“People are so busy dreaming the American Dream, fantasizing about what they could be or have a right to be, that they’re all asleep at the switch. Consequently we are living in the Age of Human Error.” – Florence King
King’s words show us that the American Dream is something that drives us to work hard and give our best so that we can achieve and live the dream. Yet many people focus on dreaming about a better future in which they are successful and living an ideal life.
That idealism, the fantasy of a perfect life, distracts them from doing what should be done. A similar idea is shown through The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the story of Jay Gatsby and many other characters who try to fulfil their perception of the American Dream; and through A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, a play in which a black family, the Youngers, struggle to fulfil their conception of the American Dream.
Throughout The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun, the American Dream is shown to be an illusion for all races and social classes.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald portrays the delusion of the American Dream through Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle’s idea of the American Dream is to live in the higher class, which she tries to achieve by maintaining her relationship with Tom Buchanan. Her social class plays an important role as she does not blend in with Tom’s status.
When in the East Egg, Myrtle is shown to be living a rich person’s lifestyle and this can be seen through a conversation between Myrtle and Mrs. McKee. ‘I like your dress,’ remarked Mrs. McKee, ‘I think it’s adorable.’ Mrs. Wilson rejected the compliment by raising her eyebrow in disdain. ‘It’s just a crazy old thing,’ she said. ‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like’ (Fitzgerald 35).
When Myrtle comes out wearing the chiffon, she wants her status to match her personality, but when someone praises the dress “it’s adorable”, she neglects the praise. By saying that she “. just slip it (dress) on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like”, Myrtle makes it seem like her expensive dress is no big deal and she has plenty of wealth, when in reality, she does not. By calling the luxurious dress a “crazy old thing”, one can infer that Myrtle is unknown to the ways of the rich. Because Myrtle comes from a poor social class and desires to be rich, the illusion of the American Dream is portrayed through her idea of climbing the social ladder to reach the riches.
Jay Gatsby lives with the belief that only wealth can buy him happiness with Daisy, which becomes his American Dream to make himself better. He tries to achieve this through a series of ways that involves association with criminals: ‘I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were.’ He turned to us and spoke rapidly. ‘He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him and I wasn’t far wrong’ (Fitzgerald 30).
This incident shows that Gatsby works with Wolfshiem, previously shown as a sketchy guy. They own places “bought up a lot of side street drug stores” in which they do illegal work “sold grain alcohol over the counter”. By calling this “his little stunts”, it can also be predicted that Gatsby later becomes part of a bigger and more illegal business and a “bootlegger”. This clearly shows that Gatsby is involved in bootlegging and achieves his successful life through illegal works with criminals such as Wolfsheim. Because of the way he obtains the life he always wanted with Daisy, Gatsby misinterprets the idea of obtaining the American Dream, and his dream life to be just an illusion.
Jay Gatsby represents the illusion of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby as he lives with the hope that wealth could bring him closer to Daisy, in a sense his American Dream. This can be shown through Gatsby’s belief in the green light across from his house. “He was content to be alone–he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling” (Fitzgerald 24).
Gatsby “stretched out his arms toward the dark water” to reach out to the green light because of his desire for Daisy and his belief in the American Dream to repeat the past and unite with Daisy. But as he does “he was trembling”, Gatsby brings all the riches in the world to be with Daisy, still he is so close, yet so far. He believes in the green light and that only wealth could buy him everything even the love of Daisy not realizing the impossibility of his relationship with Daisy. Jay Gatsby’s desire for the unreachable blinds him from the perception of the American Dream, therefore representing the illusion of the American Dream.
Along with social status, Fitzgerald shows the misunderstanding of the American Dream through the white race, especially Tom Buchanan. For most of the white race, the American Dream means to be beyond successful and have all the riches in the world. This idea is represented through Tom Buchanan, who even after achieving the wealth most people strive for, lives his life unsatisfied resulting in the corruption of his dream, “Now, don’t think my opinion on these matters is final,” he seemed to say, “just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are” (Fitzgerald 9). By calling him “stronger and more of a man” Fitzgerald implies that Tom feels a certain superiority because he is white and rich. This quote also depicts Tom’s selfish personality which results from the need to want more power and money.
Tom’s overall representation of living a superior, perfect, rich white man lifestyle shows the idea of the American Dream. Because Tom Buchanan remains greedy and selfish even after having all the riches that a someone could wish for, he portrays the illusion of the American Dream as he lives with the dissatisfaction for wanting more.
