The Self-Made Chamele-man

A self-made man is someone whose circumstance and inherent qualities/abilites do not make him apt for success in his specific environment so he becomes successful by altering himself by assuming the qualities of those who are successful. We can compare this to the evolution of a chamillion. Why do chamilions possess the ability to camoflauge with their environment. They got this ability because they were always too easily spotted by predators. Overtime the environment favored those that were able to blend in with their environments, as the ones couldn’t were too easily spotted by their predators and thus killed. Natural selection favored the chamillions who could camoflauge. If for the camilion, to succeed is to survive, then their success as a species is due to the ability to adapt to their surroundings. The self-made man is like the camillion: he draws his success from adapting to his surroundings.
    Benjamin Franklin projects this idea of adapting to one’s surroundings in his works regarding how to be successful. We see this in the list of thirteen virtues in the excerpt from his autobiography we read in class. He preaches against any/all activity that will result in negative attention from others: “speak not but what may benefit others”, “Use no hurtful deceipt. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly”, “wring none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty”, “Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve”. He is saying one should always focus on the task at hand and abstain from thoughts that will interfere with your ability to perform the task at hand or cause others to interfere with your ability to perform the task at hand. This advice is non-specific and will aid one’s ability to succeed in any environment because it ultimately helps one camoflauge with his her environment–or “work environment”, as the case may be.
    This directed piece of advice to abstain from saying or doing anything that will result in negative attention fits perfectly into the bigger picture of Franklin’s teachings: his advice is not particular to the success in any specific environment but, rather it teaches one how to obtain the abilities of adaptability that allow people to succeed in any environment. If it was a handbook for being a successful camillion, rather than being about “how to look like tree” or “how to look like a leaf” it’s simply “ how to look like_____” which is synonomous for “how to camoflauge”.
    The notion of camoflauging is only specific to self-made success. A tree doesn’t need to know how to blend in order to be successful in it’s environment. A tree defines success for its environment- it’s what defines success for the camillion when it’s in that environment. Because the tree sprouts from the ground with the predispotion for success in its environment that means its success is not self-made. It is a favorable aliging of innate traits and an environment that favors those traits. The characters, Romo and Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross are like the tree. They don’t possess the ability to adapt or camoflauge  but they don’t need it because they’re aggressive, confident personalities are favorable for success in their environment (as salesmen).
    The camillion, the other hand is comparable to Gatsby’s character, in The Great Gatsby. Although  his character does not have a successful or “happy” ending, he is considered successful with regards to wealth. If being successful means being wealthy then he achieved it. He achieved it by camoflauging with the trees–we can equate the trees with the Daisy and Tom and the other East-Eggers. Gatsby attempted to assume all of their qualities. While he did manage to obtain the money, he could not obtain the lineage. He did not successfully blend in with the trees. He was spotted as a reptile only pretending to be a tree. Had he managed to camoflauge and blend in perfectly with his environment, he wouls have been successful.
    Thus, still thinking of the self-made man as the camilion, he draws his success from camoflauging. This trait is true of all camilions, however, it is the “success” that is not true of all environments. This reveals the irony of the concept of  the individual who is a self-made success; thinking of it in terms of uniqueness and universalness, we would assume the individual to possess the unique qualites (escpecially considering that “unique” and “inidivdual are synonyms” and the success to possess the univerasal qualities; however, it is the individual who possesses the universal qualties (adaptability and camoflauging) and the success that possess the unique qualities (specific to environment).
    The reality TV show “Biggest Loser” illustrates this idea. The universal idea of success in television would seem to say one needs to be thin and beautiful to be on television, however to be successful chosen to be on televsion for this specific show, the opposite is the case. If the self-made man’s goal was to be on that show, rather than becoming “thin and beautiful” he would gain a lot of weight because that would render him successful in this specific instance. This shows us how the unique-universal  relationship between success and the self-made man always withstand.    

Self-Fashioning: Finding Success in Failure

Self-fashioning is the belief that an individual as the capacity to completely transform themselves in order to achieve a goal. Self-fashioning is a common theme found throughout many works of American literature. It is the method to which countless an individuals mold themselves into perfect beings, fit to achieve whatever goals they desire. The concept of self-fashioning is often criticized for being unrealistic and having few examples of success. However, three works of literature that convey self-fashioning protagonists have helped to keep the idea of self-fashioning at the heart of American culture since the nation’s founding. Those examples are The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ragged Dick, Or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks by Horatio Alger, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. None of the protagonist in those works achieve their ultimate goal, but they do greatly change their lives while striving for those goals.

