The Importance of Ambition: The American Dream in Literature (Part 2)

Photo by Andrew Smith of Cuba Gallery

If you’re unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job, there’s a lot to be found in the classics. What do you want from life? And how can you get there? If we are able for a moment to glance past all the clichéd rich and famous drivel, for many the precise meaning of “American Dream” is a vague one seen as an inevitably difficult to define concept. The idealist lifestyle craved by every individual will differ considerably. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Willy Loman’s dream is simply to be “remembered after his death”, whilst Jay Gatsby’s wishes to hunt happiness through the acquisition of love. There is a distinctly inspiring similarity between these two contrasting characters  in their never ending passion for what they believe in, whether it’s social status or committing oneself “to the following of a grail” (typo on “girl” perhaps).

As far as these varyingly personal interpretations of The Dream go, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of material wealth naturally emerge as the key quests in question. For their similarities, in unflinching desperation each character has no choice but to follow the path of corruption in a bid to achieve their respective ambitions, a route promoted by the same capitalist, money-oriented society we inhabit today.

This scenario is presented rather perspicuously by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, where corruption allows Jay Gatsby to secure his fortune. Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are prime examples that becoming ridiculously rich is not a process in direct proportion with creating one’s self. Because of their unlawful origin, for them there exists an “incorruptible dream”, since they apparently don’t require the natural sense of human-pride associated with great prosperity. For them it’s all about the result, and if this involves sacrificing the reverence, so be it.

But we realise that Jay is an unwilling participant of this conformity. He overloads with wealth because it’s what he thinks Daisy, his love-interest, wants. He is materialistic because of his circumstances. During his era the average American didn’t have too many alternatives, and he still works solidly. The proof lies in his ‘Schedule’: a regimented list of endeavours printed on the back cover of his childhood book ‘Hopalong Cassidy’. We see a gruelling fifteen-hour daily regime involving self-taught electricity and the “study of needed inventions”, alongside additional welfare resolves such as “read one improving book or magazine per week”. The way in which Fitzgerald chooses to reveal such surprising personal devotion in the denouement of the story, is surprisingly touching. At the time of writing, social judgment was what mattered above all else. Although since the majority of Great Gatsby readers are unable to empathise with that time period, we are able to see Jay Gatsby for what he really is; a hard worker driven by his dream of love, coupled with Fitzgerald’s knowledge that equality is merely a political virtue.

In stark comparison, it is essentially that very depiction which provokes Willy’s obsession ultimately fuelling his downfall. His morals and  priorities lie with the idea of “greatness”, a heading intended for; the “importance of being liked” and the trivial numbers attending one’s funeral. Traits that both Miller implies and Willy believes can only be acquired once you’ve “walked into the jungle and come out rich”.

That latter argument is obviously untrue; however “greatness” as a theme is where Miller was not alone. The clue is in the chosen title: The “Great” Gatsby. In Fitzgerald’s opinion the dream was quite literally that, the value of greatness. Attempting to define “greatness” in his novel, is to maintain an American tradition. His short story “The Swimmers” supported this belief: “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.” The morals of a character like Tom Buchanan are the antithesis of such an idea, since he is constantly under the illusion that by actually reaching this fabled level of success, he has become an untouchable. Today we call this symptom, celebrity. Ironically his objectives were far too vague and false in the first place, to possibly categorise himself as a potential “great”. What’s more, as Nick Carraway so rightly evaluates: “There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind…”

Jay Gatsby himself is also under an illusion regarding the kind of self-content he requires and the woman who personifies that happiness. But unlike Tom and every character bar George Wilson and Nick Carraway, he is genuinely loyal and committed to his dream. As a result, we the audience supply him with much respect, when we could easily be lured into thinking he was a mere scoundrel. Gatsby doesn’t want recognition for what he is, only for what he is not. His life began on a farm; he became highly literate without much help, then became irresistible to women and rescued a perilous yacht before successfully earning the uber cool label: Gentleman Criminal. This is the suave-society-crook social-type that interested writers like Fitzgerald and George Orwell, but bizarrely remains of no interest to Gatsby despite the fact it captivates Nick.

The same illusion and self-deception are highly applicable to Death of a Salesman, in that many of the characters do indeed occupy a fantasy world. How many people pretend a problem doesn’t exist in the hope that it goes away? Willy’s life revolves around the past to support his escape from his current financial troubles, “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” he tells himself, (this is quite the opposite of Gatsby who in reality recreated himself by abandoning his past). Willy’s perfect vision of success is sadly the materialistic kind, where his particular requirements for his ideal picture are easy wealth and popularity. “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” And instead of his dire condition strengthening his wife’s resolve to change, Willy’s fantasy philosophies and ignorance to reality sadly drag her down with him. She refuses to believe her husband is mentally deteriorating, consequentially making it harder for their two sons.

Furthermore despite their son Happy’s shameless reliance on lying, he is worryingly content residing in the lie his father has formed. Miller importantly employs Biff as the family’s rock; his plot-function being to restore some balance to the madness. He is the only character who is genuinely concerned equipped with the want to address the family’s situation and resolve it.

-James Godwin, June 2nd, 2011