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Do You Think the American Dream Is Real?

Jairo, Miami: “My American dream lies where courage, freedom, justice, service and gratitude are cherished and practiced. I dream of that America that fought for me to become who I am today. An America where all children can have that opportunity to dream and succeed.”

By Jeremy Engle

  • Feb. 12, 2019

What does the American dream mean to you? A house with a white picket fence? Lavish wealth? A life better than your parents’?

Do you think you will be able to achieve the American dream?

In “ The American Dream Is Alive and Well ,” Samuel J. Abrams writes:

I am pleased to report that the American dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans. This claim might sound far-fetched given the cultural climate in the United States today. Especially since President Trump took office, hardly a day goes by without a fresh tale of economic anxiety, political disunity or social struggle. Opportunities to achieve material success and social mobility through hard, honest work — which many people, including me, have assumed to be the core idea of the American dream — appear to be diminishing. But Americans, it turns out, have something else in mind when they talk about the American dream. And they believe that they are living it. Last year the American Enterprise Institute and I joined forces with the research center NORC at the University of Chicago and surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,411 Americans about their attitudes toward community and society. The center is renowned for offering “deep” samples of Americans, not just random ones, so that researchers can be confident that they are reaching Americans in all walks of life: rural, urban, exurban and so on. Our findings were released on Tuesday as an American Enterprise Institute report.
What our survey found about the American dream came as a surprise to me. When Americans were asked what makes the American dream a reality, they did not select as essential factors becoming wealthy, owning a home or having a successful career. Instead, 85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential to achieving the American dream. In addition, 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” was essential. The “traditional” factors (at least as I had understood them) were seen as less important. Only 16 percent said that to achieve the American dream, they believed it was essential to “become wealthy,” only 45 percent said it was essential “to have a better quality of life than your parents,” and just 49 percent said that “having a successful career” was key.

The Opinion piece continues:

The data also show that most Americans believe themselves to be achieving this version of the American dream, with 41 percent reporting that their families are already living the American dream and another 41 percent reporting that they are well on the way to doing so. Only 18 percent took the position that the American dream was out of reach for them
Collectively, 82 percent of Americans said they were optimistic about their future, and there was a fairly uniform positive outlook across the nation. Factors such as region, urbanity, partisanship and housing type (such as a single‐family detached home versus an apartment) barely affected these patterns, with all groups hovering around 80 percent. Even race and ethnicity, which are regularly cited as key factors in thwarting upward mobility, corresponded to no real differences in outlook: Eighty-one percent of non‐Hispanic whites; 80 percent of blacks, Hispanics and those of mixed race; and 85 percent of those with Asian heritage said that they had achieved or were on their way to achieving the American dream.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— What does the American dream mean to you? Did reading this article change your definition? Do you think your own dreams are different from those of your parents at your age? Your grandparents?

— Do you believe your family has achieved, or is on the way to achieving, the American dream? Why or why not? Do you think you will be able to achieve the American dream when you are older? What leads you to believe this?

— Do you think the American dream is available to all Americans or are there boundaries and obstacles for some? If yes, what are they?

— The article concludes:

What conclusions should we draw from this research? I think the findings suggest that Americans would be well served to focus less intently on the nastiness of our partisan politics and the material temptations of our consumer culture, and to focus more on the communities they are part of and exercising their freedom to live as they wish. After all, that is what most of us seem to think is what really matters — and it’s in reach for almost all of us.

Do you agree? What other conclusions might be drawn? Does this article make you more optimistic about this country and your future?

— Is the American dream a useful concept? Is it helpful in measuring our own or our country’s health and success? Do you believe it is, or has ever been, an ideal worth striving for? Is there any drawback to continuing to use the concept even as its meaning evolves?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

The American Nightmare

To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.

american dream or nightmare essay

Ibram X. Kendi and Yoni Appelbaum will discuss policing, protests, and this moment in history, live at 2 p.m. ET on June 4. Register for The Big Story EventCast here .

I t happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.

On May 19, 1896, The New York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.

Another racial text—published by the nation’s premier social-science organization, the American Economic Association, and classified by the historian Evelynn Hammonds as “one of the most influential documents in social science at the turn of the 20th century”—elicited more shock in 1896.

