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Peter Carey's 'American Dreams' Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1805 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Option 2 Short Stories

Through a close critical reading of Peter Carey’s story ‘American Dreams’ on pp. 147-62 in the Anthology, A World of Difference, consider how the story’s focus on themes of cultural dependency has particular consequences for a sense of place.

The overall aim of this essay is to explore some of the literary devices that Peter Carey has used in American Dreams to convey the themes of cultural dependency, and the costs it might have on one’s cultural identity. It will also attempt to show what the consequences were, for the townspeople, when their quest for living the American dream became a sort of reality. The essay will first look at the author’s choice of title, and its meaning in relation to cultural dependency, it will then go on to the use of narrative technique, structure, as well as how the author has used art and reality. It will also consider other literary elements used to write this short story.

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The title of a book has one primary objective and that is to create that much of an interest and incentive to convince the potential reader to read further. So, what could be the purpose for Carey to choose this particular title? Peter Carey’s title ‘American Dreams’, conveys a sense of the book’s subject matter. It signposts the direction towards the expression most of us have heard; ‘The American dream’, of which The Oxford Dictionary for example defining it as: ‘The ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity …’ (Oxford Dictionaries I English, 2007). However, this short story by Carey is showing another side of the ‘American dream’, exploring the dangers and costs of cultural dependency might have on a small community. The consequences of cultural dependency can arise when a society is strongly influenced and idealised by another, and subsequently trying to adopt its culture, values and lifestyle, not on purpose maybe, but in their quest to live a prosperous life. Like in this story for example, the American dream, that has been glorified and sentimentalised as a utopian goal, and as a consequence, the townspeople lost somehow their cultural identity and sense of place. The people’s illusion of the ‘American dream’ is running like a red thread throughout the story. They all watch American films and dream of wealth, and big smooth cars. Meanwhile, the people’s negative view of their home town and their unsatisfying lives grow bigger. The town in itself, is so insignificant, that it is not worth mentioning the name. The father of the narrator says; ‘nothing more than a stopping place. Somewhere on the way to somewhere else.’ (p. 151).

American Dreams (Prescott, 2008, pp. 147-62) is narrated from the perspective of a man recalling events when growing up in his childhood town, thus told in the past tense. The boy’s voice is the story, and seems to be giving a truthful account of his opinion and inner thoughts which makes the reader feel included and therefore becomes a shared experience. The narrator also seems to recognise the thoughts and feelings of the townspeople, and especially his father; ‘My father, …, still believes that Gleason meant to do us well, that he loved the town more than anyone of us. My father says we have treated the town badly in our minds.’ (p.151). However, the narrator fails when it comes to understand Mr. Gleason, and why he built the wall on Bald Hill, as written in the opening paragraph of the story; ‘No one can, to this day, remember what we did to offend him.’ (p.151). For that reason, the narrator is not able to give the reader a full understanding of what is going on in Mr Gleason’s mind, which is typical for a non-omniscient first-person narrator.  Although the narrator mostly presents the story from a first-person point of view, in relation to his own experiences, he is also using the collective voice of the townspeople and himself in; ‘we all, all eight hundred of us’ … ‘For years we watched the films at Roxy and dreamed, if not of America, … (p.151), which gives the reader the impression that they are all in unison, because their dreams, hopes and frustrations are the same, or similar at least.

Carey’s writing style is characterised by the use of simple structured sentences and colloquial language. He is making use of the narrator’s childhood memories of events from the past to move the story forward in time, beginning with; ‘when I was a small boy I often stole apples… (p.151), … between my twelfth and seventeenth birthdays … (p. 155). Carey is also making use of imagery to show the reader how slow the time passes in the tiny remote town, describing frequently how the townspeople pedalling and pushing their bicycles up and down the lanes. ‘They were as much a burden, as a means of transport.’ the narrator says. (p. 152) and another attempt to describe the slow progress of the building of the wall is, when the narrator says; ‘I watched it for two years, while I was waiting for customers who rarely came… the agonizing progress of Mr Gleason’s wall.’ (p.153). To highlight it even more, how uninteresting and dull the town is, the author is making use of simile in; ‘It was as painful as a clock.’ (p. 153).  It is not until the leading up to the climax, that the impression of time seems to move faster in the story, as the pace finally increases with the narrator saying; ‘And then, during my seventeenth birthday, Mr Gleason died.’ (p.156).

Mr Gleason, the main character, is the outsider of the town and is described as; ‘so quiet and grey, that we ignored him.’ (p.151). Everything was normal in the town until ‘Mr Gleason retired and all went wrong.’ (p.153). It was the day when he began to build the ten-foot high wall on Bald Hill. Nor the people or the reader knows what is behind the wall, until the day, when Mr Gleason dies, and the wall comes down. With this unusual concept of a wall being built and later demolished, and both, for no known reason, Carey has made use of magic realism to create a sense of immediate curiosity for the readers.

As soon as the wall comes down, the pace and the mood changes in the story. The pace increases, and the mood of the townspeople changes too. When they realised Mr Gleason had built an exact replica of their home town, as well as of themselves, there was first a sudden sense of pride and joy between them all. Admiring the reflection of themselves, running their lives in the little miniature town. The narrator himself was laughing, when he found himself posing as an American against the petrol pump, and then, the look of his

father’s ‘face marked with grease and hope.’ (p. 158). Is it possible Mr Gleason was having fun of the people, seeing them as superficial and trying to wake them up? Because later, when the people started to look deeper into each other’s houses, they went in for a surprise and their mood changes to fear, as they realised they had underestimated Mr Gleason. If he knew all their little secrets, he must have known what they used to think about him as well. Nothing but ‘a fool’. (p.151).

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It is not mentioned where this provincial quiet town is set. It is not relevant for the story itself. Nevertheless, the reader gets the feeling for the sense of place Carey is trying to show. A non-significant place, where the townspeople would rather not be, if they had the choice. However, there are some clues in the story that indicates it is set in rural Australia. First, the story is written in British English, second, the narrator speaks of; ‘the minister for tourism’ (p.159) which is an Australian title created in 1959, (which also gives a hint about the time frame). As well, is the specific mentioning of the ‘American dollars’ (p. 159), suggesting that the town’s currency is also dollars.  Another considerable fact is that Peter Carey himself, was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, and that ‘Parwan Railway Station’ (p. 156), is an actual station located in Bacchus Marsh. ‘Bald Hill’ (p.153), is interestingly and according to Wikipedia: ‘The most well-known and popular lookouts in Australia, and in New York – One of the highest points on Long Island.’ (En.m.wikipedia.org, 2017). This can be seen as the author’s creative way of using figurative language as well as magic realism, as it offers a sense of hidden meaning, as both places do exist alongside the fictional Bald Hill, and all three having the same purpose of being lookouts, using telescopes to ‘spy’ on the towns people. In the story, the narrator describes Bald Hill such as; ‘On Bald Hill are half a dozen telescopes through which the Americans can spy on the town and reassure themselves that it is the same down there as it is on Bald Hill.’ (p.161). This example of situational irony links it also back to the beginning of the story, when the narrator is describing the townspeople at the Roxy, watching American films; ‘for years we have watched films and dreamed of…America…’ (p.151), showing that the situation now has changed; now it is the townspeople that are being watched and observed by the Americans.

This essay has focused on themes of cultural dependency and the consequences it might have on a culture. We have been looking at Peter Carey’s short story American Dreams as an example, which suggests that, although, the town was remote and isolated, the townspeople still became influenced by the concept of living the American dream, and as a result of trying to conform to the American ways, they lost their identity. As the story goes on, when the town finally gain prosperity, it is ironically thanks to the Americans tourists. However, the townspeople are still not content, as unconsciously they are still not free of the American dream, unknowingly of the fact it is just a dream.

(words 1648)


En.m.wikipedia.org. (2017). Bald Hill. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald_Hill    [Accessed 30 Mar. 2017].

Prescott, L. (2008). A world of difference. New York: Palgrave Macmillan


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