Writing Catalog

Liza Weinberger

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong

The American Dream and Its Evolution Through Time

Critical Essay

The American Dream and Its Evolution Through Time

As the Iranian-American author, Azar Nafisi states, "The negative side of the American Dream comes when people pursue success at any cost, which in turn destroys the vision and the dream." The Oxford Dictionary defines the American Dream as "the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved." The American Dream symbolizes the lofty American ideal that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. For some, with dedication and perseverance, one's American Dream is attainable. However, as Nafisi warns, and as history has shown, if chased with reckless abandon and without regard for morality, the American Dream can, and will, lead to one's downfall.

The Roaring Twenties, also known as the Jazz Age, was the period of economic boom and carefree ways that followed World War I. Women broke away from the restrictive fashions of the Victorian Age, in favor of dress hems above the knee and bob haircuts. Societal standards and behavior, morality in particular, deteriorated as a get-rich-quick attitude captivated society. Under the Coolidge Administration, the laissez-faire, free-market economy flourished, leading to widespread economic success. However, as more people came into great wealth, a significant divide emerged among the "new money" and the "old money" families. "New money" was ostentatious and gaudy, whereas "old money" was classy and sophisticated. This birth of the "new money" class came mainly in the form of bootleggers during the Prohibition era due to the enormous profits they made by illegally selling alcohol on the black market.

As the free-market economy took hold in the US, popular opinion shifted away from valuing hard work. The ideals of the past were replaced with leisure time and purchasing material items, rather than crafting items themselves. The weakening moral state of the Roaring Twenties led to a decline in the American Dream because the idea that with hard work, one could achieve anything, was replaced with the belief that money could buy anything. Bootleggers, in particular, forgoed traditional morals in favor of making quick money, contributing to moral decline in the US during the 1920s.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby's American Dream evolves from a focus solely on financial success, to encompass a future with Daisy Buchanan at its center. At the age of 17, Gatsby changes his name and reinvents himself as the means to achieving his American Dream of material success. Initially, Gatsby is obsessed with accumulating wealth, but after meeting Daisy, Gatsby modifies his Dream to focus on a life revolving around her. However, this addition of an emotional aspect to Gatsby's Dream is an illusion in which he glorifies Daisy and remains stuck in the past. Gatsby cannot fully realize his Dream because he cannot have the Daisy of his dreams; she does not exist, but rather, she is an augmented version of his imagination. While Gatsby does realize his material Dream, he is unable to realize his emotional Dream due to his inability to see things as they truly are.

Following the post-war economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression brought about an unparalleled decade of economic ruin. The stock market crashed on Wall Street in October of 1929, setting off a wave of depression in the United States. From the beginning of the Depression until March of 1933, as many as 100,000 Americans found themselves unemployed on a weekly basis. During this time, two million Americans found themselves homeless, and 25% of the population was without work. Men stood in breadlines at soup kitchens for hours to get food that was barely enough to feed their families. Even those who were fortunate enough to maintain their jobs found their wages slashed 60% of what they were pre-Depression. Many men committed suicide because they viewed themselves as failures, unable to fulfill their most important duty as provider for their families. As a result of the high suicide rate, the quest for the American Dream increased for the survivors who were motivated to succeed and not be the failures their fathers were.

When my grandfather was nine years old, his father passed away, leaving the responsibility of caring for his mother, two younger sisters, and younger brother, all in his hands. As if this was not burdensome enough for a nine year old boy, his father's death occurred shortly before the Great Depression. Strapped with the responsibility of providing for his family during a time in which the country was in economic collapse, my grandfather began selling ice cream bars at the Airshows. While it wasn't the most glamorous job, my grandfather knew that the fate of his family was in his hands, and he was determined to work any job necessary to provide for them. Being industrious, he took a second job as a caddy, where his intelligence, outgoing personality, and keen eye were rewarded in tips. My grandfather worked these two jobs while still managing to attend school, because he knew that if he didn't work, his family would not eat. Some days, his family had only a single loaf of bread to split among the five of them, but this lack of food served to motivate my grandfather to work even harder. My grandfather provided for his mother and three siblings well into his young adulthood, and his dream to become a successful entrepreneur was based, in part, on the desire that his future family would never worry about having food on the table.

