Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst. More powerfully perhaps than any other artist, Nathanael West argued through his fiction that imagination and fantasy had been commoditized and debased by the mass media what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later call the "culture industry" and that people have consequently been stripped of their sympathies for one another.
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And just think: West never even saw television. Imagine how he would have felt about that. Soon, though, "the joke begins to escape him"; the letters he receives "are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice … inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. The Day of the Locust , meanwhile, takes on the mother of all dream-devouring industries: Hollywood. Tod Hackett, an artist wasting his talents as a scene painter, is the focal consciousness through which the excesses and revulsions of La-La Land are observed.
What does any of this have to do with the Jews? Quite a lot, actually.
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. 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.
Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust
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.
Throwback Thursday: Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
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.
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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.
The Day of the Locust
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.
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Related Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust: Notes
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