Nathanael West Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is surrealism, and what is surreal in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust?

Which characteristics of West’s writing translated most effectively to the motion picture screen?

What effect did the film version of Miss Lonelyhearts have on its author?

West’s writing was done mainly in the Depression decade of the 1930’s. What aspects of this decade most depressed him personally?

Why does the practice of altruism not work in Miss Lonelyhearts?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nathanael West often used the short-story form for preliminary sketches of characters and themes that later appeared in his novels. Between 1930 and 1933 especially, he wrote stories with a broader focus and in a more sophisticated style than his first work, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. The stories include “The Adventurer,” “Mr. Potts of Pottstown,” “Tibetan Night,” and “The Sun, the Lady, and the Gas Station,” all unpublished. After the publication of Miss Lonelyhearts in 1933, West also worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood for several years, producing such works as Born to Be Wild (1938) and Men Against the Sky (1940).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Since Nathanael West’s death in an automobile accident in 1940, his work has steadily gained critical attention. His characters’ hysterical pitch of loneliness, their frustration, and their inability to find a source of relief have gradually interested a wide audience, especially since World War II. Stripped of their professional masks, the people in West’s novels reveal a talent for cruelty. They tease, exploit, or murder to ensure their own survival in a world reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but their world is without Eliot’s hint of redemption or spirituality. In Miss Lonelyhearts, the world is dead; in The Day of the Locust, it is corrupt and jaded, a modern Sodom that West symbolically destroys. This last novel was made into a film in the 1970’s; although it never became a box-office hit, West would have approved of its powerful treatment of dreamers and misfits.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathanael West. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This useful collection includes essays on all of West’s work in a representative selection. S. E. Hyman’s essay is a valuable introduction to West. Contains bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This valuable collection offers nine essays from a variety of viewpoints on Miss Lonelyhearts. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.

Martin, Jay, ed. Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. This collection contains some brief critical commentaries by West himself as well as analyses by others. Martin’s introductory essay is a useful summary. Some of the others presuppose a fairly sophisticated reader. Includes bibliography.

Siegel, Ben, ed. Critical Essays on Nathanael West. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Divided into two sections—reviews and essays. In addition to the comprehensive introduction surveying West’s life and career, the essay section provides studies of individual novels and of West’s work as a whole. Includes notes and index but no bibliography.

Veitch, Jonathan. American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930’s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Contains separate chapters on each novel as well as an introduction discussing the “crisis of representation in the 1930’s.” Includes detailed notes but no bibliography.

Widmer, Kingsley. Nathanael West. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Widmer’s general introduction concentrates on “West as the prophet of modern masquerading, role-playing, and its significance” while offering useful analyses of West’s work. Lengthy notes and an annotated bibliography are provided.

Wisker, Alistair. The Writing of Nathanael West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Chapters on each novel and a series of appendices on various aspects of West’s work, including his handling of violence, his unpublished fiction, and revisions of his work. Includes notes and bibliography.