The Delusional American Dream

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Fantasies of owning a home, sending your children to college and living debt-free are dreamed of, but how realistic is that today? Tully Cowan delves into the reality of attaining such security in America and how standards have plummeted in the past 100 years.

The first white settlers landed in the United States looking for freedom from their previous lives, or better known as looking for their dream in America. While they found freedom, they were in need of money to be successful. Hundreds of years later, that idea is found immensely in the mindsets of the people in the 1920’s, but is this still the ideals Americans strive for today?

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One of the main concepts represented in the novel, The Great Gatsby, is the American Dream which arguably is still relevant in contemporary times because we all attempt to be financially secure in today’s age. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, has used a range of techniques, such as the use of symbolism, to demonstrate the American dream along with other concepts in the novel.

The Eyes of T.J Eckleburg, an important symbol relating to the American Dream, are described in the line, “But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under the sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” Fitzgerald uses the term, “brood on over the solemn dumping ground” to demonstrate that the eyes are symbolizing commercialism which is disappointed with the working class that resides in the Valley of Ashes, most of whom are striving for the American Dream.

It is additionally shown in the line, “‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all. . . .’ Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. This optimistic illustration is given after Nicks sees three ‘modish Negroes’ in a limousine traveling to New York City, depicting classic elements of the American Dream – economic possibility, racial and religious diversity, and a carefree attitude.

Alex Gibney, director of Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, released in 2012, also uses a range of aesthetic features and stylistic devices to convey the concept of the downsides of the American dream. Gibney uses an analogy of the board game Monopoly to disprove the belief that everyone is going to become wealthy if they tried hard enough.

Paul Piff, social psychologist at the University of California, rigged the game of Monopoly to favour one person, mimicking a real-life situation of income inequality in the United States. Typically, Monopoly shows the American Dream perfectly, as everyone receives an equal amount of wealth and those who are lucky and strategic can rise to the top, as seen in common beliefs of the American Dream. Piff’s version of the game showed a realistic view, giving a higher starting balance to one player, representing how some are born into wealthier and privileged families.

Gibney also uses a range of shots to display the juxtaposition of the two widely different areas with the same name, Park Avenue. Even with the same name, the two Park Avenues couldn’t be anymore different. The Manhattan side shows luxury cars, doorman equipped with white gloves and a clean and safe atmosphere.

A completely different perspective is shown when the shots dramatically switch to a community with large, wired fencing, copious amounts of litter and an increase in public transport. The Bronx is established as an unsafe contrast to the Upper East Side, even though it is filled with individuals who are striving for the American Dream which is clearly lacking from each shot.

Likewise, the American Dream is represented through some significant characters in the novel. Myrtle Wilson, the wife of garage owner George Wilson, is one perspective of a low-income individual attempting to become wealthy. However, she attempts this by becoming a mistress to the wealthy Tom Buchanan, who buys her gifts and an apartment in the city. Unfortunately, like other characters, her dream is left unfulfilled when Daisy, Tom’s wife, runs her over outside her home, leaving Myrtle to die young without having completely filled her dream of having wealth to her name.

Gatsby, on the other hand, lives a lavish life with his finical goals completed. To complete his American Dream, he waits for his former lover to come back to him, quite evident through Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism to represent Gatsby achieving his dream. In the line, “…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water… I distinguished nothing except a single green light…”, Fitzgerald describes Gatsby reaching towards something in sight but out of reach, portraying the American Dream to be unattainable.

With these two characters alone, Fitzgerald persuades the audience that during the times of the novel, it was unachievable to live the American Dream. Gibney conveys a comparable idea, although he focusses on how unachievable this goal is for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Unfortunately, only 60% of children from the poorest families are working at age 30, compared with 80% for children from median-income families. This notion is described extensively by Gibney in the documentary, representing that in contemporary times it is still difficult to achieve financial stability.

Fitzgerald’s cultural assumptions, attitudes, values and beliefs on the American Dream are shown extensively in the novel. His values are heavily focused on wealthy people and the burdens wealth can bring to someone. He clearly demonstrates that the American Dream is not something you should strive for, due to the fate of many characters that end up quite complicated.

The author’s beliefs extend this idea, indicating that, unless you are born into success, the American Dream is impossible to attain, contradicting popular cultural assumptions at the time, where if you work hard enough you can be successful. This invites audiences to take up positions of contradicting the widespread belief that the American Dream is really quite a negative “dream”.

He shares a similar attitude as he makes it explicit that people believe that being wealthy equates to being happy, even though his attitudes are strongly against that.

Gibney’s cultural assumptions, attitudes, values and beliefs on the American Dream are also shown regularly in the documentary. The director values are that becoming successful should be open to anyone from diverse backgrounds, not just those who were born into upper-class families. His attitudes and beliefs are similar, consisting of believing the top wealthiest hold too much power in politics which ultimately favours them financially. One belief Gibney also shared with Fitzgerald was that the American Dream is almost impossible to attain, aligning with current cultural assumptions of society today.

In contemporary times, a mere 95 years since the publication of The Great Gatsby, the concept of the American Dream is relevant, however, it has gone through transformations which have changed how people perceive the dream. Today’s American Dream has become less focused on living a rich life where opportunities are abundant to being able to graduate from tertiary education with minimal debt, secure a job in your field that includes benefits and to be able to afford basic health care costs while still living a comfortable life. This was caused by societies becoming more aware of the difficulties involved, with some help from literature like The Great Gatsby.

This concept can be seen evidently with the immense amount of people immigrating to the United States to seek economic opportunity in the form of jobs. In 2016 alone, 1.18 million legal immigrants were admitted into the United States, contributing to the country being the most immigrated to in the world. Without such American Dream ideals, it can be argued that the country would experience a significant decrease in immigration.

This concept is tremendously relevant as today, many individuals hold the mindset that they must achieve a common dream, which especially can impact on decisions such as job pathways and standards of living.

Unfortunately, this concept can have a crucial impact on society, as the goal to be successful can cause consequences. This is outlined in Gibney’s documentary, where those with political power from their wealth can change programs that benefit the poor. In the documentary, this is seen in the line, ”…training and education programmes are being slashed by both parties in favour of tax cuts for the rich.”

Ultimately, this can cause an increase in both suicide and crime rates, as there is a direct trend between income and suicide as those who earn less then $34,000USD per year were 50% more likely to commit suicide, with similar trends relating to crime.

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