Study Guide

The Day of the Locust Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Even if you haven't read the Book of Exodus, you've probably heard about Moses' beef with the Egyptian Pharaoh.

    Here's the TL;DR version, if not: the Egyptians enslave the Israelites, leading Moses to inflict a series of plagues from God on the country until they are freed. As it happens, Plague No. 8 is a storm of locusts, which presumably inspired the title of The Day of the Locust.

    This suggests a few things. First, it implies that the novel will be concerned with freedom and enslavement. This is certainly true, as West seems to see the American Dream as a way for the powers that be to control the masses. And by American Dream, we're really referring to the weird Hollywood version of it: come to California, make it on the big screen, get rich, live a fantasy life. What most people actually find is disappointment, cruelty, and death.

    Second—and perhaps most importantly—it evokes the dark, apocalyptic imagery that's The Day of the Locust's bread and butter. After all, it's not hard to see the connection between a plague of locusts descending on a city and the massive riot that closes the book. In fact, maybe Hollywood is just so corrupt that it needs a plague to clean to it up.

    And here's a little bonus for y'all: Plagues No. 9 and 10 are complete darkness and the death of all firstborn children. Although it might be a stretch, we think this implies that the worst is yet to come after The Day of the Locust ends. "The Burning of Los Angeles," anyone?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Talk about going out with a bang, huh?

    As predicted by Tod's painting "The Burning of Los Angeles," Hollywood erupts into a riot. Some people think it was started when an overeager fan claimed to have a spotted a movie star. Others think it was when "a pervert attacked a child," which is presumably a misinterpretation of Homer's attack on Adore Loomis (27.61), though there's also the little girl Tod finds being molested, so who knows. Either way, it's a nasty scene.

    This riot represents "the people who come to California to die" finally releasing their repressed feelings of disappointment. As seemingly normal middle-class Americans tear Tinseltown to pieces, Tod is helplessly swept along. It's not surprise: all we've seen of him so far, really, is a general feeling of aimlessness in life. Although it's painful, he at least scores some A+ inspiration for "The Burning of Los Angeles"—though it's not clear if he's ever actually going to paint the thing.

    As for the final moment, when Tod gleefully imitates a siren in the back of a cop car, your guess is as good as ours. Is this Tod realizing that he's part of the problem, too? Is it an illustration of his feelings of helplessness? Or is it something else entirely? As with all things in The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West has left plenty of room for interpretation.

  • Setting

    Hollywood

    Hollywood—located in the heart of Los Angeles, California—is a bizarre community. Though it claims to be the place where dreams come true (or is that Disney?), it might actually be the place where dreams come to die.

    Hodgepodge City

    First, let's take a look at the city itself. Our most enduring image is Tod's description of the strange, gaudy neighborhoods that feature clashing architectural styles: "on the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle. [...] Next to it was a highly colored shack [...] out of the Arabian Nights" (1.17). This amusing imagery shows that (a) Hollywood is an incredibly artificial place, and (b) its bigwigs have more money than taste.

    We see a similar effect at the movie studio. Think back to when Tod chases Faye through a series of movie sets, essentially traveling back in time as he passes through each one. He describes this as "a history of civilization [...] in the form of a dream dump," alluding to how these films have little in common with historical reality (18.12). Once again, West emphasizes the artificiality of Hollywood.

    The thing is that everything in Hollywood is on the surface. There's no substance to any of the houses, or the movies, or least of all to any of the relationships people have with each other. The people, just like the houses and the movie sets, are just walking surfaces; they've had to suppress their real selves so much that they may not even have real selves left.

    The Dark Side

    Homer's home is a miniaturized version of the weird, tasteless Hollywood dynamic. This thing doesn't just differ stylistically from its neighbors—it differs by the room. Doesn't exactly sound like dream home material to us, but different strokes, we guess. Actually, it's not Homer's dream home, either: he only "took it because he was tired and because the agent was a bully" (7.3). The city isn't just artificial; it's also predatory, especially to people as simple-minded as Homer.

    Finally, the wild scene outside of Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre unearths the deep well of violence beneath the town. This is supposed to be a movie premiere, but it seems more like a riot—Tod observes the police and notes "how worried they looked and how careful they tried to be" (27.6). All that Hollywood artificiality is barely concealing some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. One wrong move, and it might erupt. And it does.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Although it's a quick read, The Day of the Locust is anything but a breeze. It's more like a locust-infested heavy wind. The novel features an unconventional plot, experimental writing techniques, and often disturbing subject matter; we're gonna say that safely places it at an above-average level of difficulty.

  • "The Burning of Los Angeles"

    "The Burning of Los Angeles" is Tod Hackett's masterpiece—his Ilmatic. What's more, this painting says a lot about the lives of Tod and his merry band of weirdos.

    Or, rather, it would be his masterpiece, and it would say a lot about how awful Hollywood is—if Tod could ever get around to painting it.

    So what is this thing? Let's look at the painting itself. You're getting truth in advertising with this one: it is indeed a depiction of Los Angeles being burned to the ground. This pyromaniacal rampage is perpetrated by "the people who come to California to die [...] all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence" (27.81). In other words, these are the people who bought into the American Dream—Hollywood's creepy version of it, anyway—only to find out that they've been sold a bill of goods.

