How do the writers portray The American Dream and its effects on the central characters? Essay
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The Great Gatsby and Of Mice of Men are two novels of dramatic contrast in setting, which is interesting as they are only set one decade apart. With World War 1 having ended in 1919 with the Versailles Peace Treaty, America embarked on the ‘roaring twenties’ which was a period of economic might. The power of America’s economy at this time is often overlooked due to the presence of prohibition, gangsters, the Jazz Age and the Ku Klux Klan. It is fascinating to be able to compare two novels, written in such short succession, that have two completely contrasting views on American life.
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The 1920’s saw America as being the wealthiest country on earth, facing no prominent rival. However, the obvious turning point for the countries economic state was most certainly the stock market crash in 1929, leaving America in a state of depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck give the readers a colorful snapshot into the lives of citizens in these two decades. The American Dream is a common phrase which describes the underlying drive of American society. The ubiquitous “rags to riches” legend became the foundation of American society; anyone could succeed and achieve wealth if they worked hard.
In ‘The Great Gatsby’, Jay Gatsby is the epitome of the American Dream. F Scott Fitzgerald personifies the American Dream into his character Gatsby and the life that he lives out. Gatsby is an enigmatic character, he does not speak until chapter three but is mentioned before we meet him – ‘You must know Gatsby.’. His reputation precedes him, however what people know of him is shallow. He is a collection of material things ‘His Rolls-Royce’ and ‘his two motor boats’, he has no real personality traits as of yet that the reader can perceive. He is, like the American Dream, difficult to come into contact with. In addition to this, Nick Caraway’s admiration of Gatsby emulates the desire and allure of his character, ‘It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it’. His success and riches brought with them a magnetic pull that brings other people to him ‘People were not invited – they went there’, this makes him seem like a embodiment of The American Dream as he brings an illusion of happiness.
The people who dream of a better life for themselves are like the ‘men and girls [who] came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars’ , they want to follow in the footsteps of Gatsby and his success story. He is the living example of the american dream. Fitzgerald delves further than this surface view of Gatsby, allowing the reader to understand the darker side to his success, it becomes more and more evident that the American Dream and all that it brings is not everything it can seem on the surface. The struggle Gatsby faces in achieving all that he hopes for brings out a negative side to him that the narrator Nick Caraway becomes aware of, ‘He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntary I glanced seaward-and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute far way, that might have been the end of a dock’. Although Gatsby seems to have it all, there is always the ‘green light’, which represents hope for him, to reach for and its distance has a adverse effect on him.
Furthermore, the negative effects of the growing materialism and reality of the American Dream in the 1920’s is primarily highlighted through the development of Jay Gatsby’s character. It comes to light that his success stemmed from immoral and illegal activity, he is a ‘high-end bootlegger’ and this shows the diminished sense of moral value and the corruption of the American Dream. The reality of this highlights to the reader that the wholesome image projected to the world of the journey from immigrant to outrageously rich is not one that is attainable via strong will and a hearty serving of passion, it is a dream that is only possible through breaking the rules. This completely contradicts the basis of the dream itself. On top of this, Gatsby’s lack of deep relationships is, not only saddening, but a negative effect of the american dream on his life.
The extent of his desire had shut out those around him on an emotional level, his relationship with his father highlights this – ‘ever since he made a success he was very generous with me’. Gatsby used his money as a way of connecting to others, it seems as though he has no real ability to lose his facade as ‘Jay Gatsby’ rather than ‘James Gatz’ and connect to others. Although it could be seen as a positive effect of the success of his american dream that he has bonded with his father ‘Henry C. Gatz’, ultimately they had a monetary relationship; Gatsby was no more special to his father than a loyal banker might have been. His success brought him isolation, ‘I found myself on Gatsby’s side, and alone.’, and he did not achieve his ultimate goal: marrying Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald creates pathos for Gatsby in his final scenes by depicting his own realisation of life and what has become of his own. He realises ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is’ which is a symbol of his realisation of the superficialness of his own success. He realises, ironically, moments before his death what the industrialisation and the ‘roaring twenties’ really brought; ‘A new world, material, without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drift fortuitously about’.
Not only Gatsby, but other characters and elements of the novel highlight the negative effects of the augmentation of wealth and glamour in 1920’s America. ‘The Valley of Ashes’ is a visual representation of the destruction that resulted from the American Dream becoming a fountain of moral decay. Nick Caraway describes the valley as ‘A fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.’ this could be seen as a warning from Fitzgerald as to how New York could turn out if the people keep acting on such loose moral fibre.
The Valley of Ashes is a dumping ground for all the waste from thriving New York, this is emphasised by Myrtle Wilson and her life at the garage in the valley. She lives permanently in an ‘unprosperous and bare’ garage, with a man who is evidently unsuccessful and ‘spiritless’, no doubt because of his lack of wealth. Myrtle and Tom Buchanan’s affair highlights the point that the American Dream is corrupted. She is taking an easy escape into a life of riches, instead of going by what the American Dream once stood for, hard work and perseverance. Tom and Myrtle’s affair emphasise the lack of morals alongside the growth of wealth and materialism. In addition to this, it suggests that New York, which was once a symbol of industrialisation and hard work is now home to reckless immoral behaviour – ‘Tom Buchanan broke her nose with the palm of his hand’ and not only their affair, but Gatsby’s and Daisy’s also. Daisy and Tom’s relationship is torn apart by the introduction of ‘new money’ into their lives, however they stay together in the end, highlighting the sense of loyalty in the ‘old money’ that is not seen in the new.