 

 Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was published in 1791. Benjamin Franklin is considered to be one of the greatest examples of self-fashioning. His autobiography describes is diligent work ethic and how it helped him to achieve his goals. He also articulates his course of action towards what he calls “moral perfection” (Franklin 300). In order to achieve this good, Franklin attempts to mold himself into the embodiment of his thirteen virtues. By setting thirteen virtues, Franklin creates the mold in which to shape himself in. For example, his first virtue states, “Temperance. Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation” (Franklin 301). In order to achieve this, Franklin tracks his diet over the course of a month and attempts to rule out his gluttony.  He goes on to make attempts for all thirteen of his virtues. Franklin fails to achieve moral perfection but utilizes his more productive state to create many innovations such as bifocals and the modern library.

            Serialized in 1867 and published as a full length novel in 1868, Ragged Dick, Or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks tells the story of a young shoe-shine who pursues wealth through self-fashioning. Like Franklin, Ragged Dick also attempts to greatly change himself in order to achieve his goal of wealth. In order for Franklin to alter himself he created his own guide. However, Mr. Whitney presented Ragged Dick’s ideal template to him. Mr. Whitney informs Ragged Dick that a prerequisite to his success was acquiring “a taste for reading and study” which he pursued during his “leisure hours” in addition to working low-wage jobs (Alger 4). At the end of Alger’s story, Ragged Dick is not a wealthy man. However, he has opened a savings account and made great steps toward improving his work ethic.

            The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, conveys the life of James Gatz, a man who through self-fashioning transforms himself into the wealthy aristocrat, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is ultimately a tragic figure that sacrifices everything in a failed attempt to relive his past love affair with Daisy. Although he fails to accomplish his goal his relentless pursuit of it is perhaps the most compelling example of self-fashioning. James Gatz was raised as a poor farm boy in the Mid-West. Through a regiment that he creates for himself, he is able to overcome his poverty and join the wealthy New York City aristocracy. His regiment included “ris[ing] from bed [at] 6. A.M.” and improving his mind and body through exercise and study (Fitzgerald 173). This was all done on top of working 9 hours each day. Gatsby’s regiment was similar to Franklin’s in that it was self-imposed. It also bared resemblance to Ragged Dick’s because it did not allow for any action that does not lead to self-improvement.  Gatsby ultimately fails to woo Daisy, but achieves great wealth in popularity while striving towards that goal.

            All three works act as powerful examples for the effects that following a life self-fashioning entail. Although Ragged Dick, Franklin, nor Gatsby achieve their goals in their entirety, all three individuals greatly change their lives through self-fashioning. Ragged Dick begins to save up funds in a bank account, Franklin invents a multitude of items that are still used in the modern world, and Gatsby achieves great wealth and popularity for a short time.

The American Dream: Founded and Foiled by Hope

The term “American Dream” is an exceedingly ambiguous one, frequently focused on the ambitious or the upwardly mobile seizing opportunity when presented.  It is hope and aspiration that motivate those in pursuit of their American Dream, each with their respective version of it, but always united by the common belief that it will be an improvement. However, the same hope and aspiration that provide a foundation for the American Dream are also capable of being what threaten and poison the very same dream. For many, opportunity can grow to taunt and encourage reckless decisions that, though aimed towards betterment,  ultimately end up threatening or destroying previous and existing accomplishments.

In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby has devoted himself to building up a life that he believes impressive enough and worthy of a life to share between him and Daisy.  In the end Gatsby ends up with a house that, much like Daisy, projects an image of perfection but is rather a façade.  There is a large focus on the outward appearance as representative of success, and it is the motivation to achieve more and appear more successful outwardly that truly drives Gatsby, as he knows that outward appearances are Daisy’s markers for success.  It is this continual motivation that ultimately leads to the unravel of the life Gatsby had imagined, and he is unable to accept that Daisy cannot completely discount her entire relationship with Tom.  Upon this request Daisy even tells him “you want too much…I can’t help what’s past” (Fitzgerald 132).  Daisy is his true motivation but he strives to impress someone whose main focus is to remain upwardly mobile and ultimately they both suffer due to their over-eager visions.

