Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (review)

Miss Lonelyhearts, the anti-hero of Nathanael West’s novella, is a man who writes an agony-aunt column for an American newspaper. Most days he receives more than thirty letters all ‘stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife’. These bleak, unpolished notes come from the downtrodden and damaged. To give you a feel for the nature of these letters, here’s a passage from one. Its author, a sixteen-year-old girl, was born without a nose:

I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.

What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didn’t do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesn’t know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I don’t believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide? (pg. 173)

The advice column started out as a bit of a joke, a circulation stunt for the newspaper. But after months of answering painful letters from desperate readers, Lonelyhearts is feeling worn down by it all. He realises that his readers take the column seriously, that they genuinely believe Miss Lonelyhearts will provide guidance – a potential solution to their problems.

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What follows is a horrific descent into nightmare territory as Lonelyhearts struggles to find a sense of meaning and order amidst the pain and desperation. He is taunted by his editor, Shrike. He loses all grip on reality and begins to behave abusively to friends and strangers alike. In one particularly distressing scene, Lonelyhearts and his friend frighten an old man in a park – they grab the man and drag him to a bar. Seized by a feeling of rage, Lonelyhearts seems determined to elicit the man’s life story. It’s as if he sees the old man as the human embodiment of his faceless correspondents, the tortured souls of the city:

‘Yes, I know, your tale is a sad one. Tell it, damn you, tell it.’

When the old man still remained silent, he took his arm and twisted it. Gates tried to tear him away, but he refused to let go. He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.

The old man began to scream. Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair. (pg. 193)

The figure of Christ and religious imagery feature heavily in this story. Ever since he was a child, Lonelyhearts has had a difficult relationship with Christ. As a young boy, the son of a Baptist Minister, an overwhelming force had stirred within him whenever he shouted Christ’s name. ‘He had played with this thing but had never allowed it to come in.’ As he considers his current life as a columnist, Lonelyhearts realises what this thing was – it’s an explanation that goes some way to explaining but not excusing his behaviour:

‘—hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life.’ (pg. 181)

I’ll be honest here – I struggled to connect with Miss Lonelyhearts. I think it’s fair to say that I’m probably not on the right wavelength for this novella. I found it overwhelmingly warped and twisted and fractured, too dark for my personal tastes (and I usually like ‘dark’). It’s a satire, a rather brutal one at times. The vulnerable and defenceless seem to get a raw deal, and I think that’s one of the reasons why this story didn’t sit well with me. It appears to offer little hope for redemption, perhaps a faint glimmer towards the end, but it’s still pretty bleak.

At times, West’s prose is rather oblique (and I found it difficult to connect with this aspect too). That said, he could certainly write – the story contains some wonderful lines, turns of phrase that convey clear and vivid images:

…after a third drink, just as he was settling into the warm mud of alcoholic gloom. (pg. 177)

…the gray sky looked as if it had been rubbed with a soiled eraser. (pg. 176)

Only a newspaper struggled in the air like a kite with a broken spine. (pg. 176)

Miss Lonelyhearts was first published in 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression, and I can see how it would be possible to read it as a parable. It seems like the antithesis of the American Dream. Lonelyhearts knows this Dream is a deception, a deluded fantasy, and he’s railing against it. In this scene, he is thinking about his girlfriend, Betty:

More than two months had passed since he had sat with her on this same couch and had asked her to marry him. Then she had accepted him and they had planned their life after marriage, his job and her gingham apron, his slippers beside the fireplace and her ability to cook. He had avoided her since. He did not feel guilty; he was merely annoyed at having been fooled into thinking that such a solution was possible. (pg. 185-186)

I read Miss Lonelyhearts with Seamus at Vapour Trails – we’re posting our thoughts today, the anniversary of the novella’s publication. It’s a reread for Seamus, and I know he rates it very highly. (I wanted to love it too but couldn’t for the reasons I’ve tried to convey – it pains me to write this piece.) All this leaves me eager to read his review as I’m sure it will give me a better appreciation of Miss Lonelyhearts.

Miss Lonelyhearts is published in the UK by Vintage Books (the story starts on pg. 171 of my edition). Source: personal copy. Book 17/20 in my #TBR20.

49 thoughts on “Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (review)

  1. Col

    I don’t think this would be for me as like you, sometimes I find a novel too dark, especially if the mistreatment or violence towards the vulnerable is strong. In the same way that a novel can be of its time I think that’s also true of us as readers-so whereas I might not have baulked at this 25 years ago I probably would now! ( And coincidentally I was listening to David Nicholls Us in the car yesterday and he also uses a great simile about a rubbed eraser!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it was a reaction to the situation in America at the time, it must have been terrible. Maybe I’m getting a bit more sensitive in my mature age…I think I could see what West was trying to do, but that isn’t the same thing as liking or connecting with it!

      Oh, that’s a spooky coincidence with the rubbed-eraser similie. I hope you’re enjoying Us. I’ve heard some good things about it – sounds like a step up from One Day.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds awfully bleak. And I agree with Col – I could take much stronger stuff years ago than I can now – I think I’m getting softer with age!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it took me by surprise as I was expecting to enjoy it. I’m usually fine with bleak, but the story was too twisted for my tastes. I wonder if it is an age thing or whether I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I read it (quite possibly)?

