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The American Dream

By Kristian Nielsen


This thesis deals with the deceptive nature of The American Dream and its place in American culture in the first six decades of the 20th century, namely in the three quintessential novels The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With the aid of Jim Cullen's The American Dream – A short history of an idea that shaped a nation and Lawrence Samuel's The American Dream – A cultural history the different types of American Dreams are investigated, as well as how the Dream has changed along with American society. This thesis shows that it has taken on a variety of forms, which can be classified into four main categories: The Dream of a Better World and the frontier as a concept has been part of the American conscience since the birth of the nation and has always related to utopian ideas about improving the living conditions of the Americans. An important aspect in The Dream of a Better World is whether the improved society embraces everyone, and not just a particular political affiliation, race or religion, and we learn that throughout American history genuine pluralism has never existed. The Dream of Equality is closely connected to the Declaration of Independence with its mantra that ”all men are created equal”. This phrase is subject to scrutiny and we find out that it means that no American should be held back by external barriers in his pursuit for individual progress - it should not to be misunderstood as the foundation of an egalitarian society. The spiritual aspect of the dream, and the concern for the community was slowly lost, and instead ”life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was an increasingly individual matter. The Dream of Moving Up is founded in the myth that through hard work, perseverance and self-reliance everybody is able to climb the social ladder and make a lot of money. Along with the industrial revolution the dream became part of a ruthless race to reach the top before others, and as capitalism became more ”survival of the fittest” it became evident that while everybody were able to Dream of Moving Up very few would. The Dream of Instant Wealth could be seen as a consequence where the last moral aspects of the dream were lost. It is the dream of reaching the social or economic peak with as little effort as possible, and the foundation of this dream was growing consumerism and the equation between material goods and happiness. In the analysis the distinctions are used to better understand the three works of literature in a cultural frame, and how the books convey a specific American Dream. The Great Gatsby is essentially representative of the Dream of Moving Up. We learn that both in terms of its plot and its stylistic virtues The Great Gatsby is symbolic to the modern time it was part of. Fitzgerald experiments with a number of modern stylistic choices in his book, while portraying the modern age through fragments, colors and movement. The Great Gatsby is essentially symbolic and especially the green light at Daisy Buchanan's dock plays an important role as the symbol of Gatsby's own dream. Gatsby's attempt to recreate the past and live out a lost love is a deceptive dream, continually out of reach, and even when it seems realizable the conservative powers of the time, as well as the nature of the Dream betrays him. While riding the great wave of prosperity it was easy to Dream of Moving Up, but pluralism was slowly replaced with individualism, so the prosperity was no longer about the benefit of America, but the interest of the individual. This meant that many people ended up on the losing end of the capitalist game, which is shown through the valley of ashes, where people dream, but stay at the bottom. Gatsby's Dream of Moving Up was representative of the emerging individuality of the time and he worked his way up in a true rags-to-riches story, but took a criminal route in order to get to the top faster. His position and his demeanor is admired by all his guests, but his secrecy also evokes a lot of negative rumors about his rise to the top. The reader is left sympathizing with Gatsby because the object of his striving is his pure love for Daisy, proving that his materialistic life style was mostly a way to lure her into his arms. In the limbo between technological progress and moral decline that was the 1920's Fitzgerald seems to want to remind us that the American Dream is deceptive, and while love can be pure and eternal, the past can not be changed. In The Grapes of Wrath we follow the Joad family as they battle the consequences of the brutal economic reality of the depression. While forced to migrate to California, The Dream of a Better World and the promises of the west lives in the hearts of the Joads, and their hopes are high as they journey towards the promised land. But the cynicism of the new economic reality means that the spiritual aspect of the American Dream is lost, and instead people dream of material gain, they Dream of Moving Up, and that dream is an individual one. Very few people are able to climb the social and economic ladder and the rest are left behind in the gutter, while the winners of the ruthless game for property are no longer human, but faceless corporations - ”the monster” - which robs people off their land, their money, their rights. Steinbeck attempts to convey to us that while hope may seem lost, the community and the Dream of a Better World for all can still be realized as soon as people stand together, and worry about the group before the individual. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a hybrid of fiction and subjective journalism and despite its framework narrative of a journalist covering a motorcycle race and a district attorney's conference, the goal of the book is to investigate the state of the American Dream and lament the loss of the spirituality and morality of the youth movement of the 1960's. Las Vegas is the embodiment of the perverted version of The Dream of Moving Up where every man is the architect of his own future, and sympathy for others is a thing of the past. What's more there are aspects of the Dream of Instant Welath, which is founded on belief that cutting corners and taking advantage of others is a legitimate shortcut, and the self-reliance and perseverance of the ”Horatio Alger”-dream is lost. We learn that towards the end of the 1960's the American Dream only lives on as a material atavistic parody of what it once was, and the only way to cope with this is to conform or to hide in a make-belief-world of drugs. The protagonist of Fear and Loathing no longer believes in the moral values of America, and his capacity to Dream of a Better World is lost. In the discussion we learn that ever since the term ”American Dream” was coined in 1931 the guiding philosophy has been substituted for a race for property and cash, and the idea that the Dream is about the benefit of all Americans was replaced with a competitive system, which leaves the majority on the losing end. The battle to reach the top has become so ruthless that the American seems aware that there are no holds barred in order to get there. It is not how you reach the top, but the fact that you do it that evokes admiration, and this can be seen in the American obsession with the criminal. We learn that all three protagonists of the literary works chosen are outlaws in their own right, and that as long as they believe in their ideals and have a pure dream we sympathize with them. Furthermore we learn that the promises of the American Dream is an illusion, and only very few people are able to realize their fantasy. The capitalism that has been a foundation of the entrepreneurial aspect of the American Dream has a backside, as we learn in all three novels. While a few ferocious individuals are able to succeed in the rat race, the vast majority are left behind empty-handed. The materialistic version of the dream keeps the Americans divided, and while the Dream of Moving Up and the Dream of Instant Wealth persists (albeit as an illusion to most) the division keeps the Dream of a Better World and the Dream of Equality unrealizable. The American Dream, which once was about improving the life of all Americans, is now a materialistic mirage of the past

Topics: American, Dream
Year: 2014
OAI identifier:

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