Homer Simpson Meets Frankenstein: Cinematic Influence in Nathanael West's the Day of the Locust

Article excerpt

In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West adopts a cinematic motif to enhance his criticism of the culture that developed around the Hollywood film industry. West invokes images suggestive of James Whale's 1931 film Frankenstein to comment on the indistinct boundaries between cinematic illusion and Hollywood life. West's most obvious use of Whale's Frankenstein motif is in his development of Homer Simpson, but he also draws on incongruous elements of the film that parallel the Hollywood he observes. In commenting on the Hollywood community and employing a motif in his novel, West offers more than simple criticism of the superficial aspects of Hollywood culture: he reveals the social disorder that occurs when a body of people adopt the artifice of film and integrate it into their lives as a representation of reality.

West intermittently lived and worked in Hollywood during a period when the horror film achieved wide popularity. He lived there while employed by Columbia Pictures from July to December of 1933, and returned in 1935, eventually working at Republic Studios from 1936 to 1938, and briefly at R.K.O. in 1938.1 West began his work on The Day of the Locust in 1935 and 1936. It was accepted for publication by Random House in May 1938 (Martin 203-89).

Through both his personal experience with Hollywood and his own interest in popular culture, West would have been familiar with the wide appeal of the Frankenstein films and the imagery associated with them.2 The horror picture enjoyed popularity beginning in 1931 with Whale's film. As an avid observer of popular culture, West would have certainly been familiar with Frankenstein and with its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, which was released in 1935 (Florescu 193). These films were initially so successful that in 1938, Universal Studios re-released such films as Dracula and Frankenstein, and produced new films intended to exploit their popularity (Dardis 175).

The cinematic Frankenstein motif is most apparent in West's development of Homer Simpson. West provides an oblique clue to the film influence late in the novel during a scene in which Homer is introduced to the child, Adore Loomis. Adore's mother observes that he "thinks he's the Frankenstein monster" when Adore twists his face into a caricature of the monster made famous by Boris Karloff. Adore, in turn, redirects our attention back to the character at whom he is "making faces": Homer (140). This clue introduces a new perspective on earlier descriptions of Homer, which, in retrospect, reveal a striking physical parallel to the monster.

Tod Hackett's first view of Homer Simpson in Chapter 6 is of a man with "fever eyes and unruly hands" (79). This is only an introduction to the bizarre figure that will emerge in Chapter 8. Therein, West reveals his own composite creation in Homer as he awakens from a nap:

... he began to work laboriously toward consciousness. The struggle was a hard one. His head trembled and his feet shot out. Finally his eyes opened, then widened...

He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of the bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrist. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about he lifted them out and hid them in a towel. (82)

Homer does not awaken from sleep, but comes to life, much like Mary Shelley's monster, who quickens with a "convulsive motion." 3 His individual physical components are disassociated from one another, often functioning independent of any control he may attempt to exert over them. …