Symbolism in Nathanael West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’

April 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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