Pursuit of the American Dream: a Comparison of the Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman
The pursuit of the American Dream is a theme that transcends a variety of literary genres. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller are two examples of how this theme can be featured in two very different ways. An analyzation and comparison of the two literary works will highlight the settings, key character traits, different viewpoints regarding the works, and how each author chose to depict the American Dream. The meaning of the American Dream has evolved over the years. The original meaning was rooted in the Declaration of Independence which was written in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” were in reference to seeking freedom from Great Britain [ (Barbara A. Bardes, 2009) ]. During the time period when The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman were written, the America was viewed as a land of freedom with opportunity and equality for all. This way of thinking led to an influx of immigrants pouring into the U. S. Since 1900, the American Dream has come to mean a dream of financial success, with the assumption that material wealth, popularity, and happiness will naturally come to follow.
The Great Gatsby is a fictional novel. The storyline took place in 1922 in New York, specifically in areas called the West Egg and East Egg districts of Long Island, Valley of the Ashes and New York City. The West Egg was inhabited by people who had recently come into wealth. “New money” as some would call it, has the tendency to be flashy and gaudy. However, the East Egg is where the people with “old money” and established social connections lived. Nick Carraway is a young man from Minnesota and rents a house in the West Egg to pursue a business venture.
The house he rents happens to be next door to Jay Gatsby. Despite living in the West Egg, he has more social ties in the East Egg, such as his cousin Daisy. Death of a Salesman is dramatic play, and aside from also taking place in New York, that is the only similarity as far as the setting goes. Willy Lomen lives in a small house in Brooklyn with his wife Linda. A good portion of the play takes place in the kitchen. Willy and Linda’s sons Biff and Happy are home to visit their parents for an uncertain amount of time.
For Jay Gatsby, obtaining the material dream is a means to personal fulfillment, but for Willy Loman this concept is reversed: personal fulfillment is a means to obtaining the material dream. Miller presents a confused dream through Willy Loman who cannot separate the issues of wealth and being “well liked”: “Be liked and you will never want” Here, Miller is illustrating the myth that popularity is the key to being professionally and financially successful. Willy immerses himself in a past where commerce and emotion were linked.
Miller presents a dream that is carried by America’s individuals who will not allow contemporary society to kill it off, as shown in Happy’s vow to continue Willy’s dream after his death. Both authors use fruit to depict how pursuing the dream can lead to being used and abandoned. Fitzgerald refers to “pulpless halves” of the oranges and lemons left after Gatsby’s parties. Gatsby was used in life, and yet forgotten in death. Gatsby’s party guests could be viewed as the “pulpless halves” that accepted invitations to take advantage of what is offered to them without any regard for other people.
Miller also presents this idea of the American Dream as consuming: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit! ” Willy feels his sales company has used him. The pursuit of the dream is presented as a selfish way of life that leads people to use others. Miller presents the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure as leading to corrupt methods of achieving the Dream. There was a great belief that money was the route to happiness. The all consuming Dream drove people to the extent lying, cheating, and stealing in order to achieve it.
For example, Gatsby bootlegs in an era of prohibition because he believed that achieving wealth would gain Daisy’s attraction and approval. Jordan cheats at golf, Biff steals and Willy has an affair, because of the Woman’s claim to put him “right through to the buyers”. Both writers are implying that the material dream of happiness was held at such high regard, that no matter what, individuals would go to great lengths to achieve it. Both Fitzgerald and Miller recognize that there were honest ways to be successful.
This was evident in the outcomes of Nick and Bernard’s lives. Miller sees it as necessary to work hard to achieve the Dream, even Willy’s hero, Dave Singleman still had to work at the age of 84. Miller viewed corruption as a failure, whereas Fitzgerald wrote as if success rarely stemmed from honest hard work. Tom and Daisy are born into their worlds of “white palaces” and never had to work for their wealth. Both Wilson and Willy work hard but are not successful. America, the land where the characters aim to fulfill their dreams is presented as a corrupt land, ith little of its supposed plentiful opportunity. Both writers present an atmosphere of competition and prejudice. Although Bernard defies Willy by becoming an extremely successful lawyer, Miller presents discrimination surrounding the character. As a boy, Bernard was presented as an almost comic figure, at least for Willy who labeled him as “anaemic”. It is presumed that Bernard will grow to be an outcast, but in fact he had achieved the Dream and gained acceptance. Gatsby however; also achieved the Dream, but not gained the acceptance that he desired.