Gatsby's American Dream has two parts: an emotional and a financial aspect. Gatsby's American Dream is implausible in part, because Gatsby's mind remains rooted in the past, and as a result, he refuses to accept defeat in love. Gatsby falsely believes that Daisy is the same young girl he left behind in Louisville five years earlier, failing to see that she has moved on with her life; she is a married woman with a young daughter. While his body is firmly planted in the present, his mind is stuck in the past, and he rejects the impossibility that Daisy will not be part of his Dream. While speaking with Nick, Gatsby says: 'I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before,' he said, nodding determinedly. 'She'll see.' He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was… (Fitzgerald 110) Gatsby professes that he is going to fix everything just the way it was before because he is emotionally unable to separate the past from the present. He is incapable of processing the fact that he and Daisy are not in the same positions as they were five years earlier. Gatsby clings to the past, failing to recognize that the world around him is changing. His life has been confused and disordered since he left Daisy because she gave him the confidence to conquer the world. Refusing to concede defeat, he tries to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. He mistakenly believes that he can recreate the past and thereby achieve his Dream with Daisy because he wants to return to the time when she was part of his life. Gatsby refuses to live in the present because he does not want to acknowledge that the romantic part of his American Dream is a failure. Gatsby realizes the financial part of his Dream, but not his entire Dream because the emotional aspect of his Dream is contingent upon Daisy.

My grandfather was assiduous in his schoolwork and was rewarded for his dedication to his studies with a much-needed, full scholarship to Oberlin College. My grandfather's resolve and persistence carried him through college and then law school at Case Western Reserve University. He went on to become a corporate lawyer, but his true passion was to own his own business and be his own boss. While working tirelessly for others as their attorney, he purchased several steel and motor mount companies in Cleveland, finally on his way to pursuing his true Dream of controlling his destiny.

Gatsby inaccurately views Daisy and fails to acknowledge that the Daisy he desires is merely an illusion. Gatsby is so blinded by his Dream to be with Daisy, that he cannot see the reality that is right in front of him. Nick reflects on Gatsby's illusion, stating: Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. (95-96) Daisy falls short of his [Gatsby's] dreams because Gatsby has glorified her into a fantasy. Due to the colossal vitality of his illusion, Gatsby does not see Daisy for who she is, but rather through a distorted lens. It is through Gatsby's creation of a godlike version of Daisy that he has thrown himself into believing that she is the woman of his dreams, which makes it impossible for her not to fall short of his expectations. His American Dream is beyond her, beyond everything, because Gatsby is blinded by his imagination, believing that Daisy is flawless. Because Gatsby has created an unrealistic illusion of Daisy, it is impossible for him to realize this part of his American Dream; he can no longer see people for who they are because he views them through a distorted lens. Gatsby fails to comprehend the fact that Daisy has no intention of leaving Tom, their daughter, or their established life among the old money aristocrats. It is due to his inability to be in the present, that Gatsby is unable to recognize the impracticality of the situation.

My family values diligence, integrity, and honesty, above all else. My grandfather passed these values to my mom, who passed them to me and my siblings. Like my grandfather, I am driven and conscientious because I have learned that with hard work, my grandfather was able to overcome obstacles and realize his dreams. My grandfather chose the difficult road of providing for his family during a time when many others committed suicide because they were unable to handle the pressures and demands of providing for their families during such trying times. From a very early age, my grandfather was forced to grow up and assume responsibility that other boys his age did not. His perseverance motivates me in my own life because his story taught me that anything is possible with hard work and determination. My grandfather was tenacious and industrious, and as a result, he achieved his American Dream. He overcame the adversity of his childhood during the Great Depression, supported his family, and achieved his goal of becoming the successful entrepreneur that he had envisioned himself becoming. My grandfather realized his American Dream through honest, hard work, grit, and determination.