    Burn, Baby, Burn

    Now that the city's burning, however, the "people who come to California to die" have got a new target—Todd and his friends. In the foreground of the painting, we see Tod, Claude, Homer, Harry, and Faye running away from the mob, each reacting to their plight in a different way:

    • Tod is turning and throwing a rock, which represents his disdain for these people and the society that produced them.
    • Claude is turning and making an obscene gesture. Like Tod, he's showing his contempt, but he does it far less severely because he benefits from this system as a successful filmmaker.
    • Homer is "falling out of the canvas, his face half-asleep," which we think is an amazingly accurate depiction of the way that Homer goes through life (27.82).
    • Faye is running "proudly, throwing her knees high," almost like she's leading a parade rather than escaping a mob (27.82). As usual, any attention is good attention for Faye, and she's completely oblivious to reality.
    • Harry is stumbling behind Faye. This one's pretty self-explanatory.

    As you can see, each character's personality is reflected here, some of them in ways you probably didn't expect. But it's important to note that these perceptions are filtered through the eyes of Tod Hackett, who isn't always the most levelheaded guy in the world. Regardless, "The Burning of Los Angeles" is Tod's way of expressing his fear of "the people who come to California to die," those poor fools who chased the American Dream, only to have it pulled away from them at the last second like a purse on a string.

  • The Riot

    So maybe Tod is a prophet, after all. As predicted by his painting "The Burning of Los Angeles," the riot that closes the novel represents "the people who come to California to die" finally expressing their feelings of disappointment.

    The riot occurs right on the heels of the Faye-Miguel incident. Tod is getting some fresh air when he stumbles across a disturbed-looking Homer, who "walked more than ever like a badly made automaton and his features were set in a rigid, mechanical grin" (27.23). Though Tod tries to get him away from the crowd, Homer ends up releasing his anger at Faye on the young Adore Loomis after the kid tries to play a trick on him. And so begins the riot.

    Interestingly, Tod later hears people saying that the riot was started when a "a pervert attacked a child" (27.61). Sounds like they're talking about Homer, but that's not at all what happened. To add another layer of irony to this, Tod actually does see a pervert assaulting a child that night and tries to save her, though the poor girl is ultimately scooped up by another rioter.

    To us, this whole scene illustrates the disappointment at the core of this particular kind of life. As Tod says, the masses have been conditioned to expect excitement and violence, so when they see Homer attacking Adore, they immediately assume the worst. That gives them the perfect excuse to vent their frustration. Furthermore, Homer is the perfect target for this repressed anger, as his simple-minded innocence makes him an easy scapegoat for the disappointed masses.

  • La Predicament de Marie

    La Predicament de Marie is the bizarre dirty movie that Tod and Claude watch at Mrs. Jenning's whorehouse. It might not be a five-star masterpiece, but it's a fascinating reflection of many of the novel's themes.

    The titular Marie is a servant to a middle-class household, and "it was evident that [...] the whole family desired" her (5.23). Sounds like a certain seventeen-year-old starlet whose name rhymes with "Neigh," right? What's most interesting about this, however, is that Marie doesn't have feelings for the father, son, or mother—she's in love with the young daughter, who's almost a reflection of Marie herself.

    Well, well—that's just like our Faye, who's the subject of every straight man in this book's fantasies, but who really only loves herself, or some image of herself she's trying to project. Everything about Faye and her men is a fantasy: we've got erotic fantasies, narcissistic fantasies, fantasies of success—you name it. The key is that none of these fantasies can possibly be fulfilled.

    Ultimately, we never get to see the film's ending—a technical malfunction cuts it short and sparks a "mock riot" that hints at the one that closes the novel (5.34). This is one of the novel's many anti-climaxes, which we see as West's illustration of the disappointment inherent in these people's superficial lives. But more than that, there can't be an ending to the movie, right? Nothing can be resolved, because it's all just a silly fantasy.

      • Allusions

        Visual Arts Reference

        • Winslow Homer (1.11)
        • Thomas Ryder (1.11)
        • Francisco Goya (1.11, 18.9)
        • Honoré Daumier (1.11, 18.9, referenced throughout)
        • Juan Gris (5.4)
        • Pablo Picasso (8.8)
        • Salvator Rosa (18.10)
        • Francesco Guardi (18.10)
        • Monsu Desiderio (18.10)
        • Alessandro Magnasco (19.122)
        • William Hogarth (19.122)

        Literary and Philosophical References

        • Gertrude Stein (5.4)
        • Shakespeare, Hamlet (15.19)
        • Shakespeare, King Lear (15.19)
        • Shakespeare, Othello (15.19)
        • Thomas Allibone Janvier, In the Sargasso Sea (18.12)
        • Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (18.13)

        Historical References

        • John D. Rockefeller (4.55)
        • Napoleon Bonaparte (18.20)
        • Duke of Wellington (18.20)

        Pop Culture References

        • Mae West (11.160)
        • Ben Welch (15.7)
        • Shirley Temple (19.60)