Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Brian Glavey


In this project, I interpret humor in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts as a positive affective style that signals a need felt by the late modernists. Critics of Nathanael West commonly characterize the author as pessimistic, nihilistic, and apocalyptic, noticing his tendency to describe modernity as a period of decay. Those critics who do recognize the presence of comedy in West's work falsely align him with the deconstructive interests of the black humorists. Such interpretations privilege West's darkness over his comedy, failing to recognize that laughter can sometimes provide an escape from pessimism rather than necessarily contributing to aggression. I propose that humor can shield the individual subject from the violent environment of West's modernity, providing a potential framework for social relationships and communication.

In order to better understand the function of humor inMiss Lonelyhearts, I have constructed my project around the study of the novel's two central characters: Miss Lonelyhearts, the advice columnist and Willie Shrike, the newspaper editor. Miss Lonelyhearts demonstrates how a desire for order constrains one's ability to laugh, ultimately leading to brutality and the reification of the subject. On the other hand, the unfairly maligned figure of Shrike illustrates how adopting the role of jokester helps one adapt to mechanization and urbanization. One of the central purposes of this project is to recover Willie Shrike from the deluge of criticism that has characterized him as a bully and an automaton. Instead, I consider not only how Shrike's (sometimes vicious) humor is frequently creative and socially productive, but also how the novel condemns the actions of its somber protagonist.

Ultimately, I propose that West's style inMiss Lonelyheartsmirrors the mocking voice of Willie Shrike. Nathanael West is neither a nihilist, nor does he entirely foreclose the possibility of recovering from the damaging aftereffects of the Great Depression. Instead, West engages in a strategic humor with which he criticizes the fascistic institutions that threaten to constrain individual agency. For West, humor shields creativity and social relations from the culture industry and the equally threatening structures of religion and Eliotic modernism.


© 2011, Andrea Erika Krafft