In Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, why is the painting “The Burning of Los Angeles” important? Is it symbolic? 

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Nathanael West’s scathing critique of the film industry and the Hollywood culture it created, The Day of the Locust, Tod’s painting The Burning of Los Angeles is highly symbolic.  Tod Hackett is a newcomer to the film industry, a young, homely man recruited sight unseen on the basis of his art work while a student at the Yale School of Fine Arts.  As a young and somewhat naïve outsider suddenly thrust into the proverbial shark tank that was the film industry (still is), Tod is an astute observer of the superficialities and duplicitousness that were rotting the soul of this famed town.  His painting of Los Angeles in the midst of a holocaust is symbolic of his perceptions of Hollywood as something he would have studied in one of his art history classes, for example, something by Hieronymus Bosch, specifically, The Last Judgment.  West took his title and his theme, of course, from the Biblical Book of Exodus, with the ten plagues notably including a catastrophic infestation of locusts.  His story of Hollywood is very clearly intended to equate “Tinseltown” with evil – a moral wasteland that destroyed souls.  Tod desperately wants to bed Faye, and even finds himself sitting near her on a bed, the one-way sexual tension growing by the second.  West, though, knows that, in Hollywood, sex and politics are one and the same: “He wanted to beg her for a kiss but was afraid, not because she would refuse, but because she would insist on making it meaningless.”

Tod places Faye in his painting, “the naked girl in the left foreground being chased by a the group of men and woman who have separated from the main body of the mob.”  His motivation in painting this image of Los Angeles caught in a horrific firestorm is to foretell the catastrophic fate that awaits a city built on sex and greed and manipulation and every other sin that occurs to Tod.  About midway through his novel, West describes Tod’s conceptualization of his image:

“When the bird grew silent, he made an effort to put Faye out of his mind and began to think about the series of cartoons he was making for his canvas of Los Angeles on fire. He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and thereby appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust. He wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”

Tod’s image of Los Angeles burning while people jubilantly celebrated is possibly, but not definitely, influenced by the Book of Revelation’s destruction of Babylon:

“And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.
[3] For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies.” 

Maybe that bird that was singing, fell silent, than sang again as Tod is chasing Faye, and Earle is beating a Mexican laborer with a stick, and Tod’s thoughts return to the burning of Los Angeles and he reconciles his feelings about this morbid imagery with his role in life, noting that “he was an artist, not a prophet.”  The painting is seriously symbolic, and its recurring imagery throughout West’s novel clearly indicates that was his intent.

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