The Day of the Locust

by: Nathanael West

Chapters 20–21

Unhappy with Earle's preparation technique, Abe insists to be allowed to handle the bird. He thinks he finds more defects with the bird, but agrees to fight anyway, without betting. Miguel and Abe hold their birds face-to-face to anger them, and then place them in the pit. Over a series of rounds, Juju incapacitates Hermano by rising up in the air and striking his opponent from above. Between each round, Abe mournfully tries to nurse Hermano back to liveliness, but Juju finally succeeds in killing Hermano by driving one of his talons through Hermano's eye and into his brain. Juju continues attacking the dead bird until Abe screams for Miguel to remove him. Earle solemnly picks up the dead bird. Tod continues to drink whiskey with the rest of the men.

Analysis

Chapter 20 reemphasizes the sexual violence of the novel and acts as a buildup to the final scenes. Throughout much of the chapter we see Faye bullying Homer, who, much like Harry, seeks to use his victim status as a passive-aggressive weapon. In response to Faye's mean treatment, Homer makes himself more servile and acquiescent, somewhat successfully inducing feelings of guilt and responsibility in Faye. In many ways, Faye also acts like Harry, using laughter as a weapon to humiliate Homer.

Homer's obsessive descriptions of Earle's nasty black hen create a disturbing image of one ratty female chicken tortured by the other male chickens. Homer, however, reserves his hatred for the hen, describing her as the instigator—she "clucks so nasty"—rather than the bullying male chickens. Homer reports that the hen does not bother Faye, who thinks "it's only natural." This remark foreshadows the situation that unfolds at Homer's the following night, when a handful of men lust after Faye herself.

The background performance of female impersonators relates the novel's theme of masquerading to antagonism and perversion. The performance of a man dressed as a woman singing a motherly lullaby does not seem perverse or obscene to Tod until the actor returns to impersonating a male when the song is over. Faye's reaction to the performance—"I hate fairies"— demonstrates the feelings of repulsion that role-playing can inspire, if not display.

Chapter 21 raises the level of violence in the novel, making the undercurrents of antagonism more explicit, first with the fight between Abe and Earle and then the brutal cockfight. In each case, the fight emphasizes the higher stature of one of the fighters: the narrator emphasizes Earle's height over Abe, who is referred to not as "Abe" but as "the dwarf;" similarly, the Juju's victory over Hermano, the red bird, is inevitable from the start. Abe's sympathetic nurturing of the hapless Hermano highlights the link between the two fights. Both fights symbolically represent the abuse of a victim who is, even at the start, already closer to the bottom than the aggressor. This dynamic recalls Tod's initial vision of breaking Faye: he envisioned not helping her out of the swamp of her false dreams, but rather shoving her back down into the muck.