The Day of the Locust is the story of Tod Hackett, an aspiring painter working in late 1930s-era Hollywood where he paints backgrounds for movie sets. Hackett begins an affair with Faye Greener, a hopeful starlet who lives nearby, and is drawn into her circle of friends before the novel ends with a riot at the premiere of one of their studio's films. The story deals with the falseness of the American Dream and with the corruption of American culture by greed.
Tod Hackett is the novel's protagonist. He moves from the east coast to Hollywood, California in search inspiration for his next painting. The novel is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. However, there is no evidence of the Great Depression in the text. Most of the characters exist at the fringes of the Hollywood film industry, but Hollywood is merely the backdrop for Tod Hackett's revelation. Tod is employed by a Hollywood studio "to learn set and costume designing." During his spare time, Tod sketches scenes he observes on large production sets and studio back lots. The novel details Tod's observation of the filming of the Battle of Waterloo. His goal is to find inspiration for the picture he is getting ready to begin, a work titled "The Burning of Los Angeles."
Between his work at the studio and his introduction to Faye's friends, Tod interacts with numerous Hollywood hangers-on. Characters like Abe Kusich, the dwarf, Claude Estee, the successful screenwriter, and Earle Shoop, the fake California cowboy, all have difficulty transitioning their personas from the characters they play to who they are. As a result, there is a clear sense of acting that spills beyond the confines of Hollywood studios, into the streets of Los Angeles.
Tod falls in love with Faye Greener, an aspiring starlet who lives nearby, but Faye only loves men who are good looking or have money. Tod is simply a "good-hearted man," the kind Faye likes. He imagines that loving her would compare to jumping from a skyscraper and screaming to the ground. Tod wants to "throw himself at her, no what matter the cost." Throughout the novel, Tod fantasizes about having a sexual encounter with Faye as an act of rape. Every time he imagines raping her, reality interrupts his fantasy before he can complete the act. Scenes are interrupted prior to their climax frequently throughout the novel. A patron jokes that it is "the old teaser routine," when a film viewing at Mrs. Jennings' parlor ends unexpectedly due to technical difficulties.
Shortly after moving into a neighborhood in the valley, Tod befriends Homer Simpson, a simple minded former hotel accountant from Iowa who moved to California for health reasons. Homer's "unruly hands" operate independently from his body, and their movements are often mechanical. "They demanded special attention, had always demanded it." When Homer attempts to escape California he is distracted not only by the crowd, but his inability to leave the street despite Tod's help and insistent encouragement. Young neighbor Adore Loomis finds Homer and torments him until Homer lashes out against the boy. The novel's climactic riot ensues, and the chaos over the latest Hollywood premier turns violent outside Mr. Khan's Pleasure Dome. Tod vividly revises "The Burning of Los Angeles" in his mind, while being pushed around in the waves of the riot. The final scene plays out, uninterrupted. The conclusion of the novel can be read as a moment of enlightenment and mental clarity for the artist, or a complete "mental breakdown" and Tod's "incorporation into the mechanized, modern world of Los Angeles."