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Nathanael Wests The Day of the Locust is a realistic novel about an unreal city. Centered in Hollywood and the world of movie-making, the story avoids the glitter of stardom to concentrate on the life of the disenchanted. It presents the disillusioned, those who find themselves cheated of the glamour their fantasies promised and the movies provided. The novel emphasizes the spiritual and moral death of the city, symptomatic of the condition within the country as a whole. Focusing on the despair of out-of-work bit actors, the illusions of romantic but untalented actresses, the unhappiness of once-successful vaudeville comics, the paralysis of those who journey to the coast, the novel stresses the death of dreams and culminates in a fiery riot of frenzied movie fans at a Hollywood premiere. This scene, which ends the novel, embodies the efforts of the protagonist, Tod Hackett, to finish his panoramic painting recording life in the city which he titles The Burning of Los Angeles. With the Old Testament allusion of its title and it apocalyptic ending by fire, the novel stands as a unique indictment of romance and its destruction in modern America. This intensely moral work, displaying characters entrapped between their idealism and corruption, initiates a series of Hollywood novels which extend West's satire. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays are three distinguished examples.
The principal themes of The Day of the Locust are the tension between disillusionment and romance and the reaction to recognizing the absurdity of everyday life. The clearest demonstration of the conflict occurs in chapter 18 when Tod Hackett wanders about a studio lot in quest of Faye Greener, the lustful but elusive femme fatale he has met earlier in the book. Believing she is an extra in an epic entitled Waterloo-the title itself symbolic of the imminent downfall of Hollywood-he follows a group of cuirassiers heading for the set in search of her. He quickly loses them but encounters in succession a painted ocean liner, a papier-mâché sphinx, a desert, a western saloon, a jungle, a Paris street, a Romanesque courtyard, a waterfall, a campy resort, and a Greek temple where the god of Eros "lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles." Such is the fate of love in the novel-lost, discarded and impotent. Before he actually witnesses the literal collapse of a cardboard Mont St. Jean when hundreds of soldiers enter a mock battle but unexpectedly crash through canvas, cardboard, and plaster, Tod glimpses an adobe fort, a wooden horse of Troy, a set of baroque palace stairs, a Dutch windmill, and the bones of a dinosaur. In this pivotal chapter, West emphasizes the riot of scenes and fraudulent quality of history when placed in the hands of the image makers. But the chapter also echoes the illusionary lives all the characters lead in a city that is itself a jumble of architectural and life styles and which values masquerade over authenticity. In Hollywood, West emphasizes, the natural is the artificial.
The unusual characters in the novel parallel the melange of styles and values depicted. A dwarf, a painter, a bookkeeper, a family of Eskimos, a cowboy, a vaudeville comedian, and an untalented actress/prostitute are the principals. But their mixture expresses the frustration rather than achievement of talents. The life of these extras, movie fans, would-be stars, screenwriters, and hangers-on is one of boredom, suffering, and impotence repeated thematically and symbolically throughout the novel. Sordid rooms, sterile landscapes, and deadend streets project the empty lives in Los Angeles. Promised romance and stardom, adventure and sex, the figured discover only the artificial world of make-believe. And for West's characters, resentment at this discovery unleashes violence. Not surprisingly, the original title of the novel was The Cheated.
Faye Greener, the heroine, embodies many of the contradictions of the city. Pursued by all, obtained by none, she is a kind of bitch goddess (like success) who will be possessed only by those who can pay for her. But like the image on a screen, she remains untouchable, a fantasy. She becomes a phantom bride not only for Tod Hackett and Homer Simpson, the retired bookkeeper, but also for the seedy cowboy actor Earle Shoop and the brutal but sexual Mexican Miguel. Faye remains elusive, the dream of love that is unattainable for the nation but which it continues to desire. "Her invitation wasn't to pleasure," West writes, "but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love."
The Day of the Locust is relentless in its exposure of the decay and violence that comes from the betrayal of dreams. Yet West exhibits supreme control in the telling of his story, despite the continued division between the idealism and actuality of Hollywood life. Adjusting to the discrepancy between the imagined and the real, Hackett becomes both an artist fashioning a new future and a Jeremiah predicting doom. The novel is a remarkable satire of America and its dreams, providing a disturbing portrait of its fantasies evoked through language, symbol, and character. And at the core of these desires is violence which for West is idiomatic in America. When the masses discover that "they haven't the mental equipment for pleasure," their only recourse is to destroy. Boredom and disappointment make them savage, as Hackett experiences when he is caught in the mob scene at Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre which ends the novel. But the event paradoxically allows him a vision of his completed painting which he has been unable to finish until that moment.
Just before the climactic riot, Hackett remarks that "at the sight of their heroes and heroines, the crowd would turn demonic." The frustrations beneath the surface of wish-fulfillment and dream-seeking sharpen the theme of middle-class dissatisfaction, creating a startling work of fiction. In its presentation of divided characters, split between their desires and actions, in its rendering of anguish-ridden romantics surrounded by indifferent pragmatists, the work conveys the dilemma of the modern American psyche. And in its accuracy in showing "all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracle and then only to violence," the novel has a remarkable contemporary quality. For West, life as illusion masks discontent, although awareness of this condition ironically intensifies the need for fantasy. Difficult to control and uncertain in their goals, the masses feel threatened by their idols and are prepared to destroy them when they fail to gratify their dreams. In the neo-Gothic world of his California, West creates a riveting but profoundly disturbing fiction.
Source: I. B. Nadel, "The Day of the Locust," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 4th ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 2000, pp. 988-89.