The Day of the Locust | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust | Themes


Appearance and Reality

Written while Nathanael West worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, The Day of the Locust explores the relation between appearance and reality—a sensory, psychological, and cultural disparity. West's dismay with Hollywood's sugarcoating—in the name of public service—of a world in grave difficulty is represented in the novel. Hollywood's success during the Depression is a matter of illusion in the face of a deeply disturbing reality. From the opening chapter, Tod Hackett, a young artist, is put off by the artificial nature of the mundane: clothing as costume and the styles of homes as models of temporal and geographical displacement. All of Hollywood seems built on illusion, not merely the products of film. It is vision, human beings' primary cognitive mode, and film, the primarily visual medium that relies on visions that are fictions, that complicate the common notion that seeing is believing.

In the novel the art of film and Hollywood's representations of the physical world play with the differences between how things look and what, in fact, they truly are. Regarding The Day of the Locust it seems fair to say that nothing is what it seems to be. The complications participate in the social satire generated within the narrative—and often accomplished in adjacent sentences—in which appearance and reality clash. For example, Claude Estee's garden is at once physically real and satirically fabricated: "[t]he ... garden was heavy with the odor of ... honeysuckle. Through a slit in the blue serge sky poked a grained moon ... like an enormous bone button." The honeysuckle marks a sensory realty, but this blue suit of a sky is not poetry; nor does it make much metaphorical sense. The reader, presumably, could stretch to appreciate this in the context of Estee's peculiar habit of dress. Here his sky is absurdly dressed as well. Still, in the sensible reality of Hollywood rivalries, in particular, the rabid dislike between the literary writers who had sold out for high salaries and their nonprofessional screenwriter—and mostly underpaid—colleagues (often better at the task at hand than the literary types), West could be poking fun at the writer's elitist vision of the empty excesses of colleague involved in producing an actual object for consumption.

In an example of another sort, the narrator acknowledges the potential for false impressions based in appearances. He suggests that the so-called real can be misleading when he makes the following observation about Tod: "[h]is large sprawling body, his slow blue eyes and sloppy grin made him seem completely without talent, almost doltish in fact." He goes on to imply that this first impression is false. In Tod's work there is an additional, intrinsic dramatic irony in that the young artist has come to Hollywood to design and paint sets, that is, to create illusions of reality. Yet his artistic goal is to paint an epic of reality, "The Burning of Los Angeles," in a highly symbolic style.

Authenticity as Value

The clashes between appearance and reality are evident from the novel's first chapter. Tod Hackett arrives in Hollywood surprised by the level of imitation and artificiality in everyday life. He makes fun of the diversity of housing styles and disparages the "masquerades" in street wear. It's not as simple as people in athletic gear who are not headed to the tennis courts or sporting yachting caps and going nowhere near the water. Tod's positive judgment of Harry Greener is, in part, a matter of the impoverished comic's choice of costume, a banker's suit. Tod approves in this case, believing that the whole get-up is not masquerade; instead, it is authentically false. The standard for Tod's approval is the faded nature of Harry's clothing—by no stretch, an example of what a banker would wear. Harry is authentically himself, a tired clown in a tired clown suit. Tod excuses Faye Greener's artificiality on the same grounds. She is authentically not herself as she performs the role of a femme fatale and gold digger in earnest. That her act is transparent is the source of Tod's forgiveness, acceptance—or rationalization.

Tod, as a painter, pursues authenticity, and his excitement often gestures to an element of terror that constitutes his stimulation. Throughout the novel the word excited signals Tod's response to disturbing events that fuel his artistic impulses. His plan—and respite from his film studio obligations—is to create an epic painting, "The Burning of Los Angeles." He would seem to equate life's nastiest, most trying moments and least kind gestures with the authenticity for which he strives. Suffering, according to the young artist, is a prelude to authenticity.

At center then is the issue of reality or authenticity versus appearances and seeming. Just what does it take, this artist asks, to represent the real? In the novel's final scene, in fact, a disturbing set of sounds rather than visual stimuli—Tod's manic laughter and his siren-scream—suggest an answer. In the name of authenticity, his mad laughter and his inhuman siren scream sound the alarm. His alarms are irrational: that is, outside of intellectual rationalizing, and their portent, authentic. The year is 1939; passion and searing heat may rule in California, but the world will soon be in flames.

Survival and Violence

This novel was written during difficult times. During 1938 and 1939 the United States still suffered severe economic troubles at home, and the rise of fascism dominated news from abroad. While the reader might find it possible to generate sympathy for individual characters in the novel, the overwhelming message is grim. By design the films of the Depression were purposefully uplifting and even light of heart; the heart of West's novel by contrast is authentically cold and often violent.

Satire saves this bitterly disturbing text. Survival of the fittest would seem to be the brute law. Homer Simpson, the man who hated to see a fly hurt, is sacrificed to the gods of psychological and physical violence. The novel's main characters, who are constructed with vestiges of human vulnerabilities, are destined to fail. In the case of the Faye Greener and Harry Greener, desperation is fatal, and in Tod Hackett's case, madness. The nastiest of the minor characters—in descending order Miguel, Abe Kusich, Maybelle Loomis, Earle Shoop, and Audrey Jenning—survive by their wits. Their impulsive behaviors are rooted in violence as though nothing but a barricaded psyche with a proclivity for violence keeps someone safe.

Foreshadowing the failure of the Greeners is a familiar violence coupled with their vulnerabilities. The loving father and daughter act out familiarity and acceptance between them in a ritual charade of song and laughter that concludes with Faye slugging Harry in the teeth. Abe Kusich is a study in self-protecting aggressive rage, which he also performs for the amusement of others. Tod's middle-class veneer, a parody of a youthful misconception of value, is not consistent either. His disdain for nearly everyone on the street seems mildly nasty in comparison with the rape fantasies that manifest as expressions of his attraction to Faye. His stimulation at disturbing moments like the Chapter 14 scene at the campfire, where his erotic fantasies are almost immediately followed by exaggerated plans for his epic painting, demonstrates his divided nature. His violence is all adolescent fantasy, which he is incapable of carrying out. His feet are bigger and clumsier than his fantasy; he trips and the wish for rape dissipates in birdsong and sunshine.

Earle Shoop and Miguel, on the other hand are survivors; neither are strangers to violence nor to betrayal. Together they manage the bloody and cheating choreography of the cockfight. The corresponding balletic violence of the riot at the novel's close is performed in waves of crowded bodies, stopped briefly by solos of sexual violence and murder, which complete the dance. This full-scale repetition of the cockfight in human form suggests that the mob and their survival strategies are related to that of the cowboy and his friend. Tod's echo of the siren's scream at the end raises the alarm. By 1939 it was not difficult to see that the worst was yet to come. Tod, German for death, himself becomes the clarion of that warning.

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