Gatsby's emotional aspect of his American Dream is unattainable because he lives an illusion with a flawed view of reality. He centers his happiness around a life with Daisy, failing to acknowledge that she is not going to give up her family to be with him. His romanticized perception of her contributes to his belief that a life with her is the only way to achieve his American Dream. As a result, he closes himself to other opportunities to find happiness, believing that Daisy is the necessary element for his emotional contentment. Gatsby refuses to let go of the past, steadfastly maintaining that he can manipulate it. His failure to accurately perceive the world ultimately leads to his downfall because his happiness and success are grounded in a woman he can never have.

While the pursuit of self-interest over the common good was commonplace during the 1920s, the Great Depression restored morality by emphasizing the importance of traditional values, such as family and cooperation. Rejecting the greed-driven individualism and desire for material wealth of the Roaring Twenties, the aftermath of the Great Depression revived the moral American Dream. As people shifted back to the traditional value of hard work in order to build a better future for their children and grandchildren, a positive development of the American Dream emerged, demonstrating a newfound understanding of the importance of community. While the American Dream can be detrimental if pursued at all costs, it can also be rewarding when honesty, integrity, hard work, and determination are the values driving the quest.

A Second Chance

Critical Essay

A Second Chance

In Nikolai Gogol's "The Portrait," Gogol explores the dominant theme of metamorphosis and its negative effects on Chartkov. Upon finding a large fortune, Chartkov quickly abandons his loyalty to his craft and allows his desire for fame to become all consuming. He transforms into a greedy and overweening person, his former self no longer recognizable. As a result of his metamorphosis, Chartkov loses himself, as well as his morals and beliefs. Gogol uses the character of Chartkov to explore the negative impacts of metamorphosis, elucidating to the reader the importance of staying true to oneself and one's beliefs.

The immediate effects of Chartkov's metamorphosis are evident in his newfound shame and embarrassment over the subjects of his portraits. When Chartkov spots his former professor crossing a bridge, yet looks the other way and pretends not to see him, his stunning moral transformation is evident, and his former self is morally unrecognizable. The narrator of Part One asserts, "On the bridge, he noticed his former professor and darted nimbly past him as if without noticing him at all, so that the dumbfounded professor stood motionless on the bridge for a long time, his face the picture of a question mark" (357). This striking change in Chartkov's principles is remarkable; he pretends not to notice the very professor who fostered his dreams and encouraged him to pursue his talent. Instead of thanking his professor for consistently encouraging him and bolstering his confidence when he was a young artist, Chartkov intentionally avoids the encounter because he is worried about what others will think if he associates himself with someone so lowly. By avoiding his professor and refusing to credit the man responsible for his career in art, Chartkov abandons his ideals and values. Similarly, when Chartkov eyes an aristocratic woman looking at his portraits of peasants and working class subjects, he experiences humiliation over his life pre-fortune. He states, "'Oh, it's rubbish…Just for fun…sketches…'" (359). The paintings of the peasants that used to fill Chartkov with pride, now cause him shame and embarrassment. It is his newly discovered sense of propriety that leads him to believe that a painter of his caliber should not paint plebeian subjects. He believes it is necessary to assure the aristocratic woman that he painted the peasants "just for fun," because he does not want her to view him, or his artwork, as a joke. He is terribly concerned that if she believes those portraits are his masterpieces, she will deem him unworthy of painting her daughter, Lise. Chartkov now believes that in order to build a noteworthy reputation, he must divorce himself from any attachment to his past artwork. Chartkov's new wealth, and subsequent metamorphosis, cause him to value wealth and fame over his true beliefs and values, thereby causing him to lose his sense of self.