“Nothing is more clearly shown from this investigation than that the southern black man at the time of emancipation was healthy in body and cheerful in mind,” Frederick Hoffman wrote in Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro . “What are the conditions thirty years after?” Hoffman concluded from “the plain language of the facts” that black Americans were better off enslaved. They are now “on the downward grade,” he wrote, headed toward “gradual extinction.”

Adam Serwer: The cruelty is the point

Hoffman’s Race Traits helped legitimize two nascent fields that are now converging on black lives: public health and criminology.

Hoffman knew his work was “a most severe condemnation of moderate attempts of superior races to lift inferior races to their elevated positions.” He rejected that sort of assimilationist racism, in favor of his own segregationist racism. The data “speak for themselves,” he wrote . White Americans had been naturally selected for health, life, and evolution. Black Americans had been naturally selected for disease, death, and extinction. “Gradual extinction,” the book concluded, “is only a question of time.”

Let them die , Hoffman seemed to be saying. That thought has echoed through time, down to our deadly moment in time, when police officers in Minneapolis let George Floyd die.

With its pages and pages of statistical charts, Race Traits helped catapult Hoffman into national and international prominence as the “ dean ” of American statisticians. In his day, Hoffman “achieved greatness,” assessed his biographer. “His career illustrates the fulfillment of the ‘American dream.’”

Actually, his career illustrates the fulfillment of the American nightmare—a nightmare still being experienced 124 years later from Minneapolis to Louisville, from Central Park to untold numbers of black coronavirus patients parked in hospitals, on unemployment lines, and in graves.

“W e don’t see any American dream,” Malcolm X said in 1964. “We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”

A nightmare is essentially a horror story of danger, but it is not wholly a horror story. Black people experience joy, love, peace, safety. But as in any horror story, those unforgettable moments of toil, terror, and trauma have made danger essential to the black experience in racist America. What one black American experiences, many black Americans experience. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the toil and terror and trauma of other black Americans. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the souls of the dead. Because they know: They could have been them; they are them. Because they know it is dangerous to be black in America, because racist Americans see blacks as dangerous.

Ibram X. Kendi: Who gets to be afraid in America?

To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction. Ask the souls of the 10,000 black victims of COVID-19 who might still be living if they had been white. Ask the souls of those who were told the pandemic was the “great equalizer.” Ask the souls of those forced to choose between their low-wage jobs and their treasured life. Ask the souls of those blamed for their own death. Ask the souls of those who disproportionately lost their jobs and then their life as others disproportionately raged about losing their freedom to infect us all. Ask the souls of those ignored by the governors reopening their states.

The American nightmare has everything and nothing to do with the pandemic. Ask the souls of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Step into their souls.

No-knocking police officers rushed into your Louisville home and shot you to death, but your black boyfriend immediately got charged, and not the officers who killed you. Three white men hunted you, cornered you, and killed you on a Georgia road, but it took a cellphone video and national outrage for them to finally be charged. In Minneapolis, you did not hurt anyone, but when the police arrived, you found yourself pinned to the pavement, knee on your neck, crying out, “I can’t breathe.”

History ignored you. Hoffman ignored you. Racist America ignored you. The state did not want you to breathe. But your loved ones did not ignore you. They did not ignore your nightmare. They share the same nightmare.

Enraged, they took to the streets and nonviolently rallied. Some violently rebelled, burning and snatching property that the state protected instead of your life. And then they heard over America’s loudspeaker, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Your loved ones are protesting your murder, and the president calls for their murder, calls them “THUGS,” calls them “OUT OF STATE” agitators. Others call the violence against property senseless—but not the police violence against you that drove them to violence. Others call both senseless, but take no immediate steps to stem police violence against you, only to stem the violence against property and police.

Read: The history of ‘thug’

Mayors issue curfews. Governors rattle their sabers. The National Guard arrives to protect property and police. Where was the National Guard when you faced violent police officers, violent white terrorists, the violence of racial health disparities, the violence of COVID-19—all the racist power and policy and ideas that kept the black experience in the American nightmare for 400 years?

Too many Americans have been waiting for black extinction since Hoffman. Let them die .

The National Guard lines up alongside state and local police. But they—your loved ones mourning you and mourning justice—are not going home, since you are not at home. They don’t back down, because they will never forget what happened to them, what happened to you!

