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Examining The Manifest American Dream English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4760 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay, I will be discussing whether or not the American Dream is manifest in America. This contention clearly needs some clarity, thus I will start with a brief examination of what exactly the American Dream constitutes, and how it may have a bearing and influence on the texts. I will then place the novels in some context, allowing for an exploration of the texts, Revolutionary Road and American Pastoral. I will then come to some conclusions as to whether or not the ultimate manifestation of the American Dream is America itself.

In the words of James Truslow Adams, author of The Epic America, the American dream is :

[…]that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It 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 to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. [1] 

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From this we may ascertain that the idea of the American Dream is something imbued into every generation of the American population. It is almost a spiritual guide as to how an American citizen should live their lives, working hard in order to achieve the goal of a ‘better and richer and fuller’ life. Thus, the American dream is a national ethos, where democratic ideals are seen as a promise of prosperity for the people of America.

The ideal of the American Dream could arguably be seen as stemming from the Declaration of Independence. A declaration that gave birth to a new, free and united nation, in which the citizens were entitled to certain rights and expectations it, ‘[…]held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ [2] 

Historically the American Dream can be seen as an ideal, however, by the 1950’s, the idea of the American Dream and what it actually meant to achieve this ideal had altered. Whilst the ethos that all can succeed remained the same, the emphasis became more about the self. Financial gain replaced spiritual success, financial security and filling ones life with modern amenities became the emphasis of achieving the American Dream. Post World War Two, citizens of America became part of one of the biggest economic booms in history. During the 1950s, businesses expanded rapidly. By the 1956, the majority of Americans did not work in blue collar industrial jobs. Instead, more people worked in, white collar positions – clerical, managerial, or professional occupations. White collar workers performed services such as sales, advertising, insurance, and communications. Of these new workers, many were young men returning from the war, or returning from time in Europe under the GI Bill. They were eager to pursue the new manifestation of the American Dream.

This ideal of the American Dream, the proof of its existence, is clearly somewhat limited. However, this ideal highlights what it was to be American, the principle of being a good American citizen during the 1950’s. It is true that during the 1950’s America’s economy boomed, it is also true that many young white collar workers and their families achieved prosperity and material wealth. However, the problems with this ideal, the striving for material wealth, cannot be overlooked. In his novel, Revolutionary Road, Yates, crafts a narrative set in the 1950’s, with the backdrop of ”boom time” America, and systematically destroys the illusion that material wealth and the American Dream brings happiness. He places his characters in a picturesque suburban setting, and this is clearly a criticism of that ‘ideal’ living arrangement. This suburban setting has been described as, ‘Such places, they say, were dens of petite bourgeoisie oppression and festering hypocrisy, places where spirits were crushed and dreams died, where genial housewives smilingly hosted dinner parties while keeping suicidal thoughts at bay with alcohol and pills, where materialism ran rampant and the genteel brutality of patriarchy ruled the day’. [3] 

His narrative focuses on the Wheeler family. Frank is the epitome of the 1950’s American man, young, strong, intelligent with military service, working in a white collar job supporting a young family and living in the picturesque suburbs of Connecticut. Yet Yates depicts him as a self important suit with ‘the kind of unemphatic good looks that an advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer of well-made but inexpensive merchandise” [4] April, the supposed beautiful, young mother keeping house in the idyllic suburban home, is little of the sort. Her husband sees her as a ”graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his to deny” [5] 

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes obvious that Frank and his wife April do not fit into the traditional mould of the post-war, happy family. Material wealth does not make them happy; instead the condition of their lives tears them apart and leads to a downward spiral in their relationship with a catastrophic finale. What is characteristic of Yates’s Revolutionary Road is not merely the bareness of the suburban America he creates, but how his narrative takes the backdrop of America itself in its supposed time of happiness and advancement and writes in a manner about the Wheeler’s life that conjures the claustrophobia of the horrors of war. Yates makes the aspirations of everyday Americans seem a dangerous and terrible thing, when those dreams are not reached or achieved. The reader is forced to see the limitations of the so called American Dream, see through the facade of happiness through achievement. Yates crafts a plausible drama, without becoming overly moralistic, but still manages to highlight the deficiencies of the American Dream and America itself in its somewhat shameless pursuit of success and riches. The Wheeler’s and the Campbell’s and The Givings families individually and collectively display what Yates sees as the failure of America and the American Dream. Their lives are dull and excitement is to drink too much and smoke too much,