In The House of Mirth, Lily enjoys her elevated social stature, and seeks to find a life that is deserving of her and what her family projects for her.  Her main focus is finding a man that is worthy and compatible with her social status, though it is difficult because of the way she views outliers of society’s elite with “a disbelief in the things they [do] not believe in, and a contemptuous pity for the people who [are] not able to live as they had lived” (Wharton 51).  Though she encounters different situations that seem promising for marriage, Lily fails to ever get married, continually assuming that a more promising offer is in her future.  Similarly to Daisy, Lily is hyperfocused on what her status and family dictate as suitable for her, and therefore jeopardizes opportunities to marry and gain security with the hope that there will be future, more impressive prospects.  Lily’s gambling habit is similar in this respect, and though, at times  gambling is a means of social interaction for Lily, it ultimately symbolizes her need to seek what is grander and more valuable at the expense of what she already has.  It is for this reason that Lily’s romantic life and gambling habit parallel one another, as both are representative of the threat that hope can pose to a stable or at minimum, workable situation.

Similarly to Gatsby’s and Lily’s continual quests for what is monetarily (and by extension, socially) better, the film Glengarry Glen Ross showcases a group of male characters all striving to be the most accomplished salesman within their office.  There is a clear correlation between success in the workplace and the self worth that each character has for themselves, motivating each to out-sell the rest.  However, there is also a tangible representation of each man’s worth and accomplishments: a literal score board chronicling who has earned the most money for the company to date.  It is again, the physical and public presentation of each of the men and their accomplishments that encourage them to out-perform, even in nearly impossible circumstances.  For this reason, Levene is driven to steal the most promising leads, despite his belief that he has just closed on an impressive deal with the Nyborgs.  Though Levene is later told that the deal with the Nyborgs is not a legitimate one, it is his decision to rob the office that proves to be the most self destructive one.

For each of these characters outward or public representation of their lives and their personal successes promoted more ambitious personal visions for each.  Part of the allure of the American Dream is the prospect or promise of improvement with the lack of a limit.  However for these characters, the promise of further acquisition ultimately threatened and led to the loss of what was previously had and gained.  This concept of being overly ambitious and jeopardizing what has already been gained is a rather timeless one, and often seen in investing.  Many of the world’s wealthiest either gain, maintain, or grow their assets through investing – always in the hopes of attaining and achieving more, and yet always at the risk of losing it all.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. James Foley. New Line Cinema, 1992. Film.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.

Individualism Only Works within Societal Rules

           When one practices individualism he or she may be seen as going against what is considered normal in society. While it is acceptable to do what we want in order to make ourselves happy, it is important to take others into consideration and to also abide by the rules of that society. In Walden, Thoreau left his town for two years because he was tired of society. Although this was considered uncommon, he broke no laws. Individualism in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative was reflected in his resistance to slavery. Although this was considered unlawful by many in the south, northerners praised his bravery. In both of those cases the individuals succeeded. However, Herman Melville’s Bartleby’s individualism led to his downfall because of his non-compliance to society’s expectations. In light of this, my main claim is that although individualism is accepted by some societies, being an individual works best when one adheres to the rules of those societies or if those rules are changed.

        Thoreau was an individual because he enjoyed being alone. He did not like being a part of a society that relied on material possessions and compared people who worked long hours, in order to afford luxuries, to machines (Thoreau 5). Thoreau felt he did not have much in common with the people who referred to his mode of life as “impertinent” (1). In order to avoid certain societal conventions he left town. Thoreau not only embraced individualism, he encouraged it as well. He said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” (317). Thoreau’s individualism worked because he was not part of society and therefore did not have to adhere to its norms, unlike Bartleby who wanted to be left alone while residing within society.

        Bartleby’s individualism came from his reluctance to conform to a society that expected him to act a certain way. Bartleby was a scrivener and he was one of those “machines” Thoreau referred to. He was happy copying other people’s works in solitude. The narrator said, “… he had been cheerfully industrious” (Melville (1108). However that all changed when Bartleby was asked to examine a paper with the lawyer. He told his employer that he would “prefer not to” (1108). This of course bothered the narrator because he expected “instant compliance” (1108). Here we saw what was expected of an individual and the reaction one received from society while resisting conformity. The narrator said he was “stunned” by Bartleby’s response (1109). Bartleby went through several stages of individualism. The first stage involved him doing an “extraordinary quantity of work” (1108). He seemed to work nonstop. Then he went from one extreme to the next by refusing to work at all. And of course since Bartleby did not follow the example of the rest of society he was forced out of it, sent to prison and took his non-compliance even further by preferring not to eat (1126). In trying to achieve individualism, Bartleby died of hunger. This is similar to Douglass, who also put his life at risk to achieve his individualism.