You! You! You! The murdered black life that matters.

You are them. They are you. You are all the same person—all the murdered, all the living, all the infected, all the resisting—because racist America treats the whole black community and all of its anti-racist allies as dangerous, just as Hoffman did. What a nightmare. But perhaps the worst of the nightmare is knowing that racist Americans will never end it. Anti-racism is on you, and only you. Racist Americans deny your nightmare, deny their racism, claim you have a dream like a King, when even his dream in 1967 “ turned into a nightmare .”

I n 1896, Frederick Hoffman deployed data to substantiate racist ideas that are still building caskets for black bodies today. Black people are supposed to be feared by all, murdered by police officers, lynched by citizens, and killed by COVID-19 and other lethal diseases. It has been proved. No there there. Black life is the “hopeless problem,” as Hoffman wrote .

Black life is danger. Black life is death.

Hoffman’s Race Traits was “arguably the most influential race and crime study of the first half of the twentieth century,” wrote the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness . It was also arguably the most influential race and public-health study of the period.

James Fallows: Is this the worst year in modern American history?

In the first nationwide compilation of racial crime data, Hoffman used the higher arrest and incarceration rates of black Americans to argue that they are, by their very nature and behavior, a dangerous and violent people—as racist Americans still say today. Hoffman compiled racial health disparities to argue that black Americans are, by their very nature and behavior, a diseased and dying people. Hoffman cataloged higher black mortality rates and showed that black Americans were more likely to suffer from syphilis, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases than white Americans. The same disparities are visible today, as black Americans die of COVID-19 at a rate nearly two times their share of the national population, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker .

Now step back into their souls.

You are sick and tired of the nightmare. And you are “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as Fannie Lou Hamer once said. But racist America stares at your sickness and tiredness, approaches you, looks past the jagged clothes of your history, looks past the scars of your trauma, and asks: How does it feel to be the American nightmare?

While black Americans view their experience as the American nightmare, racist Americans view black Americans as the American nightmare. Racist Americans, especially those racists who are white, view themselves as the embodiment of the American dream. All that makes America great. All that will make America great again. All that will keep America great.

But only the lies of racist Americans are great. Their American dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity, committed to freedom and equality, where police officers protect and serve—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have more because they are more, that when black people have more, they were given more—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have the civil right to kill black Americans with impunity and that black Americans do not have the human right to live—is a lie.

From the beginning, racist Americans have been perfectly content with turning nightmares into dreams, and dreams into nightmares; perfectly content with the law of racial killing, and the order of racial disparities. They can’t fathom that racism is America’s nightmare. There can be no American dream amid the American nightmare of anti-black racism—or of anti-Native, anti-Latino, anti-Asian racism—a racism that causes even white people to become fragile and die of whiteness.

Take Minneapolis. Black residents are more likely than white residents to be pulled over, arrested, and victimized by its police force. Even as black residents account for 20 percent of the city’s population, they make up 64 percent of the people Minneapolis police restrained by the neck since 2018, and more than 60 percent of the victims of Minneapolis police shootings from late 2009 to May 2019. According to Samuel Sinyangwe of Mapping Police Violence, Minneapolis police are 13 times more likely to kill black residents than to kill white residents, one of the largest racial disparities in the nation. And these police officers rarely get prosecuted.

A typical black family in Minneapolis earns less than half as much as a typical white family—a $47,000 annual difference that is one of the largest racial disparities in the nation. Statewide, black residents are 6 percent of the Minnesota population, but 30 percent of the coronavirus cases as of Saturday, one of the largest black case disparities in the nation, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker .

Ibram X. Kendi: We’re still living and dying in the slaveholder’s republic

This is the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic—older than 1896, but as new as COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd. But why is there such a pandemic of racial disparities in Minneapolis and beyond? “The pages of this work give but one answer,” Hoffman concluded in 1896. “It is not in the conditions of life, but in race and hereditary that we find the explanation of the fact to be observed in all parts of the globe, in all times and among all peoples, namely, the superiority of one race over another, and of the Aryan race over all.”

