Nathanael West's fourth and longest novel, together with Miss Lonelyhearts, establishes his claim to permanent attention as a first-rate literary artist and analyst of twentieth-century American life, an achievement which had its genesis during West's five years of close observation of Hollywood in the first decade of talking pictures. West went to Hollywood in 1933 as a screenwriter, and except for a few brief trips, he spent most of his remaining life there. He lived in a rundown apartment house, like the one described in The Day of the Locust, and he was a close observer of the city's varied denizens and pretentious decor. Hollywood was becoming the nation's "dream factory," as a famous anthropologist called it years later, both through its products and the hopes which it held out to the many who dreamed of successfully becoming glamorous actors and actresses or juvenile stars. The surrounding city of Los Angeles also attracted, because of the California climate and the presence of celebrities, numerous bored retirees living on tight pensions; alongside this phenomenon, many religious and health cults and fads promised easy salvation, all competing with one another for their money and loyalty. It was the decade of the Great Depression, whose poverty intensified the desperation of those who sought riches and fame, or merely excitement.
West conceived of his novel shortly after arriving in Hollywood in 1933, but despite much planning and note-taking, he settled down to serious work on it only in 1937, and completed it in 1938. At first, West called the novel The Cheated, but shortly before its publication, he chose the present title, which alludes to the plague of locusts described in the Bible. The novel treats West's social concerns more extensively than Miss Lonelyhearts does, and it creates a more specific social scene.
The Day of the Locust is often described as the best novel ever written about Hollywood, but it is a novel which puzzles some readers who expect a story about glamorous and talented performers or about successful filmmakers. West, however, deliberately kept such people at the fringes of his action, where they serve only as false ideals to his characters. Rather, he portrays the seamier side of Hollywood, a world peopled by untalented would-be actors, rundown vaudeville performers, prostitutes, and émigrés from the rest of America, all who have come expecting excitement along with the California sunshine. Tod Hackett, the novel's most important character, does not quite belong to any of these types; thus, he can function as both observer of them and as an outsider who is sucked into Hollywood's fantasy world. Tod is flanked by Homer Simpson, an inept, emotionally damaged retiree, who has aimlessly drifted to California for a rest cure. West's use of two protagonist-like figures creates problems of interpretation which will be discussed later.
The reader should not confuse the artist Tod Hackett with the author Nathanael West. Despite some sympathy for Tod's discomforts and much agreement with his analysis of the Hollywood world, West is critical of Tod. Although West projects aspects of himself into Tod and Homer, he does this with more objectivity than in his portrayals of Miss Lonelyhearts and Shrike in Miss Lonelyhearts. In that novel, the empathetic portrayal of the characters' suffering suggests the writer's identification with them. In The Day of the Locust, his approach is more clinical.
Readers coming to The Day of the Locust after reading Miss Lonelyhearts should also be prepared for other differences. The characters in the later novel are also grotesques and composites, but many of them are aware of their artificiality and have accepted it as necessary to their survival. They assume that role playing is the path to success and that material success comprises reality. In addition, these characters are shown in more complex networks of relationships than the characters in Miss Lonelyhearts, and their environment and financial situations are more detailed. Many of them are victims, but for several reasons they receive less sympathy than do the characters in Miss Lonelyhearts. In The Day of the Locust, most of the victims are also purveyors of the dreams that destroy. They are at the mercy of a social fabric which they sustain by more than just their acquiescence in it. In this novel, violence and sterility replace the violence and despair of Miss Lonelyhearts, and the large-scale violence is assigned to almost faceless groups of people. A similarity to Miss Lonelyhearts is both novels' adaptations of cartoon technique. West himself thought of Miss Lonelyhearts as resembling a comic strip. Its images, however, are often static, while The Day of the Locust is like an animated cartoon, where the characters assault one another with impersonal violence, after which they immediately pick themselves up. Unlike most animated cartoons, however, these sequences are filled with explicit sexuality. A somewhat less carefully formed novel than Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust is nonetheless intensely fascinating and demonstrates West's incisive psychological and social probing.