Places: The Day of the Locust

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1939

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Hollywood

*Hollywood. Day of the Locust, TheDistrict of Los Angeles, California, and the symbolic center of the American film industry. The novel opens with Todd Hackett, a graduate of Yale University and cinematic set designer, traversing the National Films studio lot on his way home. He walks among a wild collection of historical and national artifacts–Russian hussars, Scottish warriors, French grenadiers, and a Mississippi steamboat. For the time being Hackett takes the place for granted; its contradictions are simply the norm. However, later in the novel, when he chases Faye Greener across the lot, he is struck by its improbable diversity. A recreation of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo commences beside a Western saloon, which in turn gives way to a Parisian street, a Roman courtyard, and a Greek temple. These sound stages eventually dissolve into a ten-acre field of cockleburs where discarded sets have been left to rot, and their disorder and sheer anomalousness suggest a sea of imaginative dreams. The lot acts as a perfect metaphor for the surreal assemblage of people, lifestyles, and aspirations, all of which are either created or encouraged by Hollywood, the dream factory.

San Bernardino Arms

San Bernardino Arms. Hollywood rooming house in which Hackett resides. Given the garishness Hackett finds all about him, this is a rather unprepossessing place: three stories of unpainted stucco and unadorned windows. The rooms are small and dirty, but Hackett tolerates the place because of his fascination with Faye and her restless aspirations. Like his rooms, Hackett does not draw much attention to himself; he would rather observe and record the world about him than actively participate in it.

Jennings house

Jennings house. Residence of Hollywood’s most distinguished madam, Mrs. Jennings. Her house is an elaborate affair with a careful, tricolor decorating scheme, expensive furniture, and a private screening room. Jennings has pretensions to cultured aristocracy, entertaining only the wealthy and influential and reserving her girls for sophisticated clients. These people stand in marked contrast to those Hackett finds on the street, figures in ill-fitting clothing who hunger for titillation and cheap excitement. Their aspirations and achievements are mundane and unoriginal; their houses are cheaper imitations of Jennings’s opulence.

Simpson cottage

Simpson cottage. Humble house in Pinyon Canyon, outside Los Angeles. Homer Simpson’s cottage acts as a fitting example of how Hollywood’s other half live. The place is inexpensive and oddly constructed. Its parts are faux versions of something else–shingles that appear to be a thatched roof and a gumwood door painted to look like oak. Simpson’s house becomes a model for all the other garish architecture that Hackett finds: Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, and Tudor cottages. These monstrosities further underscore the theme of Hollywood’s illusoriness and the related contrast between essence and appearance which lies at the heart of social scrutiny.

Hollywood churches

Hollywood churches. Houses of worship of a variety of cults. Hackett quickly concludes that California is where the nation comes to die from boredom with their miserable lives and demeaning jobs. In their desire for excitement and a heightened sense of significance, they are prey to the machinations of imposter religions, which combine dietary practices, superstition, and folklore. One of these, the Tabernacle of the Third Coming, is a direct parody of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple.

Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre

Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre. Elaborate movie theater that hosts a film premiere. With huge neon signs, elaborate architecture, and spiraling search lights, the theater draws a huge crowd. Here is the destination of the bored, here is the sanctuary of illusion, and here Hackett’s prophetic painting finally is realized. Nathaniel West clearly draws on the practice in 1930’s Los Angeles of creating elaborate theaters and giving them exaggerated names, such as the Cathedral of the Motion Picture and the Sanctuary of the Cinema. By locating the riot in front of a theater, West suggests that America’s diet of illusory satisfaction will produce a volatile dissatisfaction that will erupt in gruesome violence. Theaters, as the venues of those illusions, are symbols of the culture’s emptiness and instability.

BibliographyComerchero, Victor. Nathanael West: The Ironic Prophet. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1964. Argues that the novel should be read as a satire of a declining Western culture. Perceptive analysis of West’s apocalyptic vision.Fiedler, Leslie A. “Master of Dreams.” Partisan Review 34, no. 3 (Summer, 1967): 339-356.Gehman, Richard B. Introduction to The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. New York: New Directions, 1950.Madden, David, ed. Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the Cheated. De Land, Fla.: Everett/ Edwards, 1973. Contains five assessments of the novel, and several general essays on West’s work.Malin, Irving. Nathanael West’s Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Offers a close textual analysis of West’s images, metaphors, and symbols as clues to the novel’s themes and characterization.Martin, Jay. Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. The first full-length biography and critical study. Analyzes the novels in the context of West’s Hollywood years; also includes twenty pages of pictures and a detailed listing of his film writing.Martin, Jay, ed. Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Includes short essays by West’s contemporaries William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden.Reid, Randall. The Fiction of Nathanael West. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Categories: Places