        Douglass was considered a problem slave because his master, Thomas Auld, thought he was useless due to his education. His intelligence ruined him for “every good purpose” (Douglass 65). Auld sent Douglass to Mr. Covey so he could be broken. What set Douglass apart from most slaves was his willingness to risk his life in order to gain respect and freedom. Douglass’ individualism was emphasized when he resolved to fight Covey. His resistance to Covey’s abuse was so unexpected “that Covey seemed taken all aback” (77). Douglass, like Bartleby, broke the mold, so Covey’s reaction to his resistance was similar to that of Bartleby’s employer. Most slaves would have taken that beating, but he stood up for himself and it changed the way he was treated by Covey from that moment on and it gave him new hope which led to his freedom.

        Being an individual and taking a risk in order to achieve a goal is encouraged as long as one does it without going against the norms in a society. Individualism is only acceptable when one achieves it without breaking moral codes. Another thing about individualism is that it becomes more acceptable when a group of individuals have the same goals. Douglass became one of many slaves who escaped and they were all part of a movement that pushed for the abolishment of slavery. Homosexuality is becoming more common because so many people have come out, but decades ago when someone came out as gay they were scrutinized. The legalization of gay marriage is proof that many people no longer view homosexuality as uncommon. Gays are no longer considered individualistic, because they are now part of the American dream of getting married and having a family like everyone else. This goes to show that – unlike Thoreau and Bartleby – some individuals just want to be part of a community where they are allowed the same privileges as everyone else. In Douglass’s case it was necessary for him to be an individual in order to be free like the majority of America.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Ed. Jeffery S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New

        York: Random House, 2000. Print

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” (1953) Course Packet.

Clothes Make the Man

America prides itself on the assurance of equality.  Yet despite its secession from royal powers and the notion of inescapable hierarchies prevalent in its old-world contemporaries America in a very real way does maintain class distinctions.  Distinctions nominated not by breed but monetary accumulation and self-presentation.  The American Dream promises its citizens that its social strata is traversable, that one may rise from rags to riches.  While one’s exact standing in America can be inexact, due to the rise and fall of personal fortunes, a clear indicator of one’s class has always been the clothes on our backs.  It is nearly impossible to pass oneself off as rich or even well to do without the proper coat.  Throughout the semester this idea that clothes make the man has reoccurred in a number of texts.  Through characters like Frederick Douglass, Lily Bart and Jay Gatsby it has been made clear that having the right clothes, or clothes at all, can decide your current social standing, the fate of your future or even redefine your past.

            Frederick Douglas was born a slave in the American South yet became one of its finest historical figures.  Lily Bart grew up in New York’s upper-crust and ended her life poor and alone.  Jay Gatsby, or rather James Gatz, hailed from North Dakota and became a mysterious celebrity of New York.  All of these characters owe their rise or fall in part to the clothes they had.  While Douglass began his life basically naked and Gatz so poor he had to run from home Lily Bart on the other hand started her life in luxury and was defined by her gowns.  Both Douglass and Gatsby began their lives with almost nothing.  It was by luck and aspiration these characters were able to rise.  When James Gatz saved the life of Dan Cody he was able to begin his new life with the clothes Cody gave him and thus Jay Gatsby was born.  When Frederick Douglass recalls his first pair of trousers he says, “The thought of owning a pair of trousers was great indeed!  It was almost a sufficient motive, not only to make me take off what would be called by pigdrovers the mange, but the skin itself.  I went at it in good earnest, working for the first time with the hope of reward.” (Douglass 40) For both Gatsby and Douglass their fine new clothes were to them this new skin, allowing them to redefine who they were as people in their own self-identification and their presentation to others.        

            Lily Bart and James Gatz were in a curious way slave to their appearances.  Because Lily was conditioned into this life of luxury her life was dominated by a need to maintain the appearance of wealth to win a proper suitor.  If she had began her life like Selden’s cousin Gerty she may have settled on happiness in other pursuits.  But like how James Gatz initially relied upon his army uniform as a means of winning Daisy’s heart, because it masked his personal fortune, Lily Bart likewise relied upon her fine dresses in order to maintain the illusion of wealth and win herself a suitor.  Through their appearances Gatsby and Bart were able to project themselves as these fine commodities deserving the respect of other rich people who had a taste for the finer things.  However as Lily struggled to maintain her standing she fell into poverty and lost almost everything, grasping on to a few fine dresses in hopes of one day re-entering the circle of the upper-crust.  While Gatsby on the other hand amassed more and more fine clothes his reckless pursuit of a dream he realized however that higher class did not ensure higher ideals or senses of morality and this final superficial disillusionment was his undoing.     

