Abstract

The major unresolved critical question regarding Nathanael West’s dark modernist novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, is whether or not it offers a scintilla of hope for the future of American culture. Otherwise expressed, is redemption possible, or is the work best read as primarily accusatory, part of the negative school of modernism? This article argues that although a wholly redemptive reading is impossible, the work still possesses extrinsic redemptive value: through the very ferocity of its portrayal of dehumanization and suffering, it prompts the reader to ethical reflection, and oftentimes empathy. This thesis is demonstrated through a close reading of the text and a survey of West criticism up to today, including recent studies linking the author’s use of the grotesque with compassion. Finally, in order to better understand Miss Lonelyhearts’s redemptive implications, the later theory of Richard Rorty is explored, in particular the epistemological and philosophical claims made in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Of greatest relevance to this study is Rorty’s claim that only a common understanding of suffering can form the basis for human solidarity, as well as his belief that the unique imaginative quality of literature allows it to communicate philosophical principles better than philosophy itself.

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Additional Information

ISSN
2161-427X
Print ISSN
1524-8429
Pages
pp. 239-264
Launched on MUSE
2014-09-11
Open Access
No
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