The Importance of Ambition: The American Dream in Literature (Part 3)

By Jill Allyn Stafford

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. But as is inescapably exposed in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and our own human reality; vast quantities of money do indeed cater for material luxuries and opportunities that would never be an option for the lower classes. Both authors like to utilize the hostilities which exist between the two diverse yet dominant definitions of the American Dream, the ideal and the materialistic. These thematic issues of concern, particularly to Fitzgerald, can be distinguished as success and/versus failure.

The paradox Fitzgerald presents proposes that the kind of materialistic success experienced by Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan will unavoidably manufacture failure in their bid for the ideal. As modern day readers of early 20th century texts, we are consistently introduced to the idea of aspiration gracefully meeting rejection. We must remember democratic life was different in 1922; the sort of democracy these authors portray is one defined by social-class and remains totally alien to us. Nick, Tom, Biff, Wolfshiem even Myrtle Wilson and Linda all envisage their own definitive social type. Self-made man Gatsby, who hides his past, is guilty of it and Willy models himself on his own brother Ben, who rather ironically found his American Dream in the African jungle.

A tragic hero is often a fictional protagonist (Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman) who unknowingly demonstrates a tragic fault which will ironically contribute to their demise. Typically the anti-hero will discover that the “reversal of fortune” plot-twist was brought about by their own actions. Gatsby seems to wear the tragic hero suit tightly. He is under the illusion that there is cogent reasoning for his actions, when really they cause needless pain and ruin. Cruelly, his tragic fault is also his one dream; Daisy, and her materialistic perspective which drives him down. Upon realising that he has become overtly materialistic, he simultaneously discovers it is too late and not nearly enough to make him happy. This self-recognition of the “reversal of fortune” plot function being his fault is very important. In Death of a Salesman Willy does not reach this level of self-awareness at all, and as a result falls short of the tragic hero definition. In the modernist era the idea of falling cataclysmically from their position of prominence was replaced, with the hero occupying a position less worthy of consideration instead. A tragic hero in the traditional sense is known to boast nobility or wisdom. Now as his surname subtly implies, Loman does not possess the noble stature which frequents the tragic heroe personality, and neither does the play conform to the “pure tragedy” in the classical sense. Was Death of a Salesman ahead of its time? Loman is clearly more suited to what Modernism describes as the “anti-hero”, because he lacks the nobility and wisdom expected of the more traditional saviour.

In corkscrew stories that twist cautiously around dreams and tragic heroes, it’s anticipated that illusions will form independently, this way inevitable breakdown is all the more effective when the illusion subsides and reality reveals itself. Fitzgerald begins softly with harmonic, rhythmic prose that struts with confidence: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees”. His language represents the situation of his characters, which at this point is wholly optimistic. We are aware of Gatsby’s wealth but take his success at face value, we just assume he has already achieved his American Dream.

It’s at the exact moment in which we discover the truth regarding Jay’s past, and how he plans on using it to influence the present, that things start to deteriorate. Fitzgerald symbolises the procedure as “a fresh, green breast of the new world” which has shamelessly degenerated to become the “green light” at the end of the Buchanan’s dock. Green is the colour of hope, and for Gatsby that light is infact Daisy: she is the only thing his narrow line of vision sees. When his sole ambition of reuniting with his “green light” fades, he painfully reaches the realisation that his entire American Dream has just slipped away before his very eyes, and consequentially his life falls apart.

Harmony mutates into chaos as the reader and characters alike witness a “violent confusion”. As this confusion escalates Fitzgerald’s language shifts from lyrical assonance to a “harsh discordant din”. The daylight setting in which the story began quickly becomes night, and the character’s own descriptions of dreams and aspirations spiral into nightmares and harsh conclusions. Miller and Fitzgerald present harmony and dissension as success and failure, aspiration and rejection. Like Willy Loman, Jay Gatsby dies tragically at the end of the story without any so called “friends” attending his funeral. It’s a shocking case of all or nothing.

There may be extreme doubt cast upon the notion of dreams and ambition in the literature presented here. The Loman boys and George Myrtle, despite their good intentions and charm, have not managed to succeed at all. As employees, breadwinners and husbands they are failures both ensnared by the economic system. They both articulate an American Dream of their own, but as we have learnt, it is just a dream. No less and no more.

Miller and Fitzgerald both demonstrate that the American Dream leaves those who cannot convincingly fend for themselves, in the dust. The best do rise to the top, and the sky is the limit. But as both writers illustrate, what goes up must come down, and if you don’t aim for the moon, you can’t fall among the stars.

-James Godwin, June 10th, 2011

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