            It is not difficult to see the implications of clothes in direct relation to class today.  It is in fact perhaps easier than ever.  Advertising and marketing campaigns telling you who you are or what you can be are all pervading.  Designer goods and the accouterment of the driving forces of capitalism are engineered into our citizens.  The individual in today’s society is easily summed up by the name on their purse, the color of their watch or the brand on their chest.  Most people aspire to be considered upper-class but the ambiguous question remains of whether the upper-class just look better or are really better people.

“You Dream, You”: Finding a Woman’s American Dream in her Children

Often the American dream is discussed as universal, as potentially accessible to all those who strive for it. It strikes me, however, that when we go on to attempt to define that dream, the American dreamer is, by default, a man. For Franklin, Thoreau, Gatsby, and even Frederick Douglass, the American dream is one of financial independence and success. But what of the American for whom such a dream is inaccessible? What of the women, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to whom financial independence came with all sorts of other prices? This is a more complex American dream, if it can even be called that, and it’s much more subtly represented in the American literary canon. Moreover, it would be oversimplifying to say that marriage to a financially successful and/or loving man can stand in as a “replacement” American dream for women. In Ruth Hall, Harriet Jacobs, and Daisy Buchanan, we find three women to whom neither the male “American Dream,” nor even a typical “marriage plot” success were available. For all three of these women, I see their ability to provide for and protect their children as standing in, more or less effectively, as an alternate type of dream.

The way that Harriet Jacobs closes her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gives a great example of what represents success to a woman who can’t access the male American dream. Harriet Jacobs’ narrative tells of her fight for freedom and independence, both for herself and for her children. “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free!” she says, but adds that “The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own” (370). Throughout Incidents, Jacobs’ children have been a driving force for her; even her pregnancies, though she professes shame about her sexual relationship with her children’s father, were political, rather than passive acts, which she hoped would free her from the obsession, though not the possession, of her cruel owner. It’s also important that her story doesn’t end “the usual way, with marriage.” In lots of previous literature about women—the mind goes immediately to Austen, though she’s not American—it seems the culminating event of a woman’s life is marriage. Jacobs life subverts this trope; so does the fictional life of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, which begins where your typical “marriage plot” novel usually ends, and shows that even a seemingly idyllic marriage is not always a guaranteed happy ending.

For Ruth, like Harriet, life ultimately comes to revolve around her children, and her happy ending is her eventual ability to support them. Also like Incidents, the novel doesn’t end with “a home of her own,” but with the implication that Ruth, Nettie, and Katy will soon find one. The final chapter sees them at the grave of Ruth’s husband, and the scene is one of looking forward as much as it is of looking back. It is a goodbye to the married life that Ruth had, a letting go of her nostalgia for the stability of marriage, replaced with a sureness that she can support her children, and that there is someone—not a relative, but a friend, who respects Ruth for her abilities, rather than being responsible for her by family ties—who will take care of her children if anything happens to her.

In The Great Gatsby, we often limit our view of Daisy Buchanan and her interaction with the American dream to how she motivates and—arguably—foils Gatsby in his own aspirations. But what of Daisy’s own dreams? I think something crucial that is more often than not overlooked is that by the time Daisy returns, she is not only a wife, but a mother. Gatsby’s obsession is with Daisy’s rejection of Tom; his delusion of Daisy has no room for the child, Pammy, and what she represents. When, late in the novel, Gatsby is finally introduced to Pammy, Nick observes that “he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before” (117).  It could be argued that Pammy is a physical representation of the love that existed between Tom and Daisy, but I think it is more than that. She represents Daisy’s own ability to create; she is Daisy’s child, and only Daisy, in her dreamlike, disconnected way, can protect her, just as Ruth and Harriet protect their daughters. (That Daisy gave birth under ether, while Ruth and Harriet gave birth undrugged, and what this says about Daisy’s dreaminess, is a compare/contrast for another essay.) Becoming a mother changes Daisy, a change that Gatsby cannot comprehend; she cannot return to the past because she cannot erase that change, no matter how much Gatsby would like her to. It is this, I think, not a carelessness or greed, that ultimately prevents her from returning to Gatsby: the life Gatsby offers her has no place for Pammy, and so also has no place for this new Daisy, Daisy the creator and protector.

This is, to me, the greatest flaw in Luhrmann’s new Gatsby adaptation, that he doesn’t include Pammy being presented to Gatsby and Nick. The result is a huge underestimation of Daisy, a disrespect for what she achieves as a mother. It makes her decision to not join and perpetuate Gatsby’