Study Guide

The Day of the Locust

By Nathanael West

The Day of the Locust Introduction

The illustrious Mr. West is one controversial figure. Some people admire him for being a proud artist who stands up for what he believes; others see him as a self-righteous show-off who wouldn't know good taste if it smacked him in the face.

Oh, wait—you thought we were talking about Kanye? Don't be silly. In fact, we're actually talking about the original King West of Controversy—our boy Nathanael.

Born Nathan Weinstein, Nathanael West is an oft-forgotten luminary of 1930s American literature. West rolled with heavyweights like William Carlos Williams and wrote bizarre novels that avoided traditional plots like the plague—in other words, this guy believed in Art with a capital A. Sadly, his life was cut short when he and his wife Eileen McKenney were killed in a car accident in 1940, just a year after the publication of The Day of the Locust.

Inspired by West's real-life experience selling scripts in the movie biz, The Day of the Locust is a dark, dank exploration of 1930s Hollywood. Don't expect glitz and glamor with this one, though: we spend so much time in the city's seedy underbelly that we could plant a national forest. The novel follows Tod Hackett, a painter and costume-designer with an obsessive crush on a seventeen-year-old D-Lister. How charming.

It would be swell if we could squeeze the entirety of The Day of the Locust into a tiny nutshell, but we're not sure if that's possible—nothing smaller than a brontosaurus egg could do. Instead, think of The Day of the Locust as an open-world video game: the pleasure comes from witnessing an insane series of events, rather than from following a simple story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Plus, this thing features more sex and mayhem than every Grand Theft Auto combined. Whether that's a good or bad thing, of course, depends entirely on you.

What is The Day of the Locust About and Why Should I Care?

One of the most important parts of growing up is learning how to deal with disappointment.

It doesn't matter if you've planned out your entire life from high school to retirement. It doesn't matter if you score your dream job straight out of college. It doesn't even matter if you meet the boy or girl of your dreams. Things might go smoothly for a while, but there's no way to entirely avoid potholes on the road called life.

The Day of the Locust is pretty much a crash-course in how not to deal with disappointment. You shouldn't deal with it like Homer, who bottles up emotions like he's working at a soda factory. You shouldn't do it like Earle, who gets angrier than an NFL linebacker at a salad bar. And you definitely shouldn't do it like Tod, who just turns into a straight-up maniac.

In other words, this isn't exactly the most charismatic cast of characters around (frankly, we'd rather spend a Sunday afternoon with Tony Soprano then Harry Greener). But that's the point. By creating a pretty unlikeable cast of characters, Nathanael West is warning us of some of the most common pitfalls of adulthood.

The Day of the Locust Resources

Websites

Early California History: An Overview
This website provides a fascinating, in-depth account of California's unique history.

The Nathanael West Project
This website will keep you updated on all of the latest news surrounding West's literary works.

Movie or TV Productions

The Day of the Locust (1975)
We're just going to say this—if Danny DeVito doesn't play Abe, then someone messed up big time.

The Day of the Locust Trailer
Come on, folks, this is vintage 70s cinema.

Articles and Interviews

In Hollywood with Nathanael West
This fascinating piece—written in honor of West's work entering the public domain—details the public response to the controversial The Day of the Locust.

Nathanael West's Secret
This article dissects why West's writing was so unique and controversial at its time of release.

Video

Nathanael West's Writing
Time travel back to 1997 and check out this insightful discussion on West's life and career, hosted by the Library of America.

The Simpsons References The Day of the Locust
This blink-and-you'll-miss-it joke winks at how the legendary Homer Simpson was named after the character from The Day of the Locust.

Audio

3 Biting Books for Those Bitter on Valentine's Day
This amusing piece from NPR calls West's first novella Miss Lonelyhearts the perfect novel to read on a bummed-out Valentine's Day.

BBC Sunday Features The Day of the Locust
Courtesy of the BBC, this insightful radio piece provides some stellar context for Nathanael West's career and the writing of The Day of the Locust.

Images

Los Angeles in 1928
This photo—taken about ten years before the publication of the novel—gives you an idea of what L.A. looked like at the time.

Vaudevillian Theaters
Harry probably performed his clown routine at classic vaudevillian theaters like the ones pictured here.