out blindly and hit her in the face. She screamed and he hit her again and again.” Even when he has found an outlet for the sexual release he has been seeking, he destroys it. He must; he has no choice; quite simply, he cannot live without suffering.These three women are symbolic of his readers and letter-writers at large. Betty might well be ‘Disillusioned,’ and Mrs. Shrike might well be ‘Desperate,’ and Mrs. Doyle is certainly ‘Sick-Of-It-All.’ Each woman in Miss Lonelyhearts’ life is symbolic of the suffering that he needs to experience in order to survive, and even if that suffering isn’t wholly present – even when these women play up their positive characteristics, whether it be their physical beauty, their regard for intimacy, their sense of humor – Miss Lonelyhearts forces that suffering into existence: he chastises Betty, he pressures Mrs. Shrike, he beats Mrs. Doyle. He is incapable of sharing a relationship based upon either sexual or emotional intimacy, yet that is all he ever seeks. That is why he is ‘Miss Lonelyhearts,’ in possession of a symbolic name. He has a world of suffering and loneliness and misery at his fingertips, and he is able to take it inside himself and make it a part of his own life as well. That is why he is so drawn to Christ: he wants to be Christ, determined to take all the world’s suffering upon himself in order to alleviate the pain of others.This attraction to suffering, this subconscious need to be around it, is the all-encompassing yearning that drives Miss Lonelyhearts to act as he does, to abuse women and to see Christ and to indulge in drunkenness and thus personal freedom. These elements, in turn, are constitutive of that attraction to suffering on a complex symbolic level. On a simpler level, his attraction to unattainable women and his penchant for alcohol likewise give rise to those elements above and are, likewise, products of his need for suffering, albeit in a more specifically behavioral sense of the term. And on the simplest level, a broken pencil and an un-ironed shirt and an alarm clock and women in general are symbolic of those elements above, and are both the direct end-result and the very cause of Miss Lonelyhearts’ suffering. The symbolism in the novel, then, is representative of Miss Lonelyhearts’ various techniques of incorporating this suffering into his life, beginning on a surface level with his possessions and his surroundings, and gradually ‘pulling back’ to reveal more symbolism in his behavior, and finally, in his generalized treatment of other people and of himself as a result of that behavior, culminating in symbolism both sublime and obvious in order to paint an episodic portrait of a tortured human being who is, essentially, tortured by his own hand.
The Search for Order and Meaning
In Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonists search for order and meaning. The books are similar in that both suggest the possibility of meaninglessness in America’s modern state of chaos. Although both books portray a dismal and temporary existence on earth, Miss Lonelyhearts is more hopeful. West hints at a world that is knowable, despite all of its misery. Miss Lonelyhearts stumbles through countless fragments of pain and despair, but at the base of his searching is a suggestion that there is an answer. The Crying of Lot 49, alternatively, contains limitless possibilities and condemns the search. This is a disorder that is not knowable.West and Pynchon illustrate the meaninglessness of American culture in many different ways. Both authors use fragmented imagery and language, overwhelming the reader with tiny pieces of real life. Fragmentation illustrates a shallow sensibility by developing countless, even entertaining details with no central force or purpose. There is a striking symbol for this cultural chaos in a used car lot, in The Crying of Lot 49. The language itself communicates a feeling of searching, with enough commas to make each image its own frantic gasp. This description contains “…clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 [cents], trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes…” (Pynchon, 4) This shattering of information is one effective way of imitating the modern state. It creates a sense of meaninglessness by the constant proliferation of material objects. Miss Lonelyhearts experiences a similar sensation in the downpour of horribly depressing letters that fill the novel. These are just pieces of paper covered in writing. But they encompass a shocking range of human suffering and survival. Separately, these objects could represent important aspects of American life. But together, their relative obscurity and pettiness becomes apparent.There is more than simply fragmentation in the creation of a meaningless world. In characterization, both authors are able to make this same point. People surrounding the protagonists are shallow and simple. They are shells without a center, simply convincing and recognizable images of complete human beings. Shrike’s voice is strikingly monotone. He rarely goes beyond his cynical “dead-pan,” when “under the shining white globe of his brow, his features [huddle] together in a dead, gray triangle.” (West, 6) There is no depth to his understanding. His entire being can be summed up in the one, violent syllable of his name. His commentary, like his personality, is simply a horrible manifestation of his surroundings. Most of Miss Lonelyhearts’ male associates, “like Shrike, the man they imitated,…were machines for making jokes.” (West, 15) Betty is similar in her one-shade depiction. She is the all-American girl, fallen prey to a belief system encoded in her fragmented world. This simplicity is seen when she “dresse[s] for things,” (West, 55) nurtures and heals the sick Lonelyhearts because of her firm belief that “if his body got well everything would be well.” (West, 36) Her transparency is especially clear in her predictability. Just as he avoids Shrike because he can anticipate the