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Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the American Dream Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2022

‘‘The America Dream’ is a longstanding common belief of the American population that in the United States, people are free to realize the full potential of their labor and their talents and every person in the United States has the opportunity to become wealthy. This belief sprang from the idea that the American society is an egalitarian society where the strictures of the class system hold no power, in contrast to the traditional societies of the Old World where those of the highest social status were those with ancestral titles to vast landholdings, the American society is held to be a strict meritocracy where hard work, ingenuity, and innovation is rewarded.

The foremost exponents of the American dream are the novels of Horatio Alger. Alger’s novels tell the story of poor but hard-working and honest pubescent boys who manage to become well-off through their honesty, effort, and determination against odds. In contrast to the naïve optimism of Alger’s works, many other authors have brought forth a more jaded and cynical view of the American dream in their works of fiction. Two of these works of fiction, which depict the American dream in a negative light, are John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Of Mice and Men is the story of the shattered dream of two poor friends George and Lennie who travel from place to place working for low wages in horrible conditions. Their dream is to have enough money to buy a ranch and “live off the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck 15).

The Great Gatsby is the story of a poor man of ignoble birth named Gatsby who becomes obsessed with an aristocratic woman named Daisy Buchanan and spends years acquiring great wealth through illegal means to acquire her for himself, even though she has already married someone else from her social class. In the words of Fitzgerald “the whole idea of Gatsby is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money” (Turnbull 150).

In Of Mice and Men Lennie is a large and strong man-child, George is physically weaker and smaller but the more intelligent of the two. George realizes that it is the company of the child-like Lennie and their love for each other that keeps them together like a family that keeps the dream alive in him and without him he would be just another wastrel blowing out his money on drink, gambling, and prostitutes (Steinbeck 15); however, in times of self-pity and frustration, he regards this as a curse rather than a blessing (Steinbeck 101).

Mentally retarded Lennie on the other hand does not understand all that, he is obsessed with petting soft, smooth, and furry things (Steinbeck 87). Lennie’s foremost interest in acquiring the ranch is because George promises him they would keep rabbits at the ranch and Lennie would get to tend them (Steinbeck 6). The rabbits are foremost in Lennie’s mind, he keeps asking about them; “George, how long’s it going to be till we get that little place an’ live off the fatta the lan’an’ rabbits?” (Steinbeck 55).

George knows that their chances of acquiring a ranch on their labor’s wages are slim. He hopes to save up enough money to join the California gold rush “We can make maybe a couple of dollars a day there, and we might hit a pocket” (Steinbeck 33).

Besides the main characters, a number of the minor characters in the two novels also seek the American dream. Curley’s wife, a good-looking and flirtatious young woman, had a dream of being an actress, once when she was fifteen an actor in a traveling theatre asked her to join them but her mother wouldn’t let her go. Another time she went to a dance with someone who claimed to work in Hollywood and he promised to write to her after he had gotten her a part in a movie but she received no letter. Believing that a letter had been sent but her mother had hidden it, Curley’s wife, resolved to leave her mother’s home and get married as soon as possible. Her marriage to Curley was borne of that rash decision, and she regretted marrying him (Steinbeck 85, 86).

Another character who dreams the American dream is “Crooks the negro stable buck” (Steinbeck 65). Crooks is called ‘Crooks’ because of his crooked back. He got the crooked back as a result of a horse at the farm kicking him (Steinbeck 20).

Crooks being Black is shunned by everyone else; all he wants is to be accepted in the society of the other farmworkers, he says to Lennie “Maybe you can see now. You got George. You know he’s goin’ to come back. S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ‘cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody—to be near him.” (Steinbeck 71).

The precariousness of Crooks’s existence in the social order of the farm is revealed when Curley’s wife threatens him with lynching when he attempts to get her to stop flirting with them (Steinbeck 78, 79).

Lennie’s naïve belief in the dream briefly entrances Crooks and old Candy, the one-armed ranch worker, in reply to Curley’s wife’s threats Candy says, “S’pose you get us canned. S’pose you do. You think we’ll hit the highway an’ look for another lousy two-bit job like this. You don’t know that we got our own ranch to go to, an’ our own house. We ain’t got to stay here. We gotta house and chickens an’ fruit trees an’ a place a hunderd time prettier than this. An’ we got fren’s, that’s what we got. Maybe there was a time when we was scared of gettin’ canned, but we ain’t no more. We got our own lan’, and it’s ours, an’ we c’n go to it.” (Steinbeck 77).