Unlike the established wealth of the Buchanans, Gatsby is thought of as unacceptable because he is a part of the “new rich” community. The “white palaces of established East Egg” show the established wealth compared with Gatsby’s “factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville” which implies that his wealthy existence is false. Willy’s house amidst the “towering, angular shapes” of surrounding apartment blocks shows Miller’s view of an oppressive business world. The Buchanans’ wealth is symbolized by the color white, signifying purity. Gatsby wears vulgar pink shirts and owns a yellow car.
Gatsby even adopts the term “old sport” in an attempt to be accepted by the “old money”. However, white is a color that can easily be tainted, which symbolizes Fitzgerald’s view of the Dream. Fitzgerald also emphasizes the importance of status versus wealth within the Dream. Daisy didn’t feel like she could pursue a substantial relationship with Gatsby because his wealth had no real bearing without status. Both texts show that honest opportunities are available to the characters. Gatsby took up his opportunity to go sailing with Dan Cody and achieved his material dream through his ingenuity.
Willy made the mistake of passing up his opportunities by not going to Alaska with Ben or not taking the job that Charley offered. Willy’s regret and distance from the Dream is illustrated when Ben and Willy stand “at opposite ends of the stage”. I think Miller is indicating the way in which acquiring the dream was more highly regarded if done so independently. Fitzgerald uses the green light to show Gatsby’s distance from the Dream. The pursuit of the American Dream originated in both Willy and Jay’s past. The past is the reason why the characters will, or in Biff’s case will not, stand by the dream.
Gatsby wants to rekindle his past with Daisy. Willy confuses past and present as their boundaries have become blurred, showing Miller’s belief that the common man was unable to adjust to a dream that was proving to have questionable standards. Miller uses music that is described as “gay”, “high” and “rollicking” to represent the optimism and excitement felt in the past. When Willy’s thoughts would fade to the past the “entire house and surroundings become covered with leaves”, which symbolized the possibility and growth that Miller may have wanted Willy to feel existed in the past dream.
But Willy is also haunted by his past. Willy feels he has failed in being “well liked” by his Father and Ben and takes this as a reason for them abandoning him. His regrets about not taking up opportunities, his affair, and Biff’s discovery of the affair constantly torment him. Those thoughts propel him into a fantasy world where his dream his reality. Gatsby feels his lack of wealth is why his relationship with Daisy failed. Both Gatsby and Willy seek to rectify the traits that they feel were reasons for their failures.
Although the main characters, the eternal dreamers, in both literary works die, the American Dream continues to live on. The evident failure of Gatsby and Willy is not presented as a deterrent for others. Nick concludes that this is human nature, indeed “we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, strive harder for the Dream. Unlike Biff, Happy will strive to achieve his Father’s Dream. Both Fitzgerald and Miller are presenting that there will always be those who are willing to dream, and pay a fatal price from trying to achieve it.
This is illustrated by George, the “spiritless man” who destroys Gatsby, the dreamer. Although Willy’s death was by suicide, his means was by car. Myrtle was also killed by a car. Both characters are killed by the materialism that they dreamed of. Willy believes that his insurance will be worth more than his life. Gatsby’s Father values Gatsby’s life by his possessions: “His pride in his son and his son’s possessions was continually increasing. ” Both writers are presenting dehumanization within American society, where wealth is seen to be of more value than life. The American Dream is seen as contagious and addictive.
Linda gets caught up in Willy’s Dream and Nick gets so enchanted by Gatsby and his dream that he writes a book about it. Fitzgerald values the dreamer qualities of society- indeed Gatsby is “The Great Gatsby”, whereas I think Miller is focusing on the danger of dreaming. The title “Death of a Salesman” suggests that Willy was dying through his dreams from the start of the text. We are never told what Willy sells. Willy is merely “a salesman”, as the title states. Miller’s use of the indefinite article highlights his belief that Willy’s dream, and indeed failure, was common.
Miller also highlights the possibility of success. Bernard is, in fact, living proof of the success that can come from hard work and dedication. The American Dream is a flawed dream and the texts expose the corrupt extents to which people will go to in pursuit of personal gain. According to both Miller and Fitzgerald the spiritual dream has decayed. Miller presents a deluded and confused dream through the character of Willy. Fitzgerald sees the Dream as fictional. Gatsby is presented as a fictional character- this is not even his real name, he has fabricated his own identity.
The Lomans and Gatsby are examples of the disappointment of life if you continually live in a dream world. The Dream comes to define the person, rather than the person defining their dream. Bibliography Barbara A. Bardes, M. C. (2009). American Government and Politics Today. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. Kirszner, M. (2012). Lit. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. SparkNotes LLC. (2011). Spark Notes:The Great Gatsby:Themes, Motifs & Symbols. Retrieved November 20, 2011, from Sparks Notes: http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/gatsby/themes. html