      Reply
  3. hastanton

    This does sound intriguing despite the warped tale . I guess in 1933 it prob did feel as if there was very little hope for the poor and vulnerable in USA. Never heard of it before but certainly will keep an eye out now !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s worth a look, Helen, and it’s very short so you’d whizz through it! Yes, I think it must have been a reaction to events in America at the time – I’m sure Seamus will mention this in his review. Either way, I’m really looking forward to reading his post as I know he’ll do a much better job of analysing the novel than I have…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Well, that’s good! If nothing else, this post may prompt one or two others to read this novella. Let me know your thoughts if you do read it, I’d love to know.

          Reply
  4. heavenali

    Miss Lonelyhearts does sound bleak, and it’s interesting you use the word twisted because it’s a word that sprang to mind as I read your review.

    Reply
  5. Séamus Duggan

    Jacqui, I can understand how you could find this book difficult, it is bleak and violent and despairing. But yet it is funny and compassionate and insists on the importance of the lives of the suffering. I rate it one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and am trying to write a post that reflects this. My post should hit the blogosphere later today.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m very much looking forward to your review, Seamus. I’m sure it’ll give me a much better appreciation of the book. I know it’s considered to be a masterpiece, and I’m quite prepared to admit that I completely missed the point of this one! I could see the satire, but the compassion less so…my problem I think.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very much looking forward to reading this, Seamus! I’ll head over to yours later today (I’m tied up for most of the day so it might be tonight before I get a chance).

          Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Your commentary is very genuine on this book Jacqui. As always you provide a super review.

    I have been meaning to read this one for a long time. I too usually like books that are dark, However I do seem to have gotten more sensitive over time. I wonder if some of the aspects that you allude to here might disturb me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I guess I was trying to capture my response to the book – it took me a little by surprise to be honest as I was expecting to like it. Do take a look at Vapour Trails if you get a chance as I’m sure Seamus will offer a much better critique of the novella’s merits (and it’s always useful to have another view).

      I’d be very interested to hear your take on Miss Lonelyhearts if you do read it.

      Reply
  7. Naomi

    Isn’t it interesting that even those of us who like to read dark and depressing novels still have our limits? Is it that things have just gone too far? Is it the lack of hope in the story? Or, is it something different for each of us -just that something that eats at us? I wonder about that a lot when I come across something I think I should like, but don’t. Good review! I am actually curious to know, now, whether this one would also be too dark and twisted for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s strange, isn’t it? I lost faith with it at an early stage, and I suspect that’s where it all started to go wrong for me! The scene in the park where Lonelyhearts and his friend seize a defenceless old man and drag him off to a bar for an interrogation session, that’s the point at which I disconnected. It was a bit of a struggle to reconnect after that especially as I couldn’t see a lot of compassion or redemption in the story. Mind you, I think that’s my failing as Seamus mentions the humour, compassion and connection with the suffering in his comment above.

      You might want to take a look at the Vapour Trails blog if you get an opportunity as I’m sure Seamus will offer a much better critique of the novella’s merits (his post should be up later today). It’s always useful to have another view especially if you’re thinking of giving it a go. I’m curious to know how you’d find it too – do let me know if you try it!

      Reply
  8. Jonathan

    This sounds pretty good to me. I read ‘The Day of the Locust’ a few years ago and really liked it so I don’t know why I didn’t follow it up with this one. I’ll have to give it a go.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you might like this one then! My copy is back on the TBR shelf as I still need to try The Day of the Locust. (My edition contains both novels. In fact, I bought it with Locust in mind – Lonelyhearts was a bonus if I could call it that!)

      I hope you’ll review Lonelyhearts if you get a chance read it. I’d love to see your take on it.

      Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Even though this novella hit your limits, your review has made me curious. I think our boundaries certainly shift throughout our reading lives, but I also believe that the timing of a book is very important. Sometimes, a book just comes at the wrong moment. It’s better to blame timing, rather than age, don’t you think? ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad to hear that you’re curious about this one. If nothing else, this post may prompt one or two others to read this novella (or at least to consider it).

      I think you’re right. Our boundaries and tastes do tend to change over time, but it was probably a case of the wrong moment for me. Maybe I simply wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I picked it up. I might have to chalk this up to experience and try again one day – it’s certainly short enough for a reread.

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    I’m tempted as well. Unfortunately I think I’ve got The Day of the Locusts and not this. I’m glad I’m warned though. For some reasons I thought it was lighthearted.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny as I had the impression it would be melancholy but fairly lighthearted (certainly not as dark as this). I’d love to know what you think of it. My edition contains The Day of the Locust, so I might try it later this year.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is the weird thing. I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers’ films. I’ve loved them ever since Blood Simple, and A Serious Man is one of my favourites. On another day, I might have reacted very differently to the passage that ends with the chair incident…I’ll have to try again with Miss Lonelyhearts!