Chartkov further loses his identity and standards, as a result of his metamorphosis, when he changes his position on the pace at which art should be created. The new Chartkov attributes time, love, and care as the qualities of a mere laborer, versus speed and celerity as traits of a true artist. As he is surrounded by wealthy aristocrats who admire his artwork, he declares: 'No, I do not understand,' he would say, 'why others strain so much, sitting and toiling over their work. The man who potters for several months over a painting is, in my opinion, a laborer, not an artist. I don't believe there is any talent in him. A genius creates boldly, quickly. Here,' he would say, usually turning to his visitors, 'this portrait I painted in two days, this little head in one day, this in a few hours, this in a little more than an hour. No, I…I confess, I do not recognize as art something assembled line by line. That is craft, not art.' (366) Chartkov rapidly loses his identity as an artist as he begins hurriedly painting his subjects in only two days, instead of taking his time to fully invest himself in his painting. Chartkov loses the spark and passion that used to fuel his painting, and allows his desire for fame to control his painting, leaving in its wake his former morals and ideals. Additionally, he becomes critical of any artists that mull over their work at length, forgetting that he used to do the very same thing. He becomes arrogant and pompous, believing that only someone who lacks talent would need to spend weeks on one piece, rather than someone who is committed to their artistry and wants to ensure that every line is precise. It is ironic that Charkov has come full circle in his metamorphosis; by his new definition of a "true" artist, Chartkov denounces his former self as someone with no talent; he was not a true artist until he came into his fortune and sped-up his painting process. Chartkov's transformation is decidedly for the worse; he loses his identity as an artist by abandoning his long hours at the easel and his devotion to his art in favor of the "speed painting" method that he attributes to a "true" artist.

Chartkov's ultimate realization of the error of his transformation brings about his abject misery. He becomes so angry that he recklessly abandons his painting and begins wantonly destroying other artists' works. After Chartkov views the passion behind a friend's painting, he runs from the gallery and the narrator remarks: His whole being, his whole life was awakened in one instant, as if youth returned to him, as if the extinguished sparks of talent blazed up again. The blindfold suddenly fell from his eyes. God! to ruin the best years of his youth so mercilessly; to destroy, to extinguish the spark of fire that had perhaps flickered in his breast… (371) Although Chartkov "wakes up" and has this epiphany, realizing the extent to which he has lost himself and became someone he does not recognize in order to gain fame and popularity among the aristocrats, the moment comes too late. Although the "blindfold" no longer covers his eyes, unfortunately he was blinded for too long and has become set in his new ways. While he is furious that he has "extinguished [the] sparks of talent" that he formerly possessed, he refuses to put in the work necessary to reclaim his former life. Instead, he allows madness and rage to overcome him, destroying all artwork with which he comes into possession. "Having bought a painting for a high price, he would take it carefully to his room, fall upon it with the fury of a tiger, tear it, shred it, cut it to pieces, and trample it with his feet, all the while laughing with delight" (373). Chartkov copes with his anger by destroying art, acting as a "tiger, tear[ing] it, shred[ding] it, [and] cut[ting] it to pieces." He is incapable of managing his anger in an appropriate way, and his acting out does nothing to correct his negative metamorphosis. If he had chosen to reconnect with his brush and embrace his former passion for painting, he would have had more likelihood of reversing his transformation and returning to his former happier, albeit poorer, way of life. Chartkov is unable to find his way back to his true self, and instead, abandons art forever, subsequently leading to his downfall.

Through his exploration of the detrimental impacts of metamorphosis on Chartkov, Gogol impresses upon the reader the importance of staying true to oneself and one's values. Chartkov greedily succumbs to his desire for fame and wealth, losing himself in the process. Once he realizes the mistake of his ways, instead of trying to regain his past life, he takes out his anger and frustration on art, the very same thing that formerly brought him great pleasure. He finds himself unable to return to his former life because he is lazy and unwilling to put forth the effort to correct his mistakes. By examining the negative effects of metamorphosis on Chartkov, Gogol advances the premise that if one is not willing to put in the time and energy to go back to his old ways following a negative metamorphosis, it will lead to downfall, like it did for Chartkov. However, if the individual perseveres and returns to his old ways, rather than succumbing to the negative transformation, he will have a second chance at happiness. The critical lesson that Gogol makes clear is that a second chance is not simply a given; one must work hard to earn it, and that is why when given the chance to correct one's mistakes, one ought to seize the opportunity.