Personally, I’ve never thought of the American Dream as the achievement of a particular goal such as owning a house, owning a car, or having a successful life – materialism is indeed an aspect of the American Dream, but it definitely does not encompass it. From my understanding of the various American Novels that were studied, the American Dream is not entirely about overcoming the competition and climbing to the top of the social ladder in spite of starting at the bottom rungs, as is commonly believed – it’s much, much simpler than that.
That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.
-James Truslow Adams (Defining the American Dream; Adams was credited with coining the term “American Dream” in his book, The Epic of America, which was published in 1931)
The objectivity of the American Dream is perhaps the reason why it appeals to the majority of people; it isn’t a single person’s vision of success that people blindly adhere to. The values of the Dream are universal: equality (“life should be better…for every man), opportunity, and success. All of the heroes of classic American novels from the 20th century have sought after this dream in their own unique manner. Willy Loman wanted to be “well-liked”. Gatsby wanted Daisy. Despite their different goals, both men share a common trait in their pursuit of their distinct ambitions: they were both trying to fill an idealized masculine role that was made to be an expected standard in society.
In the end, the American Dream is really just the fulfilment of expected roles – for both men and women. This is how the American Dream is said to promote equality: through hard-work and persistence, any fool can meet the impractical standards that society has set for each individual gender…or at least that’s what is expected. The expectation that this dream is achievable for all individuals is what gives the individual belief in a dream that has been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. It’s for this reason that characters like Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby were continually attempting to fit into the role of the masculine American man despite their inherent identity differing from this role. This is similar to trying to fit a square in a circular hole – you will never be able to achieve a perfect fit.
You stuff somebody into the American dream, and it becomes a prison.
-Craig L. Thomas
Inherently, Willy Loman was a man who was skilled with his hands, yet he still chose to pursue a career in which his innate talents were useless. Working with his hands would not have given Willy the success that he yearned for; the only work that Willy could find for his particular skill set would be classified as “blue-collar” jobs. Willy wouldn’t be making the amount of money that he would as a salesman, and he definitely wouldn’t have the prospect of being “well-liked”. The only reason that Willy wants to pursue a career as a salesman is so that he can meet his standard for success: being a great father, a great husband, and a great salesman. An individual will always base their standards of success around the ideals and expectations of their own society – in this way, the individual conforms to a highly unrealistic role that they are expected to fill. Willy’s standards of success are based on the values of the American Dream, which is why he desperately tries to act as the masculine leader of his household. He even resorts to deceiving others (and even himself) into believing that he has achieved the values of the American Dream. As a result of this deception, Willy can’t be honest with anybody: not with his kids, not with his wife, and not even with himself. In trying to fit into the role of the masculine leader of his household, Willy traps himself in a state of delusion. The American Dream has become Willy Loman’s prison.
I have this theory that alpha males are actually not alpha males. They’re actually very scared – particularly scared of competition from a lot of men.
While Willy is unsuccessful in attaining the American Dream, Jay Gatsby is the living embodiment of it: a successful rags-to-riches story, albeit through illicit activity. Gatsby is entirely different from Willy, particularly in his motivation to pursue the ideals of a masculine man. Gatsby wants to rekindle his love for Daisy, but he knows that he must first overcome the love Daisy has for Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s onesided competition against Tom in meeting the role of the masculine leader drives Gatsby to force himself to fit into that role. The pursuit of the American Dream creates competition between individuals because each individual will always try to prove that they are the best fit for the idealized role. This ultimately devolves into a battle of materialism: the person with the largest house, newest car, and most expensive accessories will be the winner. Both men can be said to be successful. Both men have the drive to pursue the standards they are expected to achieve. But both men can’t be at the top; the top is only reserved for the winner of the battle between them. Gatsby was trapped in a competition to be the most ideal man for Daisy. Despite their differences, Gatsby was a prisoner of the American Dream in much the same way Willy was.
The women who were closest to the aforementioned men – Linda and Daisy, respectively – had roles that were imposed on them. Burdened with the responsibilities of being housewives, the individualism of the women was restrained to a much greater degree than the individualism of the men. Whereas the men could struggle against their circumstances, the women could not. The role of the women was to be supportive housewives, which both ladies accomplished, but as a result, their identity was tied to their spouses.
Linda and Daisy are very different from one another in the same way that Willy and Tom are different. Linda continually supports Willy and pretends to be ignorant of his shortcomings in front of him. Daisy supports her husband as well, yet she’s much more critical of Tom as well, indirectly stating her disapproval of Tom’s lustful nature. These differences can be attributed to their spouses: Linda wants to protect Willy’s fragile ego, while Daisy is not worried about protecting Tom’s ego because Tom is already successful in protecting it himself. The women both pursue their individual dreams through their own methods, but ultimately, their dreams are both dependent on their husbands to the point where the women are characterized according to their relationship with their husband. Coincidentally – despite the greatest efforts of both women to please their significant others – the husbands were both unfaithful to their wives. The roles that women try to force themselves into are unsuccessful in satiating the desires of their husbands.
Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self too.
In the end, the American Dream is really just trying to fit into roles that one is expected to fit into despite not innately being suited for those roles. There are no benefits in the pursuit of this dream; the only semblance of equality lies in the fact that everyone is equally unhappy about their situation. Unhappiness is derived from the inability to actually ever achieve the American Dream – it’s impossible to truly be a perfect fit for the highly specific ideals of the American Dream. The worst part about it all is that the individual is the one who is forcing themselves to conform to these values – while social pressure may coerce the individual, it does not necessarily mandate that an individual must conform to the standards of the collective. By ensuring equality for all people through shared ideals and values, the American Dream destroys individualism. Ironically, it is the nationalistic dream itself which is the greatest detriment to the nation. Individualism is what gives people their own distinct purpose. Trying to hammer the individual into a role that does not satisfy them internally is futile, and it will only result in deforming the identity of the individual. People will only ever fit perfectly into a role that satisfies them internally, where the passions and talents of the individual lie – they have their own perfect fit.
Image 1,2 (Old Newspaper): https://katsdekker.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/a-tip-for-the-bullying-gentlemen-quote-end/
Image 3 (Square in a Circular Hole): https://plus.maths.org/content/round-peg-square-hole-or-square-peg-round-hole