Nathanael West Essay - Critical Essays

Nathanael West American Literature Analysis

West shared with his fellow writers of the 1930’s a disillusionment with the American Dream in the wake of the upheaval of World War I and the worldwide Great Depression. While most expressed their protest in realistic form, West developed an oblique vision of reality less overtly concerned with sociopolitical causes than with aesthetic and psychological ones. It tended toward bleakness and surrealism. For West, life presents a masquerade of false dreams concealing a reality that grotesquely contradicts the expectation.

In each of his four novels, this pattern emerges. In The Dream Life of Balso Snell, the dream of art is exploded. In A Cool Million, the Horatio Alger myth that good intentions and virtuous hard effort will win the day is proved ineffective. Miss Lonelyhearts exposes a reality that will not permit living by the Golden Rule and Christ-like behavior. The Day of the Locust unmasks the deceptiveness of Hollywood. In the latter two major novels, the protagonist of each embarks on a quest for self-fulfillment, lured initially by a dream that ultimately turns to dust; the effort leads to grotesque revelation.

In addition to the myth pattern of the quest (for Holy Grail or golden fleece), other classical motifs found in myth and literature appear in West’s work. Most evident are the scapegoat, who takes on the community’s sins and becomes a sacrificial victim; the holy fool, a lowly person raised to an elevated state and allowed to partake of saturnalian pleasures for a limited time and then symbolically or literally killed in a rite of purgation; and the medieval concept of the Dance of Death, which allegorically represents the triumph of Death reminding people of their mortality and the need for repentance. Such motifs are found in the action and climax of both major novels.

Painter-protagonist Tod Hackett in The Day of the Locust provides a thematic statement when he observes that the need for beauty and romance, however “tasteless, even horrible” the result, cannot easily be laughed at; it is “easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” West’s ability is to delineate the monstrous in a grotesque world that hangs ambiguously between the laughably ridiculous and the heartbreakingly sad.

Not unlike poet T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which presents a world of disassociated fragments suggesting the broken pieces of the past, West’s work is hallucinatory, but it is more pessimistic and more comic. It is indebted to the techniques of surrealism, with its focus on dreams, and to psychoanalysis, which West especially develops in Miss Lonelyhearts. Also in his work is a moral irritation, possibly stemming from his experience as an assimilated American Jew who discovered at college the uncomfortable ambiguity of that status.

In both Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, West cultivates a compact, cinematic style, advancing his narrative in a sequence of intense and fragmented scenes. West’s skills and discipline as a Hollywood screenwriter in the last years of his life were compatible with his inclination for constructing stories out of dominantly visual images. Like a film script, which often contains less dialogue than directions regarding visualization, West’s short fiction is terse and usually describes character and action in terms of movement, activity, and visual impressions.

To portray his landscapes of a desolate American wasteland of decay and pain, West employs images of the grotesque. Such images encompass violence, animalistic sexuality, the mechanical, and death. Among the inhabitants of these landscapes are the malformed—a cripple, a dwarf in a Tyrolean hat, a young girl without a nose—and the victimized—women who have suffered rape or domestic sexual brutality or a loveless marriage. The spiritually dead are described in mechanical terms such as “a poorly made automaton,” “a phallic Jack-in-the-box,” “a wound-up cowboy toy,” “a mechanical woman self-created from bits of vanished film heroines,” or a face like a frozen and cubistic clown mask.

An uncontrolled mob, first peaceably gathered to ogle celebrities at a film premiere, becomes a nightmarish group of figures akin to those in a Hieronymous Bosch (a fifteenth century Dutch painter) painting of hell. A character subconsciously retreating from reality experiences distorted perceptions, seeing a man’s cheeks as rolls of toilet paper or a woman’s buttocks as enormous grindstones. Such images are stylistically influenced by the nihilistic side of surrealism, destroying the world of rationalism with the surrealistic world of individual perceptions.

Evident in West’s...

(The entire section is 1956 words.)