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Unemployed would-be writer Adam White visits Delehanty's bar, a well-known journalists' haunt, where his sincerity and manners attract the attention of Florence Shrike, wife of Chronicle publisher William "Bill" Shrike. Florence introduces Adam to her husband, a sardonic, bitter man, who mocks Adam before glibly offering him a job with the newspaper. Jubilant, Adam accepts, then seeks out his girl friend, Justy Sargeant, who is at a drive-in with her father and brothers, to relay his good fortune. Upon returning home, Florence asks Bill why he treated Adam so disdainfully and Bill admits he hopes to squelch Adam's youthful idealism. Bill blames his callous cynicism in large part on Florence's single instance of infidelity ten years earlier, although he dismisses her assertion that he was unfaithful many times in the early years of their marriage. The next day, Adam reports to the Chronicle where he meets fellow reporters Ned Gates and Frank Goldsmith. Ned is deflated when Bill gives Adam the "Lonelyhearts" advice column, a position he hoped for himself. Adam is uneasy about the new assignment, feeling ill equipped to give psychological advice to people with serious problems, but Bill makes light of his concern, counseling him to use religious allegories and perfunctory responses. That afternoon, as Adam sifts through the many letters to "Miss Lonelyhearts," Frank reads several out loud, giggling over the dramatic pleas for help. Ned angrily reveals his frustration at losing the job to Adam, then advises him simply to tell the writers to grow up and face life. Later, Adam tells Justy about the wide-ranging problems in the letters and frets over how to respond, prompting Justy to suggest he not take their problems to heart. Over the next several weeks, Adam works diligently, spending long hours at work carefully answering the letters for advice, despite Bill's continual derision. Although Adam's hours cut into his time with Justy, she remains supportive. Finally, Adam meets Bill at Delehanty's to request another position because he cannot deride or deny the seriousness of his readers' dilemmas, but the publisher coldly informs Adam that he will be fired from the paper if he resigns from the "Lonelyhearts" column. Unknown to Adam, his conversation has been overheard by young Fay Doyle, drinking at the bar with her husband Pat. A few days later, Adam tells Justy that he is spending the afternoon visiting the orphanage where he grew up, when in fact he visits his father, Mr. Lassiter, at the state prison where he has spent the last twenty-five years for murdering Adam's mother and her lover. At work the next day, Bill reprimands Adam for advising a reader to consult a psychiatrist, insisting that the advice seekers are all fakers and deserve to be exposed, not indulged. When Adam refuses to believe Bill, the publisher insists that Adam telephone any of the letter writers and learn of their true nature for himself. Disturbed by Bill's taunt, Adam randomly selects a letter and telephones its writer, Fay Doyle. Although surprised by Adam's call, Fay readily agrees to meet him. Fay haltingly describes her difficult marriage with Pat, a shipyard worker injured in an accident years before that has left him impotent and with a severe limp. Fay yearns for intimacy, while admitting she truly loves her husband. Shocked by this confidence, Adam listens in earnest, but remains at a loss on how to advise her. When the woman makes sexual advances to him, Adam responds. Escorting Fay home later in a cab, Adam evades her attempt to set up another meeting. Angered, Fay accuses Adam of being dishonest with himself for not admitting that he was seeking the same thing that she wanted. Greatly disturbed, Adam goes to a nearby bar and moments later Pat arrives looking for Fay. Pat recognizes Adam as a Chronicle reporter and, to Adam's dismay, introduces himself and pleads for help to retrieve a letter he believes his wife may have written to the paper. Adam evades Pat and goes to Delehanty's while Justy worries about him at home. Bill finds Adam drunk at the bar and correctly surmises that Adam acted on his provocation. Adam admits his foolish idealism, then allows Bill to take him to a party for Ned. There, when the other newspapermen mock Adam's column, Adam punches Frank then runs away. Two days later, a hung-over Adam awakens to find Justy at his apartment. Adam admits his drunkenness and brawling and acknowledges Justy's suspicions that a woman is also involved. When Bill stops by to inquire after Adam, Justy flees, and Adam then informs Bill that he is quitting the paper. That afternoon, Adam meets Justy at work and asks to see her before he leaves town. At a solitary picnic the next day, Adam reveals the truth about his family and the situation with the Doyles to Justy, admitting that he believes he has inherited badness from his parents. Distressed, Justy asks to be taken home. Fay telephones Adam hoping for another meeting, but is overheard by Pat who angrily demands to know the identity of the person with whom she was speaking. Meanwhile, Mr. Sargeant advises Justy to forgive Adam and offers her the money in her trust to start a life with him. Justy goes in search of Adam at Delehanty's where Florence steers her to the Chronicle after wishing her luck. At the Chronicle , Adam is bidding farewell to Frank and Bill when Justy arrives and the two reconcile. When Pat arrives with a gun demanding to know about Adam's meeting with Fay, Adam convinces him that Fay did not truly mean to humiliate him and takes away the weapon. Bill asks Adam to stay on at the Chronicle , but Adam insists that he must take the life lessons he has learned and departs with Justy. Before leaving, Justy reminds Bill that Florence is awaiting him at Delehanty's and Bill pauses to pluck some flowers from a vase before heading off to meet his wife.