Throughout Hansberry’s play the illusion of achieving the American Dream is shown through Walter and Beneatha. Both siblings of the Younger family are dependent of their father, Big Walter’s insurance money and have their dream solely based upon that. Walter Lee dreams about being successful and giving his son a good life while Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. This is shown through Beneatha and Asagai’s conversation after Bobo comes with the news that Willy Harris stole the insurance money. “Then isn’t there something wrong in a house-in a world, where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man.” This seems to question the dream that Walter Lee and Beneatha live upon. Asagai calls the Younger family’s house ‘wrong’ since their dreams “good or bad” all “depend on the death of a man”.
Even Though the intentions behind their dreams are noble, the way of fulfilling their dreams is fallacious since they rely on their father’s money rather than working hard as the American Dream should be achieved. Walter Lee and Beneatha’s dreams “depend on the death of a man” portraying the false idea of the American Dream since they search for achievement in their dreams through their father’s money. Therefore showing that the American Dream of hard work equalling success must be an illusion for them as they are unaware that the American Dream is about working hard.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry displays Walter Lee’s character as a way to emphasize the misconception of the idea of the American Dream. Walter Lee’s American Dream focuses around the belief that only wealth can bring his family happiness. “Listen, man, I got some plans that could turn this city upside down. I mean think like he does. Big. Invest big, gamble big, hell, lose big if you have to, you know what I mean… ” (Hansberry 84). This shows how far Walter is willing to go to earn more money, his mind is filled with “plans” which he thinks will make him rich “could turn this city upside down”.
Walter isn’t afraid to lose money if it means eventually having more money “Invest big, gamble big, hell, lose big if you have to…..”. Throughout his entire life, Walter worries about making and losing money that he forgets that the American Dream involves working hard to achieve a better life which is an illusion for him because Walter Lee has a false idea of the true purpose behind the American Dream.
In both the novel and the play, the characters are aware of the reality that comes with living the present with the hope of reaching the American Dream which is represented through the beliefs of Walter Lee and Jay Gatsby and thereafter shows the illusion of the American Dream. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee believes he could be rich even if it means losing big, he does all he could to be successful, but at the end he realizes that family and pride matters the most.
And we have all thought about your offer and we have decided to move into our… house because my father—my father he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money” (Hansberry 136).
Walter Lee was ready to trade the house his mother bought in return for more money but the thought behind the house was significant. By saying “we have decided to move into our house because my father-my father-he earned it for us brick by brick”, Walter Lee tells us that he did not take the offer because he respects and takes pride where the money put into the house came from, his “father” hard work. Even Though the decision of not taking the money had been Walter’s he says, “we have all thought about” and “we don’t want your money” showing the importance of family.
Since at the end Walter Lee’s belief of achieving the American Dream through wealth changes to support with family, he separates between dreams and reality. This shows the illusion of the American Dream because Walter Lee always believed that the true meaning of the American Dream was to earn more money until reality hits him and he realizes that all this time he had the wrong perception.
The last passage of the Great Gatsby truly differentiates between reality and dreams and shows how far Gatsby chases his dream no matter how unrealistic it may be. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….”. Gatsby lives his entire life with a dream of being with the idealistic Daisy, he becomes rich and comes back to Daisy, while his memories of the past flashes through his eyes repeatedly. By believing in the ‘the green light’ and ‘the orgastic future’ throughout his life, Gatsby sees a sign of hope that he will someday be with Daisy.
Despite Gatsby’s “eluded” attempts to bring Daisy to him, he does not care “no matter” and never stops “run faster, stretch our arms farther” trying to obtain his dream until that “one fine morning-” or his death. For Jay Gatsby the harsh reality exists through his impossible relationship with Daisy. All in the while he chases his dream, death chases him and his dream dies with his death showing the illusion of the American Dream.
Even Though The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun shows the American Dream to be an illusion for all social classes, it is argued that the higher class have already reached the American Dream, since moving up in society by earning more money is the idea of the American Dream in both texts. While the novel and the play show that the higher social class have achieved the American Dream, that does not mean that the dream is not an illusion for them because the American Dream does not necessarily mean earning more money to reach the highest social class no matter the illegal works done to get there, rather achieving success through hard work and determination.
Lorraine Hansberry and Scott Fitzgerald convey the illusion of the American Dream for all races and social classes through A Raisin in the Sun and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald shows this through Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy Buchanan and a strong will to fulfil his Dream by any means necessarily even illegal works. And Hansberry portrays this idea through the Younger family especially Walter Lee who is motivated to use his father’s insurance money to become rich and fill his and his family’s life with happiness. All in the while both characters in the texts are unknown to what the American Dream is truly about, that is finding a successful and prosperous life through dedication and hard work.