T he two explanations available to Hoffman more than a century ago remain the two options for explaining racial disparities today, from COVID-19 to police violence: the anti-racist explanation or the racist explanation. Either there is something superior or inferior about the races, something dangerous and deathly about black people, and black people are the American nightmare; or there is something wrong with society, something dangerous and deathly about racist policy, and black people are experiencing the American nightmare.

Hoffman popularized the racist explanation. Many Americans probably believe both explanations—and live the contradiction of the American dream and nightmare. Many Americans struggle to be anti-racist, to see the racism in racial disparities, to cease blaming black people for disproportionate black disease and death, to instead blame racist power and policy and racist ideas for normalizing all the carnage. They struggle to focus on securing anti-racist policies that will lead to life, health, equity, and justice for all, and to act from anti-racist ideas that value black lives, that equalize all the racial groups in all their aesthetic and cultural differences.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The case for reparations

In April, many Americans chose the racist explanation : saying black people were not taking the coronavirus as seriously as white people, until challenged by survey data and majority-white demonstrations demanding that states reopen. Then they argued that black Americans were disproportionately dying from COVID-19 because they have more preexisting conditions, due to their uniquely unhealthy behaviors. But according to the Foundation for AIDS Research , structural factors such as employment, access to health insurance and medical care, and the air and water quality in neighborhoods are drivers of black infections and deaths, and not “intrinsic characteristics of black communities or individual-level factors.”

There’s also no clear relationship between violent-crime rates and police-violence rates. And there’s no direct relationship between violent-crime rates and black people. If there were, higher-income black neighborhoods would have the same levels of violent crime as lower-income black neighborhoods. But that is hardly the case.

Americans should be asking: Why are so many unarmed black people being killed by police while armed white people are simply arrested? Why are officials addressing violent crime in poorer neighborhoods by adding more police instead of more jobs? Why are black (and Latino) people during this pandemic less likely to be working from home ; less likely to be insured ; more likely to live in trauma-care deserts , lacking access to advanced emergency care; and more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods ? The answer is what the Frederick Hoffmans of today refuse to believe: racism.

Instead, they say, like Donald Trump—like all those raging against the destruction of property and not black life—that they are “not racist.” Hoffman introduced Race Traits by declaring that he was “free from the taint of prejudice or sentimentality … free from a personal bias.” He was merely offering a “statement of the facts.” In fact, the racial disparities he recorded documented America’s racist policies.

Hoffman advanced the American nightmare. What will we advance? Hoffman implied we should let them die . Will we fight for black people to live?

History is calling the future from the streets of protest. What choice will we make? What world will we create? What will we be?

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist.

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American Dreams: Then And Now

With the american dream comes the nightmare.

Linton Weeks

american dream or nightmare essay

Unemployed circus clown Tim Torkildson, aka Dusty the Clown, sits on a bench on the north side of the U.S. Capitol in May. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call hide caption

Unemployed circus clown Tim Torkildson, aka Dusty the Clown, sits on a bench on the north side of the U.S. Capitol in May.

One American's dream can be another American's nightmare.

Consider: Some people long to live in big cities; others think cities have ruined the landscape. Some Americans love to drive big old honking SUVs; others see huge cars as pollution-producing monsters. For some people, the American dream is a steady office job. For others, the office is a sinkhole and the real dream is freedom from the office.


Sizing up the american dream.

For Jamie Smith, owner of the Mr. Rooter plumbing company in Baltimore, the American dream involves less government. Testifying before Congress recently, Smith said that a state sales tax on gasoline would be detrimental to his business.

"I used to think that having a small business was the American dream," Smith said, "but now it appears to be the American nightmare."

For Boston attorney Paul L. Nevins, however, the government is essential to the American dream.

"The continued gutting of this country's labor laws is a national disgrace as well as a middle-class tragedy," Nevins wrote recently to The New York Times . "With the decline of unions, the middle class has lost its bargaining leverage. Temporary jobs, minimum-wage service jobs and unpaid internships — all justified based on the needs of the market — have turned the American Dream into the American Nightmare."

For Dick Meyer, author of the 2008 book Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium , the idyllic vision of American life involved belonging, as well as individualism.

"The notion of being able to belong to the church of your own choice or of participating in the town meeting was part the American dream," says Meyer, former executive editor of NPR who's now executive producer for the BBC's news services in the U.S. "Now we dream of gated communities and media rooms that let us watch movies without going to theaters. We got scared of the world and obsessed with safety in a pathological way."