Everyone in Revolutionary Road drinks way too much, and everyone smokes. Pregnant women do both with alacrity. Business lunches feature four martinis[…] Frank Wheeler smacks April around when he gets loaded, and April by and large lets it happen. [6] 

The narrative begins with April performing in an amateur production of “The Petrified Forest.” Her role is Gabrielle. The production is a disaster, and the audience, including Frank, is embarrassed and left to find some good amongst the bad. Yates does not omit any detail of the disastrous production: every mistake, every missed cue and bungled line is written in excruciating detail. April, is cast in no better light, even considering her dramatic fancies and stage presence. She too is humiliated and her beauty does not save her from ridicule:

Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck’ [7] .

This sequence of the narrative is only the first act and Yates continues to heighten the embarrassment for April and the other players, rather than letting it rest. Any vestige of hope has been replaced by the horror of reality. The play acts as a metaphor for the Wheelers’ marriage as well, and also for the loss of hope they have in finding a happy solution to the misery in which they live. Frank is a dreamer, clinging desperately to an educated past. He punctuates his conversations with literary references and is perceived as an intellect, he thinks of himself as an ‘intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul-Satre sort of man’ [8] the reality is that he is a man who has as he describes it, ‘the dullest job you can possibly imagine’ [9] He imagines himself as a classy, intelligent insightful man, but as the novel highlights, he is nothing more than another Shep Campbell, a dull man just getting by in life. Frank conjures the image of how he saw the play ending, how his life would play out after the production:

he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight: himself rushing home to swing his children laughing in the air, to gulp a cocktail and chatter through an early dinner with his wife; himself driving her to the high school, with her thigh tense and warm under his reassuring hand (“If only I weren’t so nervous, Frank!”); himself sitting spellbound in pride and then rising to join a thunderous ovation as the curtain fell; himself glowing and disheveled, pushing his way through jubilant backstage crowds to claim her first tearful kiss (“Was it really good, darling? Was it really good?”); and then the two of them, stopping for a drink in the admiring company of Shep and Milly Campbell, holding hands under the table while they talked it all out. Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell. [10] 

The reality is somewhat different. Frank and April have a fight and Frank ridicules the other cast members the audience and the entire suburban society. Frank attempts to cast himself and the Wheelers above the society in which they live. He attempts to prove to himself that he is the product of a successful American Dream, that he is America: powerful, successful and rich. However he is deluded. Rather than living the so called American dream, he instead embarks on a fantasy where he and his family will escape the confines of suburbia and embark on a romantic journey to Europe, where Frank can discover himself and ultimately become the man he really is – rather than a clone of everybody else that he is in contact with. If he can break free of the confines of American society he can live a happy and fulfilled life in whatever capacity he chooses.

The Wheelers are initially drawn together as they believe that each embody the glamour and appeal which they believe (individually) is essential to success in life and in achieving the American Dream. However, after several years of marriage they begin to grow tired of each other and by the mundane relentless aspects of a domestic suburban lifestyle. The ambitions that they harboured, and their supposed intellectual authority over the other characters eventually begin to appear shallow and fragile. Yates immediately depicts the Wheelers craving for a higher life through the failed theatre production. Both have aims of intellectual authority and to be perceived by their community as somewhat better than the rest. Their vanity only exaggerates their failure to truly appreciate the life in which they live. The play emphasises the suspicion that neither of the Wheeler’s will be able to realise their own high standards and dreams.

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April’s dream to move to Europe is as doomed as the theatre production and is another of the Wheeler’s dreams which will ultimately end in disaster. The desire to move can be seen as a failure of the American Dream, as a failure of America itself, particularly as this couple represents a huge swath of American society. To Frank, the idea of a move is terrifying. Although he finds his job dull and restrictive, he has been in it for so long that he has drawn some comfort from it. He may well be the most vocal character about the benefits of Europe and his longing to be living there, however he is also the character who so reviles the idea of leaving his protective shell. April’s suggestion that they move to Europe unwittingly challenges Frank. Knowing he cannot justifiably refuse a lifestyle that he has always publicly admired, he fears that in attempting to ‘find himself’ nothing will be found. The fear is that he has something now at home, not ideal, but something tangible. To move to Europe would be to risk all that and even show Frank to be a fraud. There may be nothing more to his character and it is this that ultimately causes Frank to begin a campaign against his wife to stay in America.

