Search Menu

The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West


Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Yet, despite his appearance, he was really a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes.

This quotation, from Chapter 1, describes Tod's consciousness and offers insight into the way both his character and the narrative of The Day of the Locust work. The metaphor of nested boxes aptly describes the narration of the novel, by which a third person narrator enters and describes the workings of Tod's consciousness—and Homer's, though to a lesser extent. The narrative becomes complicated at times, as in Chapter 24, when the third-person narrator describes Tod's thoughts, which are in turn attempting to organize Homer's jumbled explanation of the events that took place after the party at his house. The metaphor of the boxes also evokes a sense of repression, as in the closing of boxes within oneself. Several characters in The Day of the Locust experience such repression: Tod does so explicitly in his decision to lock away his drawings of Faye in an attempt to forget her; Homer does so both explicitly, in his attempts to forget Miss Martin, and unwittingly, in the way his repressed sexual desire is expressed through the fidgeting of his hands. The image of the Chinese boxes invites us to ask what else Tod, Homer, and the narration, are repressing.

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

This passage from the end of Chapter 1, which appears as Tod stands surveying the architecture of Pinyon Canyon, introduces the overriding aesthetic concerns of the novel. Several scenes, including one at the end of Chapter 19 that shows Tod at various Hollywood churches, depict laughter smothered or discarded in favor of a more decorous response. The Day of the Locust is a novel that speaks about laughter frequently, and even features characters laughing. Nonetheless, this laughter is not a marker of free-flowing humor, but rather a measure adopted only as an uncomfortable or aggressive reaction. Humor in the novel relates closely to the grotesque, or, as it is called in this quotation, the "monstrous." Both the grotesque and the monstrous refer to an image or creature that combines radically different parts, such as animal with human. This image of monstrosity originating in incongruence is used to describe much of what is startling or upsetting about the Hollywood landscape. The houses toward which Tod feels sadness combine absurd, incongruent styles of architecture from different times and places, and are built with shoddy materials that are pathetically artificial and flimsy compared to the originals.

This was the final dumping ground. He thought of Janvier's "Sargasso Sea." Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination!

This metaphor, from Chapter 18, refers to T. A. Janvier's In the Sargasso Sea (1898), a novel that concerns the mythical location in the ocean where all the ocean's debris supposedly collects. Earlier, observing Faye's imaginative process in Chapter 13, Tod makes an analogy to being backstage at a production—he is watching her imagination work from "backstage" and this makes him want to see that process succeed. The back lot of the studio represents, in a sense, the backstage of the backstage. The scenery of the back lot is no longer set in constant motion by stagehands. Here, the sets remain immobile in the jumbled, incongruous pile where they have been dumped. This dumping ground emphasizes the materiality of these stage sets: they are no longer the trappings that made fantasies into temporary realities in front of the camera, but are now once again reduced to the emptiness of their physical materials, "plaster, canvas, lath and paint." The ephemeral and disposable quality of these materials underscores the fragility of dreams and the hopelessness of the attempts at permanent escapism toward which Hollywood strives.

He began to wonder if he himself didn't suffer from the ingrained, morbid apathy he liked to draw in others. Maybe he could only be galvanized into sensibility and that was why he was chasing Faye.

This passage marks the moment, in Chapter 19, when Tod vows to give up his obsession with Faye. The quotation points to one of the difficulties the novel presents: that of causality. Tod recognizes that chasing Faye has inspired in him a desperation similar to that experienced by the people who "have come to California to die." He makes it unclear, however, whether Faye herself—as a sexual woman and a performer—creates this kind of emotion in her followers, or whether Tod has only made himself vulnerable to her because of his attempts to share the feelings of the subjects of his painting. Indeed, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the apathy and spontaneous violence that characterizes so many characters in The Day of the Locust. The novel, therefore, is not so much a plot line constructed of causes and effects as a more general tableau of these desperate qualities.

She repaid him for his compliment by smiling in a peculiar, secret way and running her tongue over her lips. It was one of her most characteristic gestures and very effective. It seemed to promise all sorts of undefined intimacies, yet it was really as simple and automatic as the word thanks. She used it to reward anyone for anything, no matter how unimportant.

This passage appears in Chapter 22 while Faye is preening for Claude and the other men after the cockfight. This particular moment encapsulates the many social moments in The Day of the Locust that hinge upon misunderstanding and misreading. Here, the problem is Faye's inability to consider her audience's reception of her acting, combined with Claude's inability to remain objective about her. In Chapter 15, Tod marvels at Harry's inability to express subtle feelings. Such a lack of nuance reappears at this moment in Faye, as she has no refined sense of when or with whom her seemingly intimate smile would be appropriate. The mechanical nature of Faye's artificiality, therefore, opens up a possibility for misunderstanding, which in turn leads to embittered feelings that can escalate to violence.

More Help

Previous Next