next joke, Miss Lonelyhearts can woo Betty with “…all the things that went with strawberry sodas and farms in Connecticut.” He knows what she “[wants] him to be: simple and sweet, whimsical and poetic, a trifle collegiate yet very masculine,” (West, 56) because her romantic notions are flimsy icons of popular culture. Both Betty and Shrike are knowable because of the familiarity and predictability of their shallow ideals. Miss Lonelyhearts and Oedipa Maas make the mistake of assuming the world is as understandable as the generic personalities that surround them.The two protagonists’ instinct to search for order is itself an illustration of the chaos they must face. Both characters are driven to examine their surroundings by an inner drive. Miss Lonelyhearts watches “crowds of people move through the street with a dream-like violence,” and is “…overwhelmed by the desire to help them.” (West, 39) It is this desire that keeps him addicted to the letters of anguish he receives every day. And Oedipa cannot help her “growing obsession with bringing something of herself’…to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations.” (Pynchon, 72) It is this instinct that gives the protagonists agency. They are confronted with so little order, that they are actually creating it for themselves. They confuse this ability with simple searching. When Miss Lonelyhearts waits on a bench, he does not simply look but “examine[s] the sky…like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion.” And when he finds nothing in this expanse, he “turns to the skyscrapers…” and “discover[s] what he [thinks] is a clue.” (West, 27) There is no suggestion as to what this is a clue about. This moment reveals Miss Lonelyhearts’ tendency to create something worthy of searching for in the world around him. Like Oedipa, he considers himself a detective in such instances, considering his action an observation rather than a projection.Although both characters find themselves in the midst of meaningless fragmentation, the two authors draw very different conclusions about the consequential searches for order. West subtly betrays a conviction that there is hope in all this chaos, and purpose in the searching. This idea is conveyed through details of language. In comparing himself to Betty, Miss Lonelyhearts makes an important distinction. He thinks that “his confusion [is] significant, while her order [is] not.” (West, 11) And later, when “his imagination [begins] to work,” and he finds himself in a pawnshop “full of fur coats, diamond rings, watches, shotguns, fishing tackle, mandolins…the paraphernalia of suffering,” the hope in West’s worldview is even more distinct. Facing this scene, much like Mucho’s used car lot, Miss Lonelyhearts knows that “All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.” (West, 31) Although he thinks this phrase to himself in a somewhat sarcastic tone, his actions go on to solidify his belief in this idea. He makes something of these scattered, long lost objects. He gives a place to them when he “first he form[s] a phallus of old watches and rubber boots, then a heart of umbrellas and trout flies, then a diamond of musical instruments and derby hats, after these a circle, triangle, square, swastika.” To make shapes of these things is to give them an order. But there is no finality in this action, as “nothing prove[s] definitive and he [begins] to make a gigantic cross.” (West, 31) Although there is no final answer or solution in this particular quest, Miss Lonelyhearts can at least move beyond the simple meaninglessness of the fragments in the pawnshop. West allows him to do so, giving him agency and moreover a sense of hope.Oedipa’s encounters with the debris of modern culture have a different outcome. She continues to search for meaning in the least possible of places. Unlike Miss Lonelyhearts, she passively receives a bombardment of fragments with a somewhat insecure belief that “each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence.” (West, 95) What she fails to realize is that these random fragments of information or imagery are insignificant. When faced with her own car lot type of scene, in her strange traipsing through the city at night, Oedipa makes no shapes of the debris she encounters. She is limited in her role as “voyeur and listener,” (Pynchon, 100) and simply exhausting herself in trying to move beyond this. Pynchon compares her futile collecting to the ability of an epileptic to “recognize signals…an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal…and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers.” (West, 76) Oedipa herself wonders “…whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold.” (West, 76) Here, Pynchon alludes to the absolute impossibility of this central truth with the word “somehow.” The word reveals the fact that Oedipa must once again create a situation to explain the lack of meaning. It is a word in her own thoughts that betrays this insecurity in her quest. The hope in a search like Oedipa’s can only exist, in Pynchon’s world, in the emotion of such a frustrated individual.It is strange to suggest any hope in a story like Miss Lonelyhearts. At first glance, it would seem to preach the same meaninglessness as The Crying of Lot 49. The similar use of fragmentation, characterization, and playful language only strengthens this conception. West’s hopefulness in such a world becomes more apparent in the comparison of the two novels. Both novels, with their attention to detail and strange names, pack complex commentary into seemingly short and simple tales. They are their own fragments of truth and expression, packaged and ushered out into mass culture. But these works are unlike the popular culture debris that become less and less meaningful in a group, as in Mucho’s car lot, Miss Lonelyhearts’ pawnshop, or Oedipa’s journey through the city. These two pieces take on new and deeper meaning when juxtaposed, becoming only more significant in this relativity.