Yates depicts not only how the American Dream of the 1950’s is limited in its scope, and how material wealth does not necessarily promote happiness. He also shows the limitations of America itself. If Revolutionary Road is I would suggest, a microcosm of American society as a whole, then it indeed shows that the American dream is the manifestation of America itself. No other country has a ‘dream’ to strive for; no other country has a population striving for a so called national dream. America is a wealthy powerful country, made so because the citizens, such as the Wheelers pursue power and riches in their own lives. However Yates highlights the painful reality of failed and un-realised dreams.

American Pastoral is, like Revolutionary Road, concerned with the lives of a very small group of characters. As with Yates’s novel, there are questions of America and what it is to be American, and there is a tragedy that punctuates the text. The reader is forced to consider what is lost in the pursuit of the American dream juxtaposed to what is gained. The novel concerns a Jew who does not look or behave like a Jew, he is known as ”’The Swede” and referred to by that nickname throughout the novel. He is described as, “Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.” [11] The almost iconic living legend is gifted with an extraordinary athlete’s body and talent. His achievements on the playing field live with him for many years, and help to forge his iconic status. The story begins with the narrative voice of Zuckerman, a classmate of Swede’s brother Jerry. He like many others was in awe of the Swede. Zuckerman narrates the story as he knows it, and then creates the rest of the story as he imagined it would have been, switching to the perspective of Swede Levov. What we learn from Zuckerman is that the Swede, a charismatic, selfless character, rejects a career in sports to follow in the footsteps of his father and go into the leather-glove making business. He then defies his father by marrying an Irish Catholic and a former Miss New Jersey, Dawn, and further breaks with his upbringing and father’s wishes by leaving his ancestral immigrant home of New Jersey for a house in rural New Jersey. He and his wife have a daughter, Meredith. Unlike her perceived perfect Mother and Father, Merry appears not to have inherited her parent’s good looks and suffers from a severe stutter.

Swede Levov is another example of the ideal American man. Like Frank Wheeler, he is intelligent and strong. However, that is far as the comparison succeeds. Swede is a more attractive character than Frank, as he is not dominated by the same vanities and stunted dreams. He is a successful business man, in charge of a financially secure and flourishing glove manufacturing company. He lives in the rural setting of New Jersey. Swede Levov has secured the American dream, through hard work and endeavor; he has given himself and his family a way of life that all Americans strive for. However, much like Revolutionary Road, Roth’s novel is seeped in disaster and destruction. Levov’s daughter transforms from a supposedly happy child to a murdering terrorist, responsible for the death of one innocent and claiming to be responsible for four other deaths. She blows up a post office, a potent symbol of America. She then goes into hiding, leaving the Levov’s lives shattered. The importance of American Pastoral to the idea of the manifestation of the American Dream is the life that Swede Levov leads and how he reflects on that life after Merry’s act of terrorism. While attempting to maintain his business and his life in general, Levov ponders on what it is to be American and what his life of success has actually brought him. The final third of the book throws the Swede into disarray as everything he believed to be “America” is altered because of his daughter.

Swede Levov’s ideal of what America is, is turned inside. He believed that by serving in the marines, by becoming a hero on the playing field, by marrying Miss New Jersey was to belong to The United States. However, as his brother Jerry so eloquently puts it, the reality of America is somewhat different,

You think you know what a man is? You have no idea what a man is. You think you know what a daughter is? You have no idea what a daughter is. You think you know what this country is? You have no idea what this country is. You have a false image of everything. All you know is what a fucking glove is, this country is frightening. Of course she was raped. What kind of company do you think she was keeping? Of course out there she was going to get raped. This isn’t Old Rimrock, old buddy – she’s out there, old buddy, in the USA. She enters that world, that loopy world out there, with what’s going on out there – what do you expect? A kid from Rimrock, New Jersey, of course she doesn’t know how to behave out there, of course the shit hits the fan. [12] 

Jerry’s tirade against America and his brother highlights the deficiencies of Swede’s outlook on America. His life and desire to believe he is following the American Dream has left him without the capacity to see evil. Jerry is essentially pulling his brother out of the rosy existence that he has thus far led. He is telling his brother that there is more beyond the realms of living the American Dream and that, although the Swede doesn’t see it because of his better way of life, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Swede is the living manifestation of the American Dream, but he is also proof that there is a darker element to American society. Jerry undermines his brothers almost cocoon like life:

