Day of the Locust - Cambridge Essay Extract
This extract explores how Nathanael West's deconstruction of the female image in The Day of the Locust may remove the possibility of love
The powers of the female image in Locust are represented through Faye Greener’s impact upon five men who sexually pursue her. Faye’s artificial life is acting. Her dreams mean life or death: she will attain stardom or ‘commit suicide’. Faye cinematically reproduces her image from a vocabulary of Hollywood screenplays she reconstructs as cliché-fantasies of Cinderella-glamour and Tarzan-love she cannot satisfy and refuses to let her suitors fulfil:
She could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her.
Faye projects her movie-image as a sexual commodity traded with men in the Hollywood business-model. When her father dies she instantly turns to prostitution, selling the asset she was ‘saving’. Faye-as-agent reconstructs and commoditises her own image to attain the same dream she is sold.
Conversely, Faye-as-object is reconstructed by her five suitors as they abuse her image for sexual pleasure, both imaginatively and physically. Tod Hackett the ‘doltish’ painter dreams of being an artist even while ‘selling out’ to work as a Hollywood designer constructing costume surfaces for the ‘dream dump’ selling mass illusions. West’s studio-setting diagnoses the cultural impact of an entirely artificial dreaming industry upon individual imaginations and social forms. West radically disconnects the external surfaces of Waterloo and Eros, as illusionary forms, from their meanings. Represented truths become lies. Faye externally represents, and is interpreted as, an acted amalgamation of pictures; Tod is represented metaphorically as a complex ‘set of Chinese boxes’ opening inside each other because West questions the inner structures and external relations of the emptied self. Tod mimics Goya to paint ‘The Burning of Los Angeles’ as his artistic diagnosis of the locust-plague that Homer Simpson's fixation upon Faye also represents. Homer embodies repressed lust masquerading as chastity as ‘his only defence’ against self-destruction. Homer forms the ‘exact model’ of the image-eaters who ‘come to California to die’ but are internally consumed by the frustration of ungratified desires that Adorno argues forms the premise of the culture industry, ‘constantly cheating its consumers out of what it endlessly promises’. Homer's self-subjugation to Faye, as commercial partner, turns him into her masochistic slave and hollowed-out victim. Between these two primary male protagonists, with Tod as producer of illusion and Homer as consumer, the functions of Faye’s female image are created and abused.
West’s psycho-cultural diagnosis of Hollywood transforms love into lust because both female and male objects construct illusions of appetites that are impossible to satisfy. Everyone starves and shrivels; society becomes a vacuum. The novel’s symbolic plot therefore sets Tod and Homer, both manipulated by Faye as ‘good-hearted’ and ‘kind’, against the wooden cowboy Earle Shoop who repeatedly fights Miguel for sex with Faye. West causally relates frustrated desire to violence as Tod’s own movie-dream becomes ‘nothing less than violent rape’. Tod’s rape fantasy is replayed three times across the novel before the violent undercurrents erupt in the final crowd-riot scene to fulfil Tod’s painted prophecy. Homer’s lust is a vast and incendiary hunger, like ‘a spark in a barnful of hay’, so when Faye leaves his despair merges her loss with his sexual frustration as his imaginary dream disintegrates. Tod's private pornographic rape-fantasies represent aesthetic but brutal reconstructions of Faye’s image. West analyses the self-defeat of pornographic un-reality in the interrupted representation of the French maid movie that appears more erotic than the actual women sold by Mrs Jennings. The endless frustration of imaginary gratifications generates the locust-emptiness causing self-implosion.