“The American Dream is not a paradise but a nightmare.” By comparing A Streetcar Named Desire and The Great Gatsby to what extent do you agree with this statement?
According to James Truslow Adams, who wrote ‘The Great Epic of America’, the American Dream is “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain regardless of circumstances of birth or position”1. A Streetcar Named Desire and The Great Gatsby both criticize the vitiated American Dream faced by those in their society; despite the dream changing from one of hedonism in ‘Gatsby’ to a sobered dream in ‘Streetcar’. The American Dream, despite being vastly different in the two novels, is portrayed as being nightmarish; showing that universally the idea of the American Dream is an unobtainable illusion. The term ‘American Dream’ was popularized by the historian James Truslow Adams, in his book ‘The Great Epic of America’. The book was published in 1931, long before Gatsby was published. The idea of the American Dream was referred to frequently prior to Adams’ book – the earliest recorded example of this was in 1630, when John Winthrop gave his ‘City on a Hill ‘ speech2. Which shows the American Dream to be more of a universal idea, as opposed to a set of principles or a specific dream. This is also an example of ‘American Exceptionalism’ – the theory that American is inherently different to other nations, which is interesting when looking at the American Dream as exclusive of other nations and cultures. In The Great Gatsby, the protagonists view the American Dream as achievable through the accumulation of wealth - particularly Gatsby, Tom and to a certain extent, Nick. Gatsby sees wealth as a means to acquire Daisy, whom he sees as the validation of achieving his American Dream. According to Norman Pearson, Daisy “seemed to be the representation of what he yearned for: the platonic essence”3. Pearson also summarizes Gatsby’s longing for Daisy, when he writes about the green light at the end of her dock: she “gave him the green light to move ahead. Only it took money to buy the car to join the traffic”. In this way Fitzgerald makes Daisy more of a trophy than an actual woman with qualities to be desired. Lois Tyson highlights this fact in ‘Critical theory today’ when she says that when Daisy “learns that Gatsby doesn’t come from the same social stratum as herself, she retreats behind the protection of [Tom’s] wealth”4. This portrayal of Daisy is sustained throughout the novel, especially in chapter 9, when Nick describes Daisy as self-centered and capricious. When Gatsby ‘loses’ to Tom, she fickly switches places, always ending up with the ‘winner’, thus making herself a prize.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the American Dream is presented as having evolved from something which resembled the American Dream in Gatsby, with luxury and monetary wealth, to a new Dream which is about working hard to prosper. Within Streetcar, there are two presentations of the American Dream, one where class, race and gender are all deciding factors in how far you can achieve your ‘dream’, which is represented by Blanche. The other, where one can prosper purely through one’s own hard work, is represented by Stanley. Stanley Kowalski is part of a wider group of immigrants who helped to sustain America’s material prosperity through industry, during the 1940’s and ‘50s. Through his, and Stella’s baby, he is representative of a progressive American Dream where social mobility is rewarded rather than punished, as we see in Gatsby through the deaths of Gatsby and Wilson.
Almost all characters in Gatsby have an American Dream which consists of attaining a certain social status, but for Tom this comes with his status as someone from ‘Old money’. This is particularly important for Gatsby, who feels inferior to Tom, when he reduces Gatsby to a “common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on...
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