The evil notion of American Exceptionalism
Throughout history, the issue of wealth inequality has shaped the world we live in. Taking place in America during the early 20th. century, My Antonia and The Great Gatsby both paint two very different images of that very concept. One novel takes place in rural, lifeless Nebraska where the landscape is defined by nothing but land (Cather 7) while the other plays out between the bustling city and the colonial mansions (Fitzgerald 6) in the vastly rich suburbs of New York. Although there is a drastic difference in scene, many similarities arise between the characters of both novels. The lives of George Wilson and the Shimerdas are very much alike – directed by hard work and dire conditions. Other characters such as Gatsby and Krajiek are similar in some respects as well. They live more lavish lives than most, funded by dirty money and crooked business. These similarities contradict the popular notion of American Exceptionalism; hard and honest work leads to success for anybody regardless of their origin. Both works manage to challenge this idea of American exceptionalism as hardworking and honest individuals struggle to survive while crooked conmen live lavishly off their robbed wealth.
From the first time we meet Wilson and the Shimerdas, we get a sense of their hard working mentality. Although both live in very different places, their experiences with the American dream are both rather negative. Wilson is a worn-out (Fitzgerald 136) man who looks rather anemic and runs an unprosperous (Fitzgerald 25) garage in the valley of ashes between the city and West Egg. Not being very successful, his face shows gleams of hope (Fitzgerald 25) at the sight of any potential customers in his garage. His dedication does not lead him down the road of success and after twelve years he still lives a punishing life. His wife, discontent with the conditions wanders off and has an affair while Wilson struggles to improve their lives. He loses grip of not only his financial troubles but also his personal life. Wilson proves that success depends on more factors than just hard work. The idea of American Exceptionalism has failed him. The Shimerdas undergo a very similar journey as they attempt to start a new life halfway across the world. We get a sense of this similarity not only by analyzing their stories, but also by studying the language used to describe the two. When they first arrive in Nebraska they are welcomed by expensive land, extremely harsh climate and a lack of opportunity. Hardly speaking any English, they are persuaded into purchasing a house for far more than it was worth. (Cather 13) The blustery winters (Cather 1) leave the family suffering in their measly home during the bitter (Cather 36) nights. Like Wilson, the language used to describe their hole (Cather 36) of a house and the poor (Cather 18) conditions creates a gloomy picture. In spite of these conditions, they are generous and honest people who are willing to give away everything they [have] (Cather 23). This was not always the case; they left behind a life of good wages where they were respected (Cather 40) in hopes of starting a new life and blinded by the idea that America is somehow Exceptional. This misguided assumption caused not only a life of suffering financially but also emotionally. After embarking on this risky journey the Shimerdas, disheartened by the bitter weather (Cather 39) proceed to lose the head of the family. Again the hard work leads to more troubles, not just economic. The death of Mr. Shimerda is a pivotal point that really shows the damage that the notion of American exceptionalism can cause. The constant labor also interferes with the children’s education and childhood as Antonia works on the cornfields from sunup until sundown (Cather 62) she has no time to attend school. This was not the dream they were promised when they set out on their journey to America. In both the Great Gatsby and My Antonia the hard work of characters like Wilson and the Shimerdas leads them down an ever longer spiral of poverty and hardship – not of success. There is no trace of American Exceptionalism in the stories of these characters and their hard, honest work does not pay off.
On the other hand, malicious characters like Gatsby and Krajicek manage to live more lavish lives by involving themselves in shady business and immoral practices, again contradicting the idea that hard and honest work leads to success. Similar to Wilson and the Shimerdas, Krajicek, and Gatsby are two characters in very different settings yet there are striking similarities that arise when analyzing their stories and circumstances. Krajiek, a pale and quiet (Cather 49), fellow countryman (Cather 13) of the Shimerdas takes advantage of their lacking English to sell them a house as good as a badger hole (Cather 11) for more than it was worth. (Cather 13) He also makes false claims about Black Hawk, attempting to keep the Shimerdas from finding out about his immoral practices. Unknowingly, and trusting him due to their shared heritage, the family falls for Krajicek hoax and is forced to endure years of suffering directly because of it. By exploiting people in such vulnerable positions it becomes clear that Krajicek is an evil and immoral man. Contrary to the notion of American Exceptionalism, he gains wealth and success by ripping off, not by working hard. As a direct result, an honest, hardworking family is forced to suffer the consequences. In Gatsbys case, this relationship between the victims of his shady business and him is less noticeable. Although Gatsby is described as an elegant young man only a year or two over thirty (Fitzgerald 48), he shares a vital aspect in common with Krajicek – his unethical business practices. He lives life to the fullest, throwing lavish parties between white palaces (Fitzgerald 5), champagne and the stars (Fitzgerald 39) all while exploiting an illegal market for alcohol during the prohibition. Gatsby was a bootlegger (Fitzgerald 61). One might argue that Gatsby did embody the notion of American Exceptionalism when disregarding the illegality of his business as he became very successful by working hard. This claim, however, is plagued with flaws as the business of bootlegging was one filled with crime and many fatal accidents in the production phase. Although no evidence in the novel suggests that Gatsby was involved in violent crime, considering his suspicious connections to gangsters such as Meyer Wolfsheim and the lack of clarity about his business, it becomes quite clear that Gatsby was involved in illegal practices. The claim that he worked hard can also be ruled out since there is no evidence to support this claim. Similar to Krajicek, Gatsby also manipulated the people around him. Spreading false claims about his past as an Oxford man (Fitzgerald 49) and his effort in the War, he builds a facade to deceive people. He is perfectly aware of how his crooked business affects thousands but he uses this facade to hide from reality. By parting from his true identity and creating a facade, Gatsby shows that the idea related to American Exceptionalism that success can be achieved regardless of background is also false. Although this is unique to Gatsby, Krajicek and him both thrive off crooked practices and knowingly leave the victims of their crimes to endure the harsh and even deadly consequences. This reprehensible behavior challenges the notions of American Exceptionalism as it suggests that success is acquired with corrupted dishonest work.
Although the world would be a better place if hard honest work alone could lead to success, this idea is flawed. Both My Antonia and The Great Gatsby, offer compelling evidence to support this fact. In the novels, characters such as Wilson or the Shimerdas challenge this notion as they spend years working hard in harsh conditions and are only met with greater troubles in return. Wilsons twelve years of hard work don’t grant him success, instead he loses his wife’s loyalty and suffers great financial troubles. Similarly, after arriving to America in the hopes of starting a new life the Shimerdas are met with grueling working conditions and climate. Fooled by the idea of American Exceptionalism, the Shimerdas work endlessly, hoping for success. Instead they live in a hole (Cather 13) and lose their father, depressed with their new life. Amidst these hardships Gatsby and Krajicek manage to manipulate their way to success through unethical means and taking advantage of vulnerable characters. The Shimerdas for instance lose most of their savings to Krajicek who uses their inability to communicate with others to his advantage. He does not work hard yet he is successful, contradicting the notion of American Exceptionalism. Gatsby also challenges this notion by running an illegal business that exploits the prohibition laws in place at the time with what seems like little to no work. This practice might seem harmless, yet it was connected to violent crime and corruption. Ultimately, families and small business owners such as Wilson and the Shimerdas are impacted by these immoral practices. Characters from both novels contradict the idea that hard honest work leads to success and portray the lamentable reality of the notion of American Exceptionalism.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Dover Publications, Inc, 1994.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 2004.