Fourth of July Special: Literature about the ‘American Dream’

Happy July Fourth! In celebration of this day, I’m going to take a literary view at the most U.S. of A concept to this day: the American Dream. This is basically the idea that no matter your economic situation, through hard work and perseverance one can obtain their ideal life situation. I never really paid much thought to the idea of the American Dream until I started taking higher level English classes in high school, then I developed an interest in it and sought out more literature exploring the topic.

In particular, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry stood out to me. As a woman of color, it was interesting to read about the American Dream from the point of view of people who may be subjected to discrimination. Is the American Dream as attainable if your skin is a different color, and you don’t have access to the same resources? It really is something to think about.

A few others that stood out to me were Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and of course The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In Death of a Salesman we see Willy struggling to live up to his own lies. He tells his family that he has everything taken care of and that everything is financially okay, but he’s been laid off by a company he’s worked for forever and has consistently been borrowing money from his brother-in-law. He talks to himself, sees things that aren’t there, and eventually kills himself by driving his car into a wall.

Of Mice and Men takes a different look to the American dream dilemma. Our two protagonists George Milton and Lennie Small are runaway criminals who want nothing more than to make a life and honest living for themselves at a ranch, and all the other ranch workers are chasing their own dream as well. In This novella, it seems as if the universe has conspired against them, because just when they find themselves in a place where they can work and maybe settle, circumstances with Lennie force them on the run, again. It ends with George shorting Lennie dead, freeing himself of the one thing holding him back.

The Great Gatsby probably captures the idea of the American Dream The best. With Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story, he has just about achieved his American Dream, all he needs is the perfect woman to complete the package, in this case Daisy,the woman he pursues and vies for throughout the novel. What’s different about Gatsby’s story  is that he gained his wealth and notoriety through lies and illegal methods, because he clung so desperately to the life he invisioned for himself and was willing to obtain it by any means necessary. The tale concludes with his death, and his funeral which has a small turnout despite all of the guests that would attend his parties.

Each of these gives a different view of the American Dream, showing how there is no one definition because everyone has their own American Dream to obtain. For me, the biggest takeaway from these is that the American Dream is an impossible standard to hold yourself to, and it can take a toll on your life, relationships and mental health.

What do you think: is the American Dream a realistic concept? And where else have you seen this idea in literature?

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