The Wall Street Journal has described itself as "the Daily Diary of the American Dream."

This, then, is "A Brief Diary of the American Nightmare."

Size Of The Pie

The American dream is rooted in limitless growth, expansion, possibility. One Yahoo blogger lists six benchmarks of the middle-class version — homeownership, a nice car, college education, retirement security, health care assurance and vacation time. But today's palsied economy puts many of these dreams out of reach — or at least on layaway.

There is a sense in contemporary America that we may have found some limits. And in some ways that there is no more space for expansion. That we are trapped in a room, the walls closing in; no windows, no doors, no exit. Aaaiiieee! What a nightmare!

The Cultural American Nightmare

The lifelong tension between American dreams and nightmares is found on shelf after shelf of our national literature, from Horatio Alger's mid-19th-century novels to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run (1941) and Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun .

The theme is explored in mainstream movies such as Citizen Kane (1941), Scarface (1983), American Beauty (1999) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).

The premise of the 2009 documentary Nightmares in Red White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film — written and based on a book by Joseph Maddrey — is that many of our country's scariest movies are also derived from the notion of the American dream turning sour.

According to the documentary, the 2000 film American Psycho "proposed that the most horrifying monster we face is the corrupted American Dreamer." The movie is "dedicated to a warped concept of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The documentary traces the transformation of scary flicks — from the 1910 rendition of Frankenstein by Thomas Edison's movie studio to The Amityville Horror (1999) and other dream shredders.

Addressing the suggestion that the American horror movie has run out of ideas, Maddrey writes, "perhaps it has less to do with Hollywood's lack of creativity than with contemporary American culture. The current generation is, in a way, reliving the nightmares of previous generations — on screen and off."

— Linton Weeks

Perhaps the tension between our waking dreams and nightmares is hyperheightened by our economic system. Does capitalism really make it possible for a maximum number of people to realize their dreams? Or does it work in the opposite fashion — and require a concomitant number of disasters?

Martha Starr, who teaches economics at American University, says there is not anything inherent in capitalism that would make an American dream for one person come at the expense of someone else. But, she adds, the contemporary American way of life does present challenges.

Starr uses the 1960s to illustrate a calm-waters period in the economic sea — when unemployment was very low and, in a broad-based way, household incomes were rising. Sure, there were the inevitable ebbs and flows, she says. Some people had more success than others — in jobs and opening businesses. But, on balance, the rising tide lifted most boats, putting the average American household ahead of where it had been in the past. "Not so much now," Starr says. "For the past 10 to 15 years, there hasn't been any up trend in household incomes: They go up somewhat in good times when more work is available and down during recessions when jobs dry. But average people aren't seeing their livelihoods register any sustained improvement."

To buttress her assertion, she points to a Census Bureau chart showing Real Median Household Income for the years 1967-2010. For Americans of all stripes, the trend lines climb until around 2000, then flatten out.

"The one constant of the capitalist economy," Starr says, "is its perpetual flux. New businesses and new industries arise and aim to compete sales away from older or less efficient competitors. Entrepreneurs who can launch successful business projects accumulate wealth and create new jobs — but the firms they displace wind up having to close their doors and lay people off."

If it appears like there is some inevitable balance of dreams against nightmares, Starr says, "the zero-sum quality of it is more a product of our times than anything else. The size of the pie isn't really growing — relative to the size of the workforce — so a bigger piece for one person means a smaller piece for another." She adds. "Given how much pressure our high-consumption lifestyles put on the environment, having the economy muddle along like this isn't necessarily bad. But it makes all types of bad luck that much harder to cope with. If you lose a job, incur large uninsured medical expenses, go through a messy divorce, see your home price drop by 30 percent, et cetera, you can't just go out and get a good job and earn your way out."

External Effects, Internal Attitudes

While some Americans may follow their dreams to China or other international promised lands, those who want to stay home and seek their fame and fortune in America may need help. But like the above-mentioned Smith and Nevins, Americans do not always agree on the government's role in helping dreams come true.

