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Images and structure in Nathanael West's novel satires Alexander , Gordon Burnett

Abstract

Before we can judge a writer, we must tentatively decide upon the appropriate criteria by which to measure his achievement. Various critics have praised Nathanael West for the exact things for which others have damned him. This study is an attempt to clarify the nature of West's work, and thereby to clarify the grounds upon which he must be judged. The nature of his fictional world is crucial. This study puts West's images, which are largely responsible for the creation of the fictional world and its characters, into five groups, each of which exhibits a separation of qualities. After the results of West's divided images are seen, the study considers the function of plot within West's four works. Essentially, the plot, like the extremely limited characterization, enables us to see the inter-relationships within the fictional world and, at the same time, prevents us from becoming emotionally involved with the fictional world and characters as we normally do in, novels. Thus West is seen as a satirist who, in his best works, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, uses the conventions of the novel with considerable skill to show us the all-pervasiveness of illusion in life. But, unlike most satirists, West provides no alternatives and does not even provide a sense of “what ought to be" in his work. He merely records his vision in such a way that we can see and are compelled to acknowledge the nature of his vision of life and of existence. West uses his plots to order his images into a coherent, logical pattern which sets forth the consequences of man's being divided within and among himself. When we see that West is primarily a satirist working within the conventions of the novel, we can understand the flatness of his characters, their divided natures, the horrible ironies of the plot, the cryptic treatment of events, and the concentration upon images. We can, in fact, see that West was an excellent satirist who succeeded in his attempt to use the novel as a vehicle for satire.

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