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The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Evaluate Claude's importance to the novel.

Claude Estee does not appear often through the novel, yet he stands as an important character against whom to compare the more central character of Tod. Tod and Claude have many similarities. To start, they are the only characters who work successfully in the film industry and who possess a capacity for intellectual criticism of people and situations around them. Claude and Tod's conversation at the end of Chapter 4 offers a unique lens through which to evaluate Tod and his usually dominant position as the center of the novel. In this dialogue, Tod plays the straight man to Claude's comic humor. Tod's straight-faced interaction with Claude highlights his constant status as distanced, ironic commentator. Claude, on the other hand, displays a flexibility that allows him to share Tod's position of critical commentary, yet also be easily involved with and sympathetic to the very Hollywood atmosphere that Tod ridicules. Claude's flexibility and sense of humor offer an alternative model for Tod and create one of the only conversations in the novel that involves any real positive connection and communication. While the positions of both Claude and Tod change as the novel continues, Claude here offers a way for Tod to mediate the distance he attempts to build between himself and Hollywood. This mediation is perhaps what allows Tod to avoid a severe backlash when his desire for Faye causes that critical distance to break down.

Make an argument for Tod or Homer as the protagonist of the novel.

Although Tod, with his status as central narrator and detached commentator, stands more firmly at the center of the novel's consciousness, Homer could be said to be more of a participant in the novel's action and therefore a more likely protagonist. The novel offers us background history on Homer and a view of what his life is like when he alone&madsh;two things the novel fails to offer about Tod. Additionally, it is Homer's action that cause the plot line to advance. His passive-aggressive antagonism of Faye provokes her growing recklessness, which inadvertently causes the menacing scene that ensues after the cockfight. It is Homer who experiences a trajectory of change and downfall: his final breakdown represents the fulfillment of Tod's prophecy of a mob scene bent on vengeance. Finally, it is Homer who is most closely related to the marginal starers—those who have come to California to die—that Tod takes as his painting's subject and, to some extent, the novel's subject.

Discuss the significance of birds and birdsong to the novel.

Birds, as they are most commonly used in literature, are typically symbols of freedom: freedom of flight, of migration, of song. West ironically undermines this common symbolism of freedom in his depictions of birds in The Day of the Locust. In this novel, birds signal entrapment—their own entrapment, the entrapment of the characters, and the attempts of characters to entrap each other. The birds that appear are mostly flightless or ground birds, such as quails or chickens, which lack the freedom to soar. These birds are trapped and grossly killed or exploited, as we see when Earle rips off of the quail heads and Miguel keeps chickens for fighting to the death. At other points in the novel, birdsong highlights the entrapment of characters, as in Chapter 12, when Homer, shut up in his house and without the means to create his own songs, hears the singing of birds outside. Birdsong also appears during Tod's fantasies of trapping and raping Faye, first when he chases her through the woods in Chapter 14 and again as part of his mental fantasy about meeting her on a road in Chapter 26. West thus uses birds ironically in The Day of the Locust, as a sort of anti-symbol, to highlight the lack of freedom and violent desire to entrap the characters feel.

Suggested Essay Topics

Evaluate the importance of dancing in the novel.

What role does history play in The Day of the Locust? Think specifically about the historical films Tod's studio produces, and about the characters' personal histories, or lack thereof.

In what way can The Day of the Locust be seen as a Depression novel?

In what ways is the form of the novel "filmic"?

Is the end of the novel a positive one? How has Tod's position changed throughout the novel?

What role does nature play in the novel?

When and how does violence occur in The Day of the Locust? What happens after this violence occurs? Are there different kinds of violence?

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