For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the bugaboo was too much dependence on government. Eisenhower was Emersonian at heart and a champion of American self-reliance. Before he was elected president of the United States — when he was still president of Columbia University — Eisenhower told a 1949 gathering of newspeople: "Unless we understand the American dream, it may become the American nightmare."

Show Me The Money

Median Household Income 1967-2010

Source: Census Bureau

Credit: Stephanie D'Otreppe / NPR

As Americans, Eisenhower continued, "we believe in human dignity, in human rights not subject to arbitrary curtailment. We believe that these rights can be fully possessed and effectively exercised only so long as man asserts and maintains himself the master not the serf of institutions he creates."

He went on to emphasize personal responsibility over governmental responsibility and the need to balance social and economic welfare with individual freedom and rights.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s American dream, on the other hand, as outlined in his 1964 speech at Drew University, was predicated on governmental involvement. "Through legislation," King said, "we control the external effects of bad internal attitudes, and so it is necessary in society to have legislation" to realize the American dream.

That same year, Malcolm X also spoke about life in America.

"I'm speaking as a victim of this American system," Malcolm X said. "And I see America through the eyes of a victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare." He warned against relying too much on the American government for assistance.

At least Dwight Eisenhower and Malcolm X agreed on something.

Living In The Dark

The unalienable right to pursue individual happiness is coded into America's DNA. The underlying message is that you can be as happy as you want to be , as happy as you can make yourself.

What makes the American strand of human aspiration uniquely American, says Meyer, is that belief that a person can be "self-made," that one can transcend one's appointed rung on the ladder of society as determined by class, gender, birth order, inherited vocation and religion.

We Want To Know: What Is Your American Dream?

Around the Nation

We want to know: what is your american dream.

American Dream Faces Harsh New Reality

'American Dream' Faces Harsh New Reality

"The archetypal American dream was deeper than being richer and better looking than your parents," he says. "It was about identity — forging it, discovering it yourself, not inheriting it."

But as it became easier, and even expected, to be self-made, the moral and spiritual pull of family, village, calling and religion receded into the mist, Meyer says. And along about the 1960s, "self-determination essentially became a consumer choice. Pick a religion and find an exercise regime, diet, clothing brand and favorites list to match."

For many Americans, he says, the challenge of near total life freedom ...has been that shedding old ties and traditions turns out to be easier than finding meaningful new ones; forming a modern 'lifestyle' often ends being narcissistic and consumerist."

This choice overload, Meyer says, "has proven to be spiritually hollow. We've found nothing to replace community, hard morality, religion and vocational pride to guide us through life. We're existentially in the dark."

And that, he adds, is the place where the American nightmare takes hold.

  • American Dream Essays

Extravagance: The Great American Dream ─ or Nightmare? Essay

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is portrayed as being a symbol of the American dream, but ironically, this “dream” ends up being more of a nightmare. With a setting taking the reader back to New York State’s Long Island in the Roaring Twenties, the characters are buried in a culture that is focused on materialism and prestige. Those who do not play the game or fit the role are left behind and cannot be what society calls “the winners.” As a young man, Gatsby felt what it was like to be sold short of the American dream, having little money or social status, and for that matter, no beautiful woman of his dreams. But when Gatsby returned from the war to New York with riches and a newfound power, he was able to grab hold of the American dream. This dream that became a reality, however, seemed to sell Gatsby short, as he tragically found that his newly acquired wealth and social status ─ as well as the girl of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan ─ could not purchase his happiness. In fact, this dream came at the price of his good character, and ultimately, his life. Fitzgerald uses Gatsby in this novel to represent what went wrong with America ─ a society in the Roaring Twenties that turned its back on morals and integrity to embrace wealth, prestige, parties, immorality and alcohol ─ ingredients not for happiness and fulfillment, but for loneliness and despair.

