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'Dreams are what you wake up from' (Raymond Carver). What do you understand by the idea of 'The American Dream' and how do you see it as having been challenged by American Writers?
Over the years, the expression 'The American Dream' has been a subject of constant debate. Over time, terms and concepts are redefined; re evaluated and inevitably changes its meaning and significance. As society's morals and perceptions change and decline, what one previously hailed as important may suddenly be of no real significance.
To many, it is difficult to fathom the real meaning beyond this vague term which has been subject to ridicule and derision. To others, it has become so clichéd that it means nothing more than an American who is 'better' than the average man. This term could mean nothing more than the self-made success of an American, who subsequently becomes an object of envy and covet. This dream denotes a fitting example of a 'rags to riches' story, when a life of struggle, hardship and what is usually referred to as 'the real hustle' suddenly becomes a life of riches, wealth prosperity and the abundance of material possession. The descriptions depicted above only portray a demeaning view of the concept termed 'The American Dream'. As a result, it is hard to imagine it being taken seriously as it is such a vague concept and denotes various meanings to different people and also acquires such negative connotations.
The avid and greedy pursuit of materialism; the 'Good Life' which consists of the lurid array of sports cars, expensive attire, colossal mansions and an endless string of parties is the very embodiment of a perfect life, a dream, that Fitzgerald portrays in the character of Jay Gatsby. This hero seems to epitomise the American Dream. His transition from poor farmer to self made millionaire through the importation of illicit liquor is the '...elegant young rough neck' who characterizes the self made man. His abundance of material possessions seems to complete him until his acquaintance with Daisy, who he falls in love with. The American Dream; total contentment thus erodes into a worthless life of materialism when his obsessive desire to win Daisy back obliquely becomes futile, as a life of wealth and materialism is a world she is no stranger to. Gatsby's dream thus becomes incomplete. His obsession with Daisy which ends in disappointment is a succinct example of the plunge back into poverty, as it were, which is evidently common with this dream that one chases so desperately. The negative light in which Fitzgerald places the notion of The American Dream makes it an easy target for fierce scrutiny and criticism. In 'The Achieving of The Great Gatsby' (1979) Long states:
'In associating Gatsby's experience with the frontier experience, Fitzgerald identifies the source of American social values in the twenties, which Gatsby illustrates' (p167). Indeed, when identifying the root in which this illustrious dream stems, it is only natural that one would question the ideas and values which Americans hold in high esteem. What people desire most could range from 'freedom from religious persecution; the opportunity to work one's own land; a chance for a fresh start; a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage'. (The American Dream: 1999). The broadness of the definitions mentioned which range from something as unrealistic as emancipation from religious persecution to something as basic and mundane as 'a chicken in every pot' justifies the fact that 'The American Dream is a term used in so many different contexts and that today it is probably devoid of basic comprehension.' (Daldien 1999: p11) This perception of a utopian lifestyle has been challenged, especially by American writers whose experience of a calamitous life through events such as The Great Depression, revolution and civil war has greatly influenced their ideas. The paradox which can be portrayed as being controversial that Fitzgerald employs is that Gatsby's pursuit of The American Dream which he does attain in the form of wealth is that his downfall was caused as a result of his pursuit of Daisy, a debutante whose idea of wealth and status was wholly different to that of Gatsby. As a result, Fitzgerald challenges the stereotype of The American Dream that many have held for so long. In chapter 1, the idea that Gatsby has achieved this impossible dream is shattered. Daisy's infidelity with Tom finally destroys Gatsby's dream and finally spells his downfall.
Disillusionment is often the end result American writers portray when depicting the concept of the American dream. West's common portrayal of the characters who seek stardom and fame in The Day of the Locust inevitably ends in disappointment;
'All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labour, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?' (p157)
This quote depicts the gloomy reality of the glittery spectacle that Tod desperately chased. Facing the reality that Hollywood has nothing of worth to offer them, only results in them experiencing violence and acrimony. Their everyday lives only reverberated the mundane stories they read in the newspapers and saw in the movies; 'lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war.'(p158) This 'daily diet' thus reinforces the fact that they 'came to California to die.'
Writing at a time when the 'all American' dream was shattered by the misfortune caused by the Great Depression of 1929, it is only plausible that West depict the unreality of one finding such fame and wealth in Hollywood. Instead, he realistically depicts the sordid realism of disillusion in the paintings Homer Simpson avidly tries to find dreams within.
The similarities which occur in The Day of the Locust and 'The Great Gatsby' are the bitter feud which exists between Tod and Homer and Tom and Gatsby. Tod manages to be attracted to Faye yet possesses a sordid desire to rape her;
'Tod tried the same gesture on what he felt, but the driving itch refused to go. If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her (p153)'.
Closely related to this is the dark side of Hollywood that Tod finds himself in. This scene immediately creates the illusion of the negative side of the dream.
In line with this, Gatsby seems to have everything yet his burning love for Daisy, who doesn't return his love foreshadows everything else that is seemingly good in his life. His disappointment is evident when Daisy states;
'Even alone I can't say I never loved Tom,' she admitted in a pitiful voice. 'It wouldn't be true'. (p133)
The discontentment she found in her relationship with Gatsby is an example that full satisfaction cannot be found through riches and a fitting reminder that this greedy pursuit can only result in one's downfall.
The glittering faade of Hollywood where Tod and other hopefuls come to seek this dream is quickly tarnished. Not only is Tod's disappointment evident when he catches the woman he likes in bed with another man, he is also bitter when he thinks to himself that Faye has chosen Homer because he is seemingly well off even though she subsequently becomes bored with him (p112). West's portrayal of disappointment in this novel further emphasises the unreality and fragility of the American dream.
The Great Gatsby is fundamentally a novel about the American Dream; the irony stems from the way ones pursuit of this obscure dream leads to an inevitable downfall. The revealing of Gatsby's illicit business from which he acquired such wealth by Nick was bound to come to pass. His contempt for Gatsby revealed at the beginning of the novel; 'Gatsby...represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn' (p2) only exposes the disdain he has for the unbecoming lifestyle Gatsby entertains every week in the form of lavish parties and social gatherings. Fitzgerald's enigmatic depiction of tragedy and disdain in Gatsby's character paradoxically creates within the reader a measure of sympathy for Gatsby as his desire to win Daisy back becomes a futile obsession, whereas his insatiable drive to make money and epitomize the 'self made man' makes him an object of contempt.
Daldien, J., (1999). The American Dream: Can it survive the 21st Century? New York: Prometheus Books
Donaldson, S., (1984). Critical Essays on F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Congress
Fitzgerald, S., (1925). The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner's Sons
Handley, G., (1978). F. Scott Fitzgerald THE GREAT GATSBY. London: The Chaucer Press
Long, R., (1979). The Achieving of The Great Gatsby. London: Associated University Presses.
West, N., (2000). The Day of the Locust. London: Penguin