A central theme to this novel is illusion, and the many façades – both physical and metaphorical – used as examples of illusion appear to make the world complex, but that supposed complexity is the larger illusion. Nathanael West’s message is that the people of the world are inherently awful and put on the appearance of being good. That itself is an oversimplification, but that’s the point of the novel’s outlook on the world. People are simply awful. They hide the fact that they have repressed sexual desires that can turn violent, and West shows them as only having these two sides: the fake exterior and the true, depraved interior. How characters react to this dichotomy sheds more light on this worldview.
The protagonist of the novel, Tod Hackett is a painter that judges everyone around him based on the position they fill, mostly because he’s planning to used them for a painting of Hollywood. This is the main embodiment of the dichotomy: seeing people as they are, as opposed as to how they appear to be. A painting will only depict something as it appears, so Tod wants to delve deeper into the illusions everyone creates for himself or herself. He doesn’t see people as complex and assumes they all fit into a role, even if they don’t want to. That’s where the repression comes in; Homer Simpson is meek because an awkward sexual encounter leaves him repressed. He feels strong desire for Faye but can’t express it. His façade is that shyness and his true self is the sexual violence that explodes at the end of the novel. Homer represents the Hollywood illusion shattering when prodded ever so slightly (when Adore throws a rock at him).
Faye is an important character because she sits at the core of everyone’s sexual desires that they leave pent up for most of the novel. She enjoys it however, using her mature sexuality as the façade that gets her through the world, when in reality she is a naïve child trying to make it in a world of men fawning over her. When she finally has sex with Miguel, Earle fights him (echoing the cockfights from before). This foreshadows the climax of the novel: when the illusion gives way to reality, violence erupts. Other characters that represent façades include Adore the bratty child that is supposed to be a cute child actor, Harry Greener who keeps up the image of a funny clown while working as a failed door-to-door salesmen, and “Honest” Abe Kusich who usurps the expectations of his own name by being a dwarf. He compensates his height by being belligerent and scorning Faye’s terrible acting. Like Homer, he hides his sexual desires, but with anger rather than shyness. Anger is the byproduct of Homer’s repression.
The last scene of the novel is the most important for the dichotomy; the hidden side of Hollywood bursts forth and the street flood with sexual violence. Tod tries to escape from the real-life violence by thinking about the fantasy violence he wishes to paint, which is almost identical to the reality before him. The dichotomy has come together, and reality can no longer be extricated from fantasy. To fully embody this occurrence, as Tod is pulled away from the riot, he cannot tell the wailing of the police siren from his own wailing and finds it hilarious. He used to be able to call everyone’s bluff and separate the illusion from the truth, but now he can’t. The once superior intellectual finally shows his true colors as a madman.