Curley briefly shares in the dream but when he witnesses George’s anger at Lennie for telling everyone about their secret dream he realizes that because he is Black, even people like George who are lowest of the low in terms of social standing, do not want to associate with him, he extracts himself out the dream of the others:

’Member what I said about hoein’ and doin’ odd jobs?”
“Yeah,” said Candy. “I remember.”
“Well, jus’ forget it,” said Crooks. “I didn’t mean it. Jus’ foolin’. I wouldn’ want to go no place like that.” (Steinbeck 81).

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is like a reverse Horatio Algernon character. He is considered great by the narrator Nick Carraway because of his optimism and his “romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 8). Unlike a Horatio Algernon character, Gatsby’s aims are met not through hard work and honesty but through bootlegging and consorting with the Fagin-like Meyer Wolfshiem who is portrayed as a corrupting influence (Fitzgerald 60).

According to Gatsby’s version of the American dream, if a person of ignoble birth gathers enough money, through fair means or foul, he will, as a result, be accepted into the ‘old money families and will be considered a suitable match for their girls. He gives large and lavish parties every weekend, hoping to draw to them, the love of his life Daisy Buchanan (Fitzgerald 64).

Nick admires Gatsby greatly for his dream and his capacity to fulfill his dream. Nick, being from a staid and sober, upper-class family can never envision accomplishing what Gatsby accomplished. In Nick’s adoration of Gatsby, there are traces of envy and the desire to have all that Gatsby has.

Myrtle Wilson is a lower-class married woman who has an affair with Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. Myrtle is depicted as a vulgar, mercenary woman, unsatisfied with her lot in life. She denigrates her husband as a “little kyke” (Fitzgerald 31). She puts up with the unpleasant Tom, because of his money even though at one point in the novel Tom is shown to be physically abusive toward her, breaking her nose with a slap (Fitzgerald 33).

Daisy Buchanan is another character in the novel with a set of dreams. Daisy lives the life of a socialite but underneath it, all is bored with her life. She is depicted as having no interest in raising her little daughter. She seeks to relieve her boredom by rekindling the relationship with Gatsby but when Tom tells her the reality about Gatsby’s wealth in his confrontation with them; she immediately abandons him (Fitzgerald 97).

Daisy is a symbol of rampant consumerism and the commodification of human relationships. Nick gives us a clear picture of Daisy and Tom Buchanan when he says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald 142).

In The Great Gatsby, the author attempts to show us the futility of believing poverty to be a curse and sin and wealth to be a blessing. Gatsby is a ‘true believer’ in the American dream and his vulgarity is made apparent. He shows Daisy his masses of suits, dressing gowns, and shirts to impress her with his wealth (Fitzgerald 75). Even his words of praise for the love of his life are tinged with a mercenary flavor, he says to Nick that Daisy’s voice is “full of money” (Fitzgerald 97).

Steinbeck too shows disdain for the American dream. In the United States, the “American dream” is often just a means of perpetuating the wealth and the power of the wealthy and the powerful. Steinbeck shows how the American dream is just a cover for the Darwinian struggle for existence, the poor are unable to change their lot in life and are cursed to remain poor, while the wealthy continue to prey upon them.

The reality of the matter was that in the early part of the twentieth century when these two novels were written, the chances for any poor American to become rich through honest means were slim, much as they are today. Today, racial discrimination against ethnic minorities no longer has any legal basis, while in the early twentieth century, local governments and private employers could discriminate against ethnic minorities with impunity, giving them a much lesser chance at improving their lot in life.

Did the American dream ever exist? It is certainly true that the poor white colonists and immigrants from Europe had better opportunities to improve lives in the United States than in their home countries, but the idea that everyone can be wealthy and those that aren’t wealthy are just not trying hard enough is an idea that is not grounded in reality. The reason for this is that people are considered wealthy or poor concerning their peers in society; it is mathematically impossible for everyone or even most people to be rich.

In the United States, well-off people commonly suffer from the delusion that their wealth is a result of their hard work and that the poor are lazy. If the wealthy just looked around themselves they would see many people who work just as hard as themselves but do not earn as much and they would realize that historical and random factors play great importance in their wealth.

Many people today, whose wealth comes from exploitative means or merely the result of their being born in a rich family, oppose any organized efforts from the government to improve the lot of the poor. They oppose the redistribution of wealth from the super-rich to the poor but are in favor of the redistribution of wealth which makes the rich ever-richer and the poor ever-poorer. The culture of the United States is possibly unique in world cultures in the extent to which the poor and poverty are looked down upon and wealth and the pursuit of wealth are glorified.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2008.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1994.

Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2001.

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