Nathanael West

The Day of the Locust

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The Day of the Locust Summary

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American author and screenwriter Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939), set in the early days of Hollywood culture, follows aspiring artist Tod Hackett. Freshly graduated from the Yale School of Fine Arts, he secures a job at a Hollywood studio to design and paint the sceneries of movie backdrops. As he learns the ropes, he quickly becomes disillusioned with stereotypical Hollywood people following shallow aspirations. He works on a painting titled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” which depicts an apocalypse consuming the city. Though he makes friends, he sees in the whole of Los Angeles a collective unconscious that resents having fallen victim to the illusory American Dream. He comes to view the idea of moving to California as an American death rattle. He anticipates the explosion of Hollywood’s pent-up rage, watching it materialize at a Hollywood premiere where chaos breaks loose. Written as a series of episodes, the novel provides a broad survey of West’s interpretation of the fame industry.

An aspiring painter suffering from artist’s block, Tod Hackett decides to move from the East Coast to Hollywood in order to find inspiration for a new painting. It is the early 1930s, the middle of the Great Depression, and many others have had similar thoughts, flocking to Los Angeles in pursuit of an idealized self-image. Most of the people he meets work in small roles for the exponentially growing filmmaking apparatus that is Hollywood. One of these studios hires him, promising to train him in costume and set design. He fills the rest of his time sketching interesting things he notices on big production sets and in the parking lots of studios. His first project is to work on a film reimagining the Battle of Waterloo. As he works, he searches for inspiration for a personal painting he anticipates starting soon, “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Hackett meets Faye Greener, an aspiring film star who lives near him. She introduces him to her group of friends, through which Hackett comes to learn more about the different stereotypes that pervade Hollywood. He also meets a number of professionals who cling to Hollywood as if fame and fortune are just around the corner. These include the dwarf Abe Kusich, the prolific screenwriter Claude Estee, and Earle Shoop who seems only able to play the cowboy archetype. Everyone he meets struggles in one way or another to develop their own personality distinct from the models they are trying to emulate professionally. Because of this, Hackett notices that the performances and attitudes that are characteristic of actors are just as prevalent in Los Angeles’s social life.

Not long after meeting Faye, Hackett realizes he has fallen in love with her. This causes him anxiety, for he knows that Faye is partial to men who are extremely handsome or rich. In contrast, Hackett is perceived as good-natured and kind, traits that are not particularly valued in Hollywood. Though Faye likes him, she relegates him to the category of friend. Hackett vividly imagines the consequences of loving her, fantasizing about himself jumping from a skyscraper. He has a compulsion to court her aggressively until she gives in. He also has sexual fantasies about her, which carry the initially unintended, but dark and suspect features of rape. Hackett allows these malicious fantasies to flourish, feeling his desire to rape Faye overcome him in public, restraining himself only at the last minute. The interruption of his intent to carry things out is a motif in the novel. For example, a film showing the house of an acting professional Mrs. Jennings is cut short before its climax, leading a viewer to joke that it was merely a teaser trailer.

In his neighborhood, Hackett meets a simple-minded man Homer Simpson. He learns that Homer, previously the accountant for a hotel in Iowa, moved to California to restore his health. Homer has a motor control dysfunction that causes him to flail and jerk around involuntarily. He exerts a lot of energy trying to suppress his condition. Towards the end of the novel, Homer tries to leave California but is distracted by a mob that breaks out after a film premiere viewing gone wrong. His hands prevent him from leaving even after he regains focus and gains the assistance of Hackett. A young, childish neighbor Adore Loomis bullies Homer, eventually reaching a breaking point. Homer retaliates, adding fuel to the fire of the already unstable Los Angeles society. The film premiere, taking place at Mr. Khan’s Pleasure Dome, turns to violence, ironically playing out just the scene Hackett wanted for his painting “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

When Hackett’s painting turns out to be prophetic, the plot comes full circle, and he realizes that he had already had an unconscious impression of what life in Los Angeles was before even moving there. Yet, rather than become averse to the culture, the fulfilled prophecy is what makes Hackett finally feel integrated. The novel ends with ambivalence, taking no position on whether it is morally good or bad for Hackett to have jumped on the speeding bandwagon of modernization.