The Day of the Locust | Study Guide

Nathanael West

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "The Day of the Locust Study Guide." Course Hero. 16 Mar. 2018. Web. 25 Apr. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Day-of-the-Locust/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2018, March 16). The Day of the Locust Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved April 25, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Day-of-the-Locust/

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "The Day of the Locust Study Guide." March 16, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Day-of-the-Locust/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "The Day of the Locust Study Guide," March 16, 2018, accessed April 25, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Day-of-the-Locust/.

The Day of the Locust | Chapter 1 | Summary

Share
Share

Summary

Tod Hackett, a Yale graduate newly arrived in Hollywood to work at set design and painting, surveys the scene outside his office window at quitting time. Tod watches an "army of cavalry and foot," actors appropriately costumed and kept in line by a vulgar fat man who screams directions through a megaphone. Tod leaves the office, walking part way home to immerse himself in the street life. He observes two sorts of people: a great many dressed for masquerade, mostly clothed for sports they would not play, and others in poorly cut clothing, their "eyes filled with hatred," who, from Tod's point of view, "ha[ve] come to California to die." The styles of the homes he notices are as fake as the people he passes. There are Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Swiss chalets, and Egyptian and Japanese temples. He reflects on how he grabbed this job in Hollywood despite the warnings of friends who feared he was selling out on his art.

Analysis

The story opens in Hollywood seen through the fresh eyes of a stranger, a fellow not merely new to the place but a young artist with a discerning eye. The jolting confusion between illusion and reality in both the clothing and the buildings Tod Hackett sees on the street is echoed and reflected upon in an observation by the omniscient narrator. Thus a doubled point of view is established early on in the novel.

This novel is told in third person, but the narrative focus is divided between an omniscient voice that stands back and sees the whole picture and one that expresses the point of view of a single character. The latter technique, in narrative theory, is called focalization. In this first example, the voice is focalized through Tod, as is most of the first chapter. The reader sees the young artist's new world through his eyes for five paragraphs. The narrator of the sixth and seventh paragraphs of the opening section, however, draws back to reinforce a theme that operates throughout the novel: the questioning of appearance vs. reality. That theme is introduced here through the observation that appearances are deceiving and judgments based on initial appearances can be unfair, even harmful.

In paragraphs six and seven, the narrator, who clearly knows better, suggests that Tod might not have been hired if the talent scout who hired the young painter, sight unseen, on the basis of his work in an exhibit at Yale had met him. "His large sprawling body, his slow blue eyes and sloppy grin made him seem completely without talent, almost doltish in fact." The narrator continues: "Yet, despite his appearance, he was really a very complicated young man ..." Thus the narrator opens a conversation about seeing and believing.

What readers have learned in the preceding five opening paragraphs is that for Tod, new to Hollywood, no one or no one thing is as it seems. Tod finds deception and artificiality in the dress of the passers-by and the homely eclecticism of the designs of the homes in the neighborhood. By contrast, the narrator of paragraphs six and seven generalizes the problem, suggesting that for many, appearances are deceiving and judgments based on first impressions are likely not dependable. The irony here is that Tod, although acute in his recognition of the artificiality of his surroundings, is also making damning judgments based on cursory observation.

The narrative returns to Tod in the eighth paragraph. He is thinking about the potential for truth in his art, and he determines that he will paint not like the American artists who depicted the wonders of nature but like the painters of other times and places. He names Goya and Daumier—who recorded in exaggerated, rather than realistic forms, the hypocrisy and horror of human nature. In that vein Tod considers the flimsiness of the tasteless homes he sees made of plaster, lathe, and paper, materials that "know no law, not even that of gravity."

Immersed in an artificial scene whose hypocrisies, according to Tod, cannot last, he still finds there the human need for beauty, even if the need is expressed in tasteless, homely forms. Thus, the scene is set. From the very beginning, the novel promises to be about life and art, truth and artifice—and perhaps, most of all, about Hollywood through Tod's eyes, "a very exciting place." The organizing situational irony is that film is the art form that imitates life while Tod views the street life and the setting, the so-called real life in Hollywood, as imitating art. This upside-down dynamic—in Hollywood, both art and real life imitate art—raises questions about the roles of beauty and authenticity with respect to what we value. Above all, the novel raises that question of excitement with respect to the artist. The elements that inflame the senses and foster acts of the imagination produce art, and while art is not exactly "truth," somehow it tells the truth about humanity.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Day of the Locust? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Ask a homework question - tutors are online