Study Guide

The Day of the Locust Themes

  • Appearances

    If you really think about it, movie auditions are a lot like dog shows—a stodgy old man closely examines his subject, confirming that his or her appearance is perfect, and then awards some lucky duck the grand prize. Just take a look at The Day of the Locust if you don't believe us. Centered around one man's obsessive crush on seventeen-year-old starlet Faye Greener, the novel exposes the dark side of Tinseltown's quest for youth and beauty. And guess what, Shmoopers—that dark side sure ain't pretty.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why are men so entranced by Faye's appearance?
    2. What does Harry's appearance say about him?
    3. Does Faye realize how attractive she is? Explain.
    4. Will Faye be able to use her beauty to attain success? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Although Faye is aware of the effect of her beauty, she remains unaware of the extent of her power over men.

    Faye is completely aware of her beauty and uses it as a tool to get what she wants.

  • Disappointment

    Picture this: you're recently retired. Having fought tooth and nail to save enough money, you and your bae can finally fulfill your lifelong dream of moving to California. At first, it's amazing. Before long, though, you realize the good life in sunny CA ain't all it's cracked up to be. As it happens, this is the exact predicament Nathanael West dissects in The Day of the Locust, arguing that the American Dream has died and left us with nothing but disappointment. So how are we supposed to react to this loss? Sadness? Anger? Depression? Well, if you hear West tell it, there's only one way that this ordeal can end: violence.

    Questions About Disappointment

    1. Is Tod disappointed by life? Explain.
    2. Why does Tod not consider Homer to be a person who came to California to die?
    3. How are feelings of disappointment related to broader societal issues in this novel?
    4. How do the characters release their feelings of disappointment?

    Chew on This

    Although Tod spends most of his time observing other people's disappointment, he's just as disappointed by life as they are.

    Throughout the novel, feelings of disappointment always lead to violence.

  • Identity

    Who knew that actors had so many identity crises? In The Day of the Locust, we're introduced to a ramshackle group of weirdos with one thing in common: they were all drawn to Hollywood like broken, crazy moths to a flame. The only problem, of course, is that none of them have any clue who they really are. Harry Greener can't let go of his past success. His daughter Faye creates a new personality every week. And poor Tod Hackett is unaware of the darkness that lurks deep inside himself. Although what they find might not be pretty, each of these characters goes on a quest to find his or her true self over the course of the novel.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Tod's identity change over the course of the novel?
    2. Is Faye aware of how artificial she is?
    3. Are any characters confident about their identity?
    4. In what ways is Harry experiencing an identity crisis?

    Chew on This

    The Day of the Locust shows that we are all "actors" in our daily lives, conforming our identities to others' expectations.

    Harry—like Faye—has spent so much time pretending to be other people that he has lost track of his real identity.

  • Art and Culture

    Tod Hackett is stuck in a classic artist's dilemma. Should he sell his soul and make a living selling the equivalent of those "Dogs Playing Poker" paintings? Or should he immerse himself in the darker side of humanity to gain some genuine artistic inspiration? We think you can guess which option he chooses. As Tod immerses himself in the funhouse world of Hollyweird, gathering his own band of assorted misfits, he starts working on his most ambitious painting yet, dubbed "The Burning of Los Angeles." It's as brutal as it sounds. But here's the scary part—what if it isn't a painting? What if it's a prophecy?

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Is Tod a good artist? Explain.
    2. What is the meaning of "The Burning of Los Angeles"?
    3. Why is Tod so inspired by the dark side of Hollywood?
    4. Does Tod enjoy his career as a costume designer?

    Chew on This

    Tod is a good artist because "The Burning of Los Angeles" tackles some very real, very meaningful issues.

    Tod is a bad artist because we don't actually see him create anything meaningful over the course of the novel.

  • Visions of Hollywood

    Newsflash—Hollywood's a weird place filled with weird people. Some people come to fulfill their lifelong ambition of becoming movie stars. Some come to make a quick buck off some gullible suckers. And some people, as Tod Hackett so eloquently states, simply come to California to die. That's Hollywood for you, though: it's like every nutjob on the planet got thrown into a leaky blender with a janky lid. As we dive deeper into the twisted world of Tinseltown, however, we realize that the issues that haunt this town are the same ones affecting the country at large—just in a weirder, more spectacular way.

    Questions About Visions of Hollywood

    1. Why do so many people retire to California?
    2. Does Tod like Hollywood? Explain.
    3. Compare and contrast upper-class Hollywood and lower-class Hollywood.
    4. How does Tod's view of Los Angeles reflect his view of the United States at large?

    Chew on This

    People retire to California because they are told to do so by the media, and they are inevitably disappointed when they arrive.

    Hollywood is a tale of two cities: there is a massive gap between the rich bigwigs and the lower classes who struggle for a piece of the pie.

  • Lust

    Pretty much every male character in The Day of Locust has a massive crush on seventeen-year-old wannabe starlet Faye Greener. Some of them, like Homer Simpson, express this desire in an innocent, innocuous way. Others, like Earle Shoop, become jealous and violent when they don't get what they want. And others still, like Tod Hackett, reach down into even darker levels of the human psyche when their lustful dreams are foiled. The result is a chaotic mess, complete with betrayals, fisticuffs, and at least one literal cockfight.

    Questions About Lust

    1. What is the relationship between lust and violence?
    2. How does Homer's lust differ from that of the other characters?
    3. Should Homer have hooked up with Romola Martin?
    4. Why does Faye choose Miguel?

    Chew on This

    Homer is haunted by the Romola Martin experience because it was his only real opportunity to give in to lust.

    Although sexual attraction isn't a bad thing in The Day of the Locust, lust typically is because it carries the threat of violence.

  • Ambition

    You've got to be ambitious if you want to make it in Hollywood. That's what Faye Greener believes, at least. Born into a family of actors, this seventeen-year-old mega-babe has everything it takes to be successful except for this little thing called talent. She's not going to let that stop her, though: whether she's using her beauty to win the hearts of successful filmmakers like Claude Estee, or rattling off half-baked career advice cribbed from entertainment magazines, Faye is dedicated to becoming a success—even if she loses her dignity in the process.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Is Tod ambitious? Explain.
    2. Is Faye doing the right things to become a movie star?
    3. Why can't Harry let go of his career ambitions?
    4. Is Claude happy now that he's successful?

    Chew on This

    In The Day of the Locust, ambition never wins. It's always met with disappointment.

    Although Tod critiques others for being ambitious, he's clearly an ambitious guy when it comes to his art.

  • Passivity

    Homer Simpson—sorry, folks, that Homer Simpson—is more passive than a sea sponge. No matter what you do—yell at him, make fun of him, ignore him, or even slap him—the guy simply won't stand up for himself. That's a bad situation, but it's made way worse by the entrance into his life of the sultry Faye Greener. Now that he has a seventeen-year-old starlet living in his spare bedroom, Homer has basically become a servant in his own home, his life dedicated to waiting on her hand and foot. C'mon, Homer—if you never stand up for yourself, you'll never meet your Marge.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Why does Homer's passivity upset Tod?
    2. Is Faye intentionally taking advantage of Homer? Explain.
    3. What is the symbolism of Homer's final appearance?
    4. How might the novel have been different if Homer had kicked Earle and Miguel out?

    Chew on This

    Homer's passivity is so upsetting to Tod because he wants to live vicariously through Homer's relationship with Faye.

    Homer's final appearance suggests that the most innocent among us—those who have never hurt anyone—are those ultimately punished by society.