You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance-she’s your daughter? You wanted to be a real American jock, a real American marine, a real American hotshot with a beautiful Gentile babe on your arm? You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well, you do now, big boy, thanks to your daughter. The reality of this place is right up your kisser now. With the help of your daughter you’re as deep in the shit as a man can get, the real American crazy shit. America amok! America amuck! [13] 

Jerry’s systematic speech truly highlights not only to his brother what America is, but also to the reader. He proves that while the American Dream is the ultimate manifestation of America itself, that America is itself rotten to the core and that there are undesirable elements within its citizens. His brothers realisation and exclamation that, ‘This is terrible. Horrible” delights Jerry, ‘Now you’re getting it. Right! My brother is developing the beginning of a point of view. A point of view of his own instead of everybody’ else’s point of view’. [14] 

Roth uses the Swede as a vehicle to display the growing dissatisfaction which was growing in America. Merry is the voice of a growing number of dissenters who came to loathe America and what it represented. If The American Dream is the pursuit of wealth and stability, then America itself as a nation is in pursuit of wealth and stability. This theory with the backdrop of the Vietnam War creates a powerful case for the deficiencies of what it is to be American. However, as Swede Levov muses,

For Merry, being an American was loathing America, but loving America was something he could not let go of any more than he could have let go of loving his father and his mother, any more than he could have let go of his decency. How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations. [15] 

Both novels focus on the aspects of the lives of families following their version of the American Dream. In Revolutionary Road, ‘Yates writes compellingly about ordinary lives made tragic through the inability to fill the emptiness inside. Frank and April Wheeler never quite get it right as a suburban couple, and fall far short in their inarticulate and unfocused strivings for something better. Frank and April together act as a distorting mirror to reality’. [16] The Wheelers represent members of a new energetic American populace, working in white collar occupations, earning money and living the better life in the suburbs. However, the novel depicts the misfortune behind stunted dreams. As Yate’s says himself, ‘I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs – a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that – felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit’. [17] In the 1950’s the American economy was in a boom, and while America established itself as the economic power of the world, so to did the idea of the American Dream establish itself as the ideal way of life. In American Pastoral, ‘Roth harshly ironizes the suburban middle-class conception of the “American Dream.” The comfortable amenities of bourgeois existence have drained the characters of meaningful “substrata” as well as worthwhile exterior vocations. While Roth successfully dramatizes how American values leave his characters trapped in hollow nether lives, all the reader is left with is an aftertaste of tired irony. None of the characters share any significant connections with other people. “American Pastoral” shows a bitter landscape of spiritual aridity in which Roth’s sardonic probing almost dehumanizes his characters’. [18] Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, American Pastoral differs in that the protagonist is settled in his life; Swede Levov has worked hard and has gained the privileged position which the American Dream promises, despite the added disadvantage (in the 1950’s/60’s America) of a Jewish background . But Swede’s dreams are fulfilled, unlike those of the Wheeler’s. His ”American Dream” is shattered by the reality of an over-expanding and possibly overly dominating America being destroyed from within. His daughter’s act of terrorism highlights the deficiencies of what it is to be American and the deficiencies moving away from the traditional values of the American Dream. Modern American Fiction has often shown the pursuit of the American Dream as a pursuit driven by greed and acquisitiveness, rather than the purer, less selfish, perhaps even nobler pursuit of ”life, liberty and happiness”.

Further, I would argue that while the American dream is indeed manifested in America itself, neither of these novels entirely prove that. What they do however, is highlight the limitations inherent in the American Dream itself. In both novels the protagonists have achieved various elements of the Dream, they have wealth, children, stability and freedom. Both novels however chart the decline of these protagonists and their families, as the Dream abandons them and everything they have achieved amounts to very little. In the Wheelers, their ideal of the Dream collapses around them, while they strive for their own personal dreams, suburbia and prosperity ultimately destroys them. The Swede comparatively has enjoyed the Dream and lived the American Dream to the full, however even this is not enough to protect him and his family from internal destruction. While the Declaration of Independence grants freedom and liberty to its people, and through hard work and endevour, success, it does not provide stablilty through its manifestation ‘The American Dream’ to the characters of these novels, in fact, it ruins them.


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