The Day of the Locust Essay - Critical Essays

Nathanael West

Critical Evaluation

Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein) worked in Hollywood in 1933 on the film script for his novel Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) but was disillusioned when his suggestions were ignored and his book twisted beyond recognition; it was retitled in its script form as Advice to the Lovelorn. In 1935, he returned to Hollywood to gather material for his fourth and last novel, The Day of the Locust. He lived in poverty for many months, supported by his brother-in-law, humorist S. J. Perelman, until he found work as a scriptwriter. His first produced film was, ironically enough, Ticket to Paradise (1936). For most of the next five years, he worked for several major studios until his death in 1940 in a car accident. He was fascinated by and cynical about Hollywood, knowing that screenwriters had their writing revised or rejected. They could not write anything really good, but they could make good money if they were lucky. West preferred mechanical work on lesser quality, formulaic films so he could save his creative energies for his own fiction. Writing movie scripts came easily, and West was considered a competent craftsman at his trade. West’s screenwriter friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner also considered screenwriting to be mere hack work for Hollywood’s dream factory. Fitzgerald (who, coincidentally, died the day before West died in 1940) left unfinished a Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon (1941). Along with Fitzgerald’s novel, West’s The Day of the Locust is considered among the finest in the Hollywood novel genre.

Structured into twenty-seven chapters like movie scenes, the book presents an insider’s perspective of Hollywood’s dream factory and underworld society. West achieves a sense of reality with his richly detailed, accurate settings of the Hollywood landscape—movie lots, hotels, churches, restaurants, bars, brothels, streets, and canyons. In fact, this realistic detail merges with grotesquely exaggerated images to create a sense of surrealism. Comedy is juxtaposed with tragedy, and as a result the plot’s pace seems somewhat uneven. The disjointed feeling conveys exactly the dual nature of...

(The entire section is 891 words.)