‘The Great Gatsby’ as a whole, shines a harsh light onto the industrialisation and prosperity of America in the 1920’s and on the reality of the American Dream. It becomes obvious to the reader that this dream, built on such a moral and integral foundation, has deep pitfalls such as desire and ambition which are in many ways destructive. ‘Of Mice and Men’, although set in a completely different time, is a novel which also emphasises the destructive elements of the American Dream. However, John Steinbeck also explores the positive effects that hope can have on peoples lives. He does this from a dramatically contrasting angle to that of Fitzgerald, not only is this novel set on small rural farm, but it is set a decade later during the depression of the 1930’s meaning that the American Dream is more prominent than ever in the minds of the workers in ‘Of Mice and Men’.
John Steinbeck’s view of the American Dream is not entirely negative, he shows how the hope it brings can bond people together and cement friendships. The obvious example of this is the relationship of George and Lennie. George emphasises to the reader that a life working during the depression is lonely ‘Guy’s like us that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.’, however what makes them different is the fact that they have each other, ‘We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.’. What strengthens their relationship is their shared dream to ‘live off the fatta the lan’. Steinbeck’s view of the American Dream differs to that of Fitzgerald in that when times were good economically, the dream became more of an entitlement than a goal to work towards. People began to dream of a shortcut to riches, instead of the hard work that came with it.
The American Dream that is abundant in ‘Of Mice and Men’ is one of self sufficiency, being able to provide for themselves without having to work for a higher power and not only this but having a place of protection for themselves in an unkind world. George uses the end goal of ‘tending the rabbits’ to motivate Lennie to be well behaved and in addition to this, to keep himself going when he feels like giving up on Lennie. This shows that the American Dream in theory was somewhat good for the mental wellbeing of working americans in the depression. The dream allowed them to connect with one another. Crooks, who is portrayed as bitter and unhappy throughout the novel, seems to desire nothing more than to feel a sense of belonging in his life. This could explain why although the dream Lennie and George have may seem unattainable, he does not hesitate to ask if he can become a part of it, because what the dream brings is a sense of hope and belonging for him on the farm.
The idyllic opening to the novel brings a sense of goodness and hope in the land of America ‘the Salinas River drops in close to the hill-side bank and runs deep and green.’ The tranquillity of the opening scene highlights the idea of the American Dream being possible. This hope is contrasted however by the lives of those who have lived through the depression, and the fading of their hope shows that the American Dream is not a reachable one. ‘There is a path through the willows and amoung the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.’ This stark contrasts highlights the prominence of the American Dream bringing hope into the lives of the American people, especially the young.
The younger generation are full of hope and dreams for the prosperity of their futures, but the older generations have seen the reality and are wearied from it, much like the old tramps. In many of the central characters of the novel, it becomes apparent that the depression has had a deep effect on them, and that the presence of the american dream merely brings regret and sorrow alongside a setting of such deep disappointment and darkness. A prime example of this is Curley’s wife. She is full of regret for not following her dreams to be an actress, ‘If I’d went, I wouldn’t be living like this you bet.’ and instead she is stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. Her character is a representation of the little effect a life has on people unless you do something, she dies and even her husband Curley shows little connection with her ‘He ran furiously out of the barn.’ There almost seems to be a small sense of delight in having an excuse to revenge Lennie for breaking his arm. Curley’s wife’s death shows that people will die without having made the impact that they thought they would have.
The idea of the american dream is merely that, a dream. There is no actuality in it, in the end all the characters leave her in the barn and she is alone. She leaves the world hardly any different from the way she entered it. Her death underlines another theme of the novel, it seems as though the doubt in the american dream is there all along. The American Dream is merely something to keep them going in hard times, but it is impossible – George admits he knows this, ‘I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we’d never do her’. He remarks, because Lennie “[…] usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would”. Although the hopes they have are something of an encouragement for them, thats all they are, they will never amount to anything more.
In conclusion, the two novels present the American Dream in a way which creates destruction. The path to success brings with it a warped sense of morals and a unstable desire to get ahead. In contrast to this there is a belief in a wholesome american dream, which one would believe would bring a great dose of drive for the workers in america. Although, as Steinbeck explores, it does this to an extent, it clearly becomes difficult to believe in something which is so evidently unachievable. An idea that comes strongly out of both the novels is one of the reality of dreams. This juxtaposition emphasises the importances of dreams remaining a distant figure of our imagination; for as soon as they get too close, or indeed too far away they become a warped and destructive power in our lives which solely bring disappointment. The endings of the death of the central characters in both the novels bring this to conclusion light. Either the dream is not as perfect and idyllic as we built it up to be, or is so unattainable that it destroys our view of the reality that we live in.