      Reply
  11. realthog

    Like your friend Séamus, I’ve always loved Miss Lonelyhearts to pieces — for me it’s the best of West’s novels. Oddly, there’s a copy of it that’s been sitting for months near my bedside trying to catch my eye; I think you’ve finally coaxed me into picking it up for a reread!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Argh! I really do need to try again with Miss Lonelyhearts, especially as you and Seamus rate it so highly. I’ll give it another go at some stage – hopefully I’ll be in the *right* frame of mind next time! Enjoy your reread. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s a fair bit of religious symbolism here (I’m sure Seamus will mention it in his review). I would be VERY interested to hear your thoughts on Miss Lonelyhearts. It’s pretty short so you’d whizz through…

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    Good review Jacqui, in that I was already interested in this and I feel I have a much better grasp of it now and am still interested. It does sound dark, but it was a dark time (and is again I’d say) and fiction should sometimes reflect that.

    It sounds positively Catholic in terms of imagery, though I always thought the doctrine of redemption through suffering a pernicious one that can get in the way of actually doing good. That’s probably beyond the scope of a literary blog though :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I guess it’s my personal response to the book. Yes, I think you’re right, it has to be viewed in the context of that period in America’s history. Jeez, it must have been bleak…

      If you haven’t done so already, it’s well worth taking a look at Seamus’s review for a much better analysis and appreciation of the book’s merits…and you’ll have to read Lonelyhearts and judge for yourself as I would be fascinated to hear your take on it!

      Oh, and I share your concerns about the doctrine of redemption through suffering (says the girl whose mother was a staunch Roman Catholic). :-)

      Reply
  13. 1streading

    “warped and twisted and fractured” – there may be something wrong with me, but that makes me want to read it! It says something about the quality of your reviews that one of a book you haven’t loved can still prompt others to read it
    You won’t be surprised to learn it’s yet another American writer I haven’t read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, I’m very tempted to send you my copy, but I’ve promised to try again with this one! You HAVE to read this, Grant…I need to know. How about another American literature month later this year? ;)

      Reply
  14. litlove

    This is a book I’ve been meaning to try but I have always read such mixed criticism of it that I’ve hesitated and not yet picked it up. I get the feeling it’s one of those books that really connect with the mindset of a few readers who get it and adore it, but it risks leaving the majority of the audience bewildered and a little sickened. At least – that’s what I’ve taken from all the reviews I’ve read. If I do pick it up, I think I need to be in the frame of mind of reading as if I were going to teach it, taking a bit of emotional distance. That mood doesn’t come upon me often these days, but one day I’ll get around to it. I did appreciate your honest and fair review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very interesting…having read it, I think you’re right. It feels divisive in a way I simply hadn’t anticipated when I launched into it in blissful ignorance!

      I like your idea of approaching this book at a bit of an emotional distance, keeping it slightly at arms length so to speak. I’ll keep that in mind when the time comes for me to reread this one. I hope you’ll find the right moment to give it a try, Victoria – I’d love to hear your thoughts. :)

      Reply
  15. Scott W.

    I’ve read all of Nathaniel West’s novels (not a difficult task – there are just four of them and they’re all short), and have come away with something of a similar sense of not being on the right wavelength for them – despite my loving the L.A. setting of ML. They are certainly dark – and razor sharp. If you thought this one reflected the anti-thesis of the American Dream, try A Cool Million (a novel that’s a bit of a one-note-samba but that I actually preferred over Miss Lonelyhearts), in which the main character is essentially – and rather literally – taken apart bit by bit by his striving after it. The novel has a lancing, very funny portrayal of a conservative American politician, one which ought to be trotted out every campaign season.

    Reply
    1. realthog

      I’ve read all of Nathaniel West’s novels (not a difficult task – there are just four of them and they’re all short)

      Exactly. Miss Lonelyhearts clocks in at just 70 pages or so. Even if one’s not in the mood it’s no major investment of time.

      Reply
        1. realthog

          Well, yes, but, even if you don’t happen to like them, they’re also arguably very good — certainly they’re challenging in a sense that many modern novels simply aren’t.

          I dug my copy of Miss Lonelyhearts out from under the pile and discovered it was not 70 pages long but 59. And yet there are people here who seem nervous about taking the plunge. I mean, it could easily be read in less time than it takes to watch a rerun episode of Lewis.

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Yes, fair point. I guess that begs the question: what do readers want from literature? Do they want to be challenged? Are they looking for an escape? Some comfort? The answer may vary depending on a reader’s mood and where they are in their life, but West probably won’t be to everyone’s taste.

            I’ll try again at some stage – it’s good to be challenged every now and again! :)

            Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Phew, it’s good to know I’m not alone (well, not quite, anyway!). And there was me thinking I’d never want to read another Nathanael West novel as long as I live, and then you go and tempt me with an intriguing description of A Cool Million! I rather wish my edition included Million instead of The Day of the Locust. I might have to read it for the portrayal of the conservative politician alone. Cheers, Scott – great to hear you thoughts, as ever. :)

      Reply
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