At first titled The Cheated, Nathanael West’s final work, The Day of the Locust, takes its title from the plague of locusts set upon the pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. The Day of the Locust leaves the reader with a pervasive sense of horror that civilization is being destroyed. All the characters in the novel are cheated; they swarm to 1930’s Hollywood in search of cinematic dreams. When these dreams prove to be bogus, these characters, mostly from the lower middle class, turn violent.
The characters in The Day of the Locust are unreal constructions from low-budget movies. In the Hollywood “dream factory,” nothing is what it appears to be. A fat lady in a yachting cap is really a housewife going shopping. An insurance agent is disguised by his Tyrolean hat. Women in slacks, bandannas, and sneakers are office workers. Faye Greener, a main character, is a trashy imitation of the 1930’s Hollywood sex goddesses. Homer Simpson, another main character, is a Midwestern innocent, signified ironically by his powerful hands, which are likened not to hands of creation, building, or strength but rather to rapists’ or stranglers’ hands. The aspiring child star Adore Loomis is also a construction of movie imagery. His grotesque song-and-dance of sexual pain is ludicrous and painful to watch.
The identities of all characters in The Day of the Locust have been formed by media images. Harry Greener,...
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Tod Hackett, a set and costume designer, arrives in Hollywood, still idealistic from Yale. He works on his painting, The Burning of Los Angeles, to fulfill his dream of becoming a successful artist. As he watches people from his movie studio window, he sees soldiers moving like a mob, with a fat man cursing at them through a megaphone. Tod observes how people masquerade by dressing in roles and how houses reflect odd mixtures of architectural styles. He recalls the day when Abe Kusich showed him his seedy hotel, and Tod immediately became obsessed with Faye Greener.
At Claude Estee’s party, Tod is initiated into Hollywood’s perverse pleasures. To amuse guests, Estee decorates his pool with a life-size rubber reproduction of a grotesque dead horse, its stiff legs straight up, distended belly enormous, and black tongue hanging out. Joining the partygoers at Audrey Jennings’s brothel, Tod watches part of a pornographic film; then seeing Faye’s best friend, Mary Dove, he tries to engage Faye’s services.
Failing to do so, he ingratiates himself, keeping Faye and her sickly father, Harry, company. One day, after Homer Simpson appears with flowers and wine to court Faye, Tod learns that while selling homemade polish, Harry collapsed at Homer’s house. Then Tod meets another rival for Faye’s attention, Earle Shoop. The three go to the hillside camp of Miguel, a Mexican who raises fighting gamecocks. After they eat, they drink tequila. Unable to stand Faye’s seductive dancing with Miguel, Earle cracks him in the head. Tod, caught up in the frenzy, grabs at Faye as she runs past him. Until his passion and anger are exhausted, Tod envisions his artistic depiction of violence: Los Angeles burning amid a gala holiday crowd.
Although Faye abandons him, the following evening (while Faye goes to the movies with Homer), Tod gets trapped into hearing her sick father reminisce about his vaudeville career. The next day Harry dies. To pay for funeral expenses, Faye works at Mrs. Jennings’s brothel. Harry’s funeral resembles a theatrical performance, with arguments about the cheap casket, dramatic hymns pleading for...
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The Day of the Locust (originally titled The Cheated) is the last, the longest, and the most realistic of West’s novels. Set in 1930’s Hollywood, the novel, drawing on West’s experiences as a studio screenwriter, won critical recognition and, upon its republication in the 1950’s, popular success that was capped by a 1974 motion picture that was faithful to the original. Less surreal in style and slightly more comic in tone than Miss Lonelyhearts, the story depicts a similarly bleak world.
Hollywood, with its masquerade of beauty and romance, contains neither but conceals frustrated hopes and false dreams of success. Unlike other Hollywood novels (commonly focusing on the successful and the powerful), The Day of the Locust chiefly concentrates on the unsuccessful, the untalented, and the impotent: the bit players, the hangers-on, the displaced persons from mid-America, all of whom represent disillusioned or lost searchers cheated of their romantic expectations and fantasies stimulated by films.
Observing those lives is the novel’s protagonist, a college-educated painter named Tod Hackett. He finds success as a studio designer but comes to realize the frustration and the spiritual and moral emptiness of Hollywood, where the natural is the artificial. Hackett, himself cheated in the pursuit of romance with an artificial and ungifted bit player incapable of returning his love, ultimately leaves the...
(The entire section is 406 words.)