Critical Essay The Day of the Locust: Problems of Interpretation


This novel is difficult to interpret because it employs various methods to convey its themes, which are not always clearly interrelated. The novel is organized around two parallel actions: Tod Hackett's and Homer Simpson's self-destructive pursuits of Faye Greener. However, it uses many other symbolic devices to suggest ideas which are difficult to connect to Tod's and Homer's experiences. Unlike Homer, Tod understands much of his experiences, and he is constantly observing and analyzing Hollywood life. His point of view blends with the author's, and the critical stance is usually identifiable with Tod's. Homer, on the other hand, has little understanding of the milieu and of his own motives. His responses are treated satirically because he is deceived by the shoddiness around him, and thus he resorts to clumsy defenses. Both men pursue what is artificial, shallow, and glittering, as well as the explosively sexual Faye Greener, a symbol of Hollywood's falsity and the deceptive American dream. Partly aware of this, Tod still wants her, but he knows that he can't have her and, thus, he knows that his drive is destructive and futile.

Unlike the hero of Miss Lonelyhearts, whose need for sex combined with violence seems rooted in childhood repressions, Tod presents less material for psychological analysis. His desire to possess and destroy Faye and his own self-destructiveness function largely as symbols for ideas. He wants to destroy the falsity and imperviousness which she represents, but psychologically his self-destructiveness appears to be an inner revolt against a repulsive attraction, a revolt which he never quite understands. Homer, who serves as an alter ego for Tod, is psychologically more understandable. His aggressions are expressions of anger against his entrapments, past and present, and although his final outburst is convincing, West's using it as a symbol of the destructive potential of the American masses — once they wake up to how they have been cheated — is clumsily allegorical.

Homer, furthermore, is not representative of the masses, as shown in the novel's repeated descriptions of the desperate cultists and Hollywood voyeurs. These are the people who stare and wait for a catharsis of violence; West sees those people as the creators of a fascist upsurge. They are not individualized in the novel. Tod's view of them is only vaguely analytical as he watches their destructive potential and takes a certain relish in it. Almost the only character in the novel who might be voluntarily present at the movie premiere is Maybelle Loomis, but she isn't there, and Adore Loomis seems to have wandered onto the scene by chance. Tod Hackett's being part of the problem which he sees, and the novel's lack of a moral center add to the thematic diffusion and make it difficult to see the specific roots of the rotten values that are being criticized.

In Miss Lonelyhearts, West presents brutal and blindly selfish characters in a society permeated by self-deception and false optimism because of newspapers, advertising, and mass culture. West portrays a vicious circle in which a society exploits the worst in human nature. His method expresses anger against both corrupt human nature and false cultural codes. The parallels between Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust are the artificiality of Hollywood's denizens and the lies that the film world purveys. Here, however, the chief victims and agents of destruction remain faceless. The novel's main characters are caught in this situation, but some of them escape; others have brought their suffering on themselves, and others are so pathetic that the nature of their victimization remains obscure. West's focus on minor participants in the film world helps create tonal unity, but his limited portrayal of connections between filmmaking and the false Hollywood dream prevents serious social analysis. The reader must integrate for himself the novel's psychological and social themes.

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