The Day of the Locust | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust | Chapter 18 | Summary

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Summary

Faye Greener moved out of the San Bernardino Arms apartments the day after her father died, and Tod does not know where to find her. He is thinking about phoning Mrs. Jenning when he spots Faye from his office window at the movie studio. She is dressed as a Napoleonic vivandière (a uniformed woman who provided support to troops on the battlefield), and Tod guesses that means she is an extra in a movie called Waterloo.

Tod hails her from the window, but she waves and moves on. By the time he gets downstairs, she is gone. Tod roams the gigantic location, pausing briefly at many different active sets and the ruins of others—a whole history of the world—he notes, before he spies the Lombardy poplars that mark the road to the battle of Waterloo. From a distance Tod watches a 20th-century version of a 19th-century tragedy, the battle of Mont St. Jean, when the unfinished set collapses, resulting in injuries to the bit players who constitute the movie version of Milhaud's mounted swordsmen.

Analysis

The traditional tension of theater, the play between illusion and reality, occupies this chapter. The approach is farce: Tod Hackett is caught on the movie lot, struggling against time and space to make contact with Faye Greener. His urgency is real, as are his struggles. The representation of his need, however, is inspired by the sets he passes through and the difficulties each set conjures. He chokes on dust raised by a platoon of French swordsmen on gigantic horses, hides from brilliant sun and heat in the shadow of a painted canvas ocean liner with real lifeboats hanging from it. He crosses a desert "continually being made larger by a fleet of trucks dumping white sand." Each obstacle he meets is one part movie magic and one part everyday reality. The list is long—as are the descriptive lists in preceding chapters that identify the setting, such as the styles of houses in Chapter 1 or the details of Homer Simpson's rental in Chapter 4.

Tod's feelings for Faye would seem to similarly reflect the tension of illusion and reality or how fact and fiction intersect: his physical attraction to her is genuine while his perception of her is entirely his manufactured narrative. Much like the disorder of adolescent love, his responses are made of illusion—or delusion—and a touch of physical reality. The farce is, in fact, an exaggerated version of everyday reality, a confusion of the imagined and the physical real.

The farce persists as Mr. Crane, the assistant director of the film calls for the attack since neither "Napoleon nor Wellington was to be seen." As the action peaks, each sentence of the chapter consists of one part reality—in this example, the instructions of Mr. Crane—and one part illusion or fiction—here, the mention of the historical military leaders, Napoleon and Wellington, rather than the actors playing those roles fuses illusion and reality. As the scenery collapses, the cries are heard: both "scram" and the French "sauve qui peut"—the latter likely only heard in Tod's imaginative reconstruction since it is unlikely that anyone is speaking French on the set. The ensuing pandemonium, created out of theatrical invention and human fallibility, foreshadows the novel's concluding riot, which is created out of a theatrical event—a movie opening with celebrities, human fallibility, and a disorderly crowd. Each individual, in both moments in the novel, fights for false or illusory glory, a prominent place defined as a brush with fame—the opportunity to stand in close proximity to a famous person, a movie star. There is nothing of consequence at stake in the struggle but the only imagined end to their anonymity and the experience of cheap thrills.

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