- Modern Taste and the Body Beautiful in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust
Changing trends in literary criticism over the past several decades have prompted two sharp reversals in the reception of Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust. The recent academic validation of a postmodern aesthetic and the corresponding rejection of the tenets of high modernism have ruptured critical identification with the novel’s main protagonist, the aspiring modernist painter Tod Hackett. While critics remain impressed with Tod’s bleak vision of American mass culture, they now take issue with his unqualified endorsements of high culture. In a parallel shift, a growing feminist influence has led critics to reassign responsibility for the novel’s sexual violence: blame now falls not on the aspiring film star, Faye Greener, but on Tod and the other male characters who want to rape her. Both interpretive shifts have served to recast Tod as an unreliable narrator whose viewpoint no longer offers an accurate guide to the novel’s own aesthetic and political commitments. But the move to discredit Tod Hackett’s authority has not prompted critics to reconsider the credibility of his nemesis, Faye. Uniformly dismissing her claims to be a promising talent in her own right, critics continue to read Faye in one of two ways: either she is a dupe whose faith in her [End Page 306] own star potential is a measure of Hollywood’s deceptive manipulation of mass desire, or she is a fraud whose empty promises aptly symbolize the destructive dream machine towards which she gravitates. 1
In this essay, I depart from the example of previous critics by proposing to take Faye Greener’s claims as an artist seriously. Read in this way, The Day of the Locust takes on a new face. No longer the story of a single artist’s stand against the undifferentiated field of mass culture, it becomes instead the story of a fierce competition between several artists and several kinds of art to shape the dominant terms of modern taste and culture. Two artists—one lower-class, uneducated, and female, the other middle-class, highly educated, and male—emerge as the leading players in this competition. Over the course of the novel, West assigns their rivalry a double outcome; his narrative simultaneously records Faye’s surprising victory over Tod, and subjects the terms of that victory to withering critique.
The aesthetic struggles staged in The Day of the Locust center on Faye’s body. Faye practices a new art of the body, which induces a crisis in the aesthetic categories Tod uses to make art and to interpret the world. West links Tod’s crisis to a wider restructuring in the relationship between elite and popular culture—a restructuring that makes the modernist artist’s authority over his (or her) mass cultural counterparts in matters of taste unnervingly open to debate. West attributes the restructured hierarchies of modern taste to the contemporary “revolution in manners and morals” 2 and attendant changes in the cultural functions of women, the home, and the arts. In his novel, struggles waged over the meaning and value of Faye’s body subdivide into two mutually informing struggles over the symbolic reproduction of the body as art and the social and cultural reproduction of the body in the domestic sphere. At the heart of both struggles lies the historical displacement of the Victorian, bourgeois ideal of true womanhood by the modern, mass cultural ideal of the body beautiful.
The body has historically served as a crucial site of cultural struggle because, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, it is “the most indisputable materialization of class taste” (Distinction 190). Bourdieu proposes that struggles to define “the legitimate body” and legitimate taste lie at the heart of the struggle to preserve—or dismantle—a social structure based on class inequality (see Shilling 144–45). Most of the time, successful challenges to dominant definitions of the legitimate body simply [End Page 307] reformulate the terms by which the dominant class embodies its privilege. But such challenges also carry the threat of abolishing the embodiment of class privilege altogether by deranging the system of...