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Fitzgerald begins dismantling the heightened image of the American dream through the character and narrator, Nick Caraway, who often describes and characterizes Gatsby during his quest for Daisy, respect, and acceptance. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, however, Nick sees through Gatsby’s supposed fulfillment and satisfaction, and does not envy the “great Gatsby,” who is praised and idolized by the indulgent materialistic crowds that gather at his mansion to party and drink. This lifestyle that society was told to buy into did not appeal to Nick, “Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the aborted sorrows and short-winded elations of men,” (Fitzgerald 6). Instead of seeing Gatsby as a high-paying consumer, Nick sees Gatsby as the one who was being consumed by the price of having to pay dearly to reach his costly dreams, which will ultimately cost him his life. Nick saw through the false promises of happiness to be attained by pursuing and reaching the American dream, and he notes that any satisfaction or happiness gleaned as a result is shallow and short-lived. Early on, the reader witnesses that the ideals of glitz, glamour, prestige, promiscuity, and all the trappings of what became known as the high society in the Roaring Twenties is not what it is cut out to be.

Even though Gatsby and the high-brow company he keeps are characterized as living the American dream, the author uses Nick to show the true depravity of those who jump on board to live for this flawed concept. Nick actually calls Gatsby out, telling him exactly what he thinks about those who believe that they have reached the top of the ladder in life, “They’re a rotten crowd . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” (Fitzgerald 162). Through Nick, Fitzgerald shows that Gatsby and all the partying elite with which he surrounds himself are morally depraved ─ even though they hold themselves up as being above the rest of society (that has not achieved the American dream). Nick even sets himself apart from Gatsby and his wealthy revelers, noting that virtuous behavior is far from what those chasing after the American dream possess, “Everyone suspects themselves of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” (Fitzgerald 64). This statement goes to show that moral behavior in the upper class society on Long Island is virtually non-existent as everyone strives to live the immoral lifestyle ─ of adultery and dishonest gain ─ that they were told to chase. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that those living the American dream are living a lie. He uses Gatsby to show the actual lows in the high life, depicting how he stands alone during his fancy parties and how truly depressed him is despite his mansion, fancy car and seemingly limitless money. The author also shows the disreputable and questionable way in which Gatsby acquired his wealth though bootlegging to further devalue the American dream, which, at this point, is turning out to be a more of a nightmare.

Nick is not the only one who Fitzgerald uses to help shine light on the dismal state of the American dream in the 1920s, as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband; helps put the phony idealist and his unrewarding goals in their lowly place. Those in Long Island’s high society all appear to be in adulterous relationships, which appear to be the norm. Included in these sordid relationships are Tom, his married mistress, Myrtle, and Daisy, who had an affair with Gatsby in spite of her marriage. Tom, even though he is guilty of the same adulterous behavior of his wife, is seen here pointing out not only Gatsby’s immoral relations with his wife, but his fraudulent and mysterious background as to where and how he made his fortune, “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife . . . Well, if that’s the idea, you can count me out,” (Fitzgerald 137). Tom also divulges in this quote how it is normal for the social elite on Long Island to sit back and say nothing to anyone when their spouses are having affairs on them, since the practice is so common. This is yet another testimony given by the author that the American Dream in the Roaring Twenties is a sham and ignoble conquest.

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In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald shows that instead of Gatsby and other main characters living it up and taking advantage of the blessings of living the American dream, they end up falling prey to its destructive forces. Gatsby, as well as Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, and countless others in the social elite of the Roaring Twenties, live their lives in tune with how “successful” people were to carry themselves, indulging in carnal sins and acquiring wealth though any unscrupulous way. Abandoning all moral responsibility to live a virtuous life of integrity, those chasing after and living the American dream in this society did not pay much heed to the famous Bible verse often given as a warning to avoid the pitfalls of life, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” (New International Version Study Bible, 1 Timothy 6:10). Instead of electing to live a godly life as Nick did, Gatsby and other wealthy people with whom he associated chose money, prestige and sinfully indulgent behavior to be the driving force behind their lives. Because of Gatsby’s sin of sleeping with Daisy, her husband, Tom, plots to have his mistress’ husband kill the new millionaire ─ a train of infidelity that ends in murder. Furthermore, Daisy and Gatsby end up running over and killing Myrtle while sneaking around during their adulterous affair, continuing the destruction made by those chasing after the so-called American dream. The deceit and treachery used by those striving to live the American dream became virtually limitless with Gatsby and other characters in this book, as their morals often gave way to their greedy, carnal and power-hungry desires in a society that rewarded one’s portfolio over one’s character. The American dream in The Great Gatsby, therefore, should be more appropriately called “the American tragedy.”

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print. The News International Version Study Bible. Ed. Kenneth Barker, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. Print.

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