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Interpretation of the American Dream in the Jungle, the Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman

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The United States Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that everyone has the rights for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This document led to the national ethos that is the American Dream. This dream states that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class.
Following the Civil War the United States of America underwent large scale change and by the start of the twentieth century was one of the richest nations in the world. By 1950 the U.S.A. was the richest country in the world and a superpower. The state was not the only thing to change during this period. From the late-nineteenth century up to the 1920s average Americans experienced a dramatic expansion in wealth and prosperity. However, with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 the U.S.A. experienced an economic depression that destroyed millions of livelihoods. This eventful period of American history led many to question the American Dreams place in modern America.
This research paper will examine the interpretation of the American Dream in literature between the Progressive Era at the start of the twentieth century and the 1950s economic and social boom. In order to do this the paper will examine the novels The Jungle, The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman. These three novels all examine the American Dream in different decades.
Written in 1906 by Upton Sinclair The Jungle is a novel that portrayed the life of immigrants and the working class in early-twentieth century America. The novel was published during the muckraking decade and its depiction of poverty, unpleasant living and working conditions and the corruption of those in power led it to be called “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.”
A socialist Sinclair believed that by the start of the twentieth century the concept of the American Dream had become hollow and hypocritical. In order to portray this Sinclair uses the character of Jurgis Rudkus and his extended family as the symbols of the hollowness and hypocrisy of the dream. Jurgis comes to the U.S. on the belief that he will receive good wages and achieve a good life in the new world. Throughout most of the novel Jurgis maintains an unshakeable faith in the concept of the dream, believing that his hard work and moral values will result in success and happiness.
Unfortunately every aspect of the family’s experiences in the U.S. is the opposite of the American Dream. Sinclair does this in an attempt to expose what he feels is the hypocrisy of the dream. Jurgis and his family expect to arrive in a country of acceptance and opportunity but find a town full of prejudice and exploitation. In Packingtown hard work does not normally lead to success as the most well off characters have got to where they are by being corrupt and partaking in crime.
Although it looks like Sinclair is attacking the idea of the American Dream you could argue that he is in fact attacking the corruption of the American Dream by capitalism, a theme that also features in The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman. For Sinclair the American Dream has good values that are worth protecting, this is displayed in the novel by Jurgis and his family. Sinclair emphasizes that the immigrant family maintains a hard work ethic and honesty.
Sinclair’s view that the dream had become hollow is symbolized in the novel by the cans of meat. The tin can is a great symbol because it is a product of industrialisation and capitalism and Sinclair uses the can to represent the corruption of the American Dream by capitalism. The novel describes the tin cans as having shiny, attractive surfaces but containing meat unfit for consumption. Basically what Sinclair is saying is that capitalism is presenting an attractive image to immigrants and the working class but the America inside is in fact rotten and corrupt.
Published in 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby looks at the American Dream in the 1920s and proclaims that the decade saw the decline of the dream. The novel is set in New York, a city that is too many one of the symbolic cities of that decade and portrays the 1920s as an era of unprecedented prosperity and materialism. The Roaring Twenties is often viewed as a decade of decayed moral values such as greed and the empty pursuit of pleasure. The stereotypical image of the decade is a party in a speakeasy that plays jazz music.
Many of the characters in The Great Gatsby are symbolic of the social trends of the 1920s. A large number of Americans were greatly influenced by the First World War. Many who fought in the conflict returned home and became uncomfortable with Victorian/Edwardian social morality of the time. Both Gatsby and Nick fought in the Great War and exhibit this cynicism. In the years following the war the stock exchange became more popular and saw an increase in national wealth and newfound materialism, as people were now able to consume at unprecedented levels due to greater wealth and the mass availability of credit. This materialistic new rich are portrayed in the novel by the social climbers who attend Gatsby’s parties every Saturday. Gatsby and Meyer Wolfshiem are symbols of the increase of organized crime in the decade. With the signing of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 the sale of alcohol became banned. This created a criminal underworld that greatly profited from the sale of alcohol.
As far as Fitzgerald was concerned the American Dream is originally about the pursuit of happiness. However, for Fitzgerald the 1920s with its pursuit of easy money and decadent pleasure has corrupted the dream. Although the main plot of the novel is Gatsby’s love for Daisy it should be noted that Gatsby’s pursuit of happiness, winning back Daisy is only achieved by resorting to organised crime as he is unable to make enough money to impress her and maintain her materialistic lifestyle through legal means.
Following Gatsby’s death Nick moves back to Minnesota which is portrayed as being an area where the American Dream has not been corrupted by the capitalism and materialism of the east coast. The idea of the less urbanised regions of America being the only place where the American Dream can be achieved is not a new idea to American literature as seen in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Jim is able to achieve his freedom by navigating the Mississippi river away from the towns that would keep him in captivity.
John Rohrkemper’s article The Allusive Past: Historical Perspective in "The Great Gatsby" looks at the historical dimensions in the novel. The frontier is seen as one of the homes of the American Dream. As Rohrkemper points out Gatsby’s attempt to achieve his dream of winning back Daisy only becomes possible after meeting a character whose name is a fusion of two frontier men that are often linked with the American Dream. The character name of Daniel Cody is a fusion of Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody, one of whom was an explorer that founded new towns that could help migrating people realise a new beginning and the other exploited the image of the frontier and the American Dream for financial gain.
Written in 1949 Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is set in the late 1940s when the United States was in recession and feared another economic depression. The play tells the story of one family’s struggle to survive. While The Jungle and The Great Gatsby look at the American Dream during decades of prosperity Death of a Salesman looks at the dream during a period of decline in wealth. Arthur Miller said that “There is a crash in every generation” and that it had marked the United States with a “congenital fear of failure.”
Arthur Miller’s examination and attack of the American Dream, unlike Sinclair’s and Fitzgerald’s comes from a personal perspective. Miller was the son of Polish immigrants who succeed and became wealthy. In this aspect the American Dream had been achieved, however, with the Wall Street Crash Miller’s family lost almost everything and when he was still a teenager he was forced to work in order to help his family survive. According to Galia Benziman Death of a Salesman voices Miller’s “resentment against the damaging and demeaning power of the American ethos of consumption and private economic success on the individuals who uphold and nourish it.” The unfairness of capitalism and the American Dream is one of the central themes of the play as the Loman’s, just like Miller’s family played by the rules but the reason for their failure to achieve the success they deserved was out of their hands.
In the play Willy Loman is the optimist, who in his pursuit of the American Dream lives in a dream. Like the character of Jurgis in The Jungle, no matter how hard it becomes for Willy and his family to make a living he clings to the belief that the dream is within his grasp.
Death of a Salesman shares a similar view with The Great Gatsby in regard to the American west. In both pieces of work the east coast is associated with moral decay and materialism that has corrupted the American Dream, whereas the American west is shown as being symbolically free of the corruption of the east. While Willy insists New York is a land of opportunity, his idolisation of Ben’s adventures shows that this is not true. If anything the play portrays the American west as a land of opportunity waiting to be tapped. The west offers Biff an escape from not only Willy's delusions but most importantly the commercial world that has swamped the eastern United States.
Overall these three novels are similar in their opinion of the American Dream during the first half of the twentieth century. Death of a Salesman poses a question that is featured in The Jungle and The Great Gatsby, is the cost-benefit relationship between capitalism and the individual actually worth it. In all three novels the main characters lives are ruined by capitalist society and the rampant consumerism it creates. However, one contrast between the novels is the necessary reaction needed in order to save the individual from capitalist society. Death of a Salesman and The Jungle attack what they perceive as a conformist society which never questions the American Dream and capitalism. Whereas The Great Gatsby perceives the American public as the opposite as Gatsby’s downfall comes about because of his non-conformist actions. Unlike Willy and Jurgis who conform to the idea that hard work and moral integrity are the key to achieving the American Dream Gatsby attempts to achieve it through organised crime and dishonesty.

Bibliography
Baird, Julia. "Redefining Failure." Newsweek. Newsweek, 12/09/2010. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://www.newsweek.com/2010/09/12/how-the-recession-is-redefining-failure.html>.
Benziman, Galia. "Success, Law, and the Law of Success: Reevaluating "Death of a Salesman's" Treatment of the American Dream." South Atlantic Review 70.2 (2005): 20. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20064631>.
Morss Lovett, Robert. "Upton Sinclair." English Journal. 17.9 (1928): 3. Web. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/803242>.
Rohrkemper, John. "The Allusive Past: Historical Perspective in "The Great Gatsby"." College Literature. 12.2 (1985): 153-162. Web. 13 Apr 2011. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111658>.
"The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription." Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html>.
"James Truslow Adams." Wikipedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Truslow_Adams>.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. "The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription." Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .
[ 2 ]. "The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription." Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .
[ 3 ]. "James Truslow Adams." Wikipedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .
[ 4 ]. Morss Lovett, Robert. "Upton Sinclair." English Journal. 17.9 (1928): 3.
[ 5 ]. Baird, Julia. "Redefining Failure." Newsweek. Newsweek, 12/09/2010. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .
[ 6 ]. Baird, Julia. "Redefining Failure." Newsweek. Newsweek, 12/09/2010. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .
[ 7 ]. Benziman, Galia. "Success, Law, and the Law of Success: Reevaluating "Death of a Salesman's" Treatment of the American Dream." South Atlantic Review 70.2 (2005): 20. Web. 13 Apr 2011. .

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