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The Day of the Locust | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust | Symbols


Fire and Heat

Tod Hackett "was going to show the city burning ... so ... the flames would ... compete with the desert sun and ... appear less fearful ... more like bright flags ... than ... a terrible holocaust." This very odd sentence sums up Tod's revelation after his unsuccessful attempt to chase and rape Faye Greener when she runs from the fight between Earle Shoop and Miguel at the campfire. The artist, who trips and falls and recovers lying on his back, close to nature, has an epiphany. Over-heated by watching the two men fight over Faye, Tod cools off and when the heat of has passion dissipated, he rethinks his painting project. He also mollifies his view of the people who "come to California to die".

This freshly conceived vision contradicts Tod's striving for authenticity. The notion that flames shooting from rooftops and windows are like bright flags is irrational, false at the very least, and unconvincing, even if the vision can be represented on canvas. The contrast, moreover, between "bright flags" and a "terrible holocaust" is equally irrational and disturbing as is the idea that flames strong enough to compete with "a desert sun" would be harmless and cause for gaiety. This scene and Tod's change of heart occur in Chapter 14, the center of the book, and this turn midway is corrected at the close of the novel when Tod's laughter is manic, his vision dark, and his pain real. This sentence of odd clashes in diction, which produce the unbelievable vision in relation to the terrible noises involuntarily issuing from Tod at the end, represents the failure even of language according to West's dark work.

Siren Scream

Tod Hackett's siren-like scream at the end of the novel represents the release of his feelings, which are born from the threat and horror he perceives is exuding from his environment, Hollywood at large, and personally, from the people he has surrounded himself with. The siren scream also represents the release of his own violent feelings, which have been pursuing him all along, though he "paints" his violent impulses onto others. There is nothing left of Tod in the end. Only the siren scream persists, taking the reader far from a naïvely glamorous vision of a Hollywood premiere to a glimpse of unspeakable depravity with violence predicted in the violence of ordinary people, an unspeakable horror from which the artist may not recover.

Tod has an unrequited and, in fact, unconvincing passion for Faye Greener. His emotion, along with his peculiarly revised version of the painting, can also point toward West's recognition of the Hollywood clash between the more political vision of the literary writers and that of the journeymen screenwriters. For the literary writers, international crises and social dislocations could not be mollified by escapist narratives. For the less literary writers, who at their very best were credited with maintaining the nation's emotional balance in the 1930s, the possibility of diverting people from their troubles and offering them hope was a real accomplishment. According to Nathanael West, the urgencies of the times demanded the excesses he found in satire and surrealism. The novel is in effect a linguistic attempt to do violence to the easy escapism of the movie theatre. That is the principal accomplishment of The Day of the Locust.


The names in the text represent the diverse social and political stresses of 1938 and 1939, both nationally and internationally.

Tod (German for death) Hackett, as in artistic hack, wastes his talents in exchange for a modest salary, likely not what he is worth.

Harry Greener, vernacular for greenhorn, represents an immigrant or foreigner, someone who is obviously different or who doesn't belong.

Faye Greener is young and unworldly, for a greener is never a sophisticate. Her first name is that of the glamorous movie star, Fay Wray (American, 1907–2004), who started in silent films and starred in King Kong (1933), the well-known narrative of a beauty who is carried off by a giant gorilla. Seventeen-year-old Faye is manhandled, carried off by her own naïve version of her attractions and sexuality; her father's desperate tutelage; Miguel's and Earle Shoop's casual sexuality; and Tod Hackett's violent fantasies.

Abe Kusich is an angry, small person; his name was probably chosen by West to show an East European Jewish heritage. Six of the eight major film studios in Hollywood at the time were started and run by Eastern European Jews, often a matter of anti-Semitic focus to the public. Abe's rage as a very small member of a small minority might be seen as an emblem of Jewish rage kept under wraps for practical reasons. Those reasons could have included maintaining relations with the Republican and Protestant bankers on whom the predominantly Jewish (mostly Democratic) moguls depended and with the general non-Jewish audiences on which films in general depended. At the same time historically, Nazi moves against the Jewish populations of Germany and Poland were building. West's relation to his Jewish background, his changing his name, and the manner in which he portrays Jewish characters and has others speak about them, is a point much discussed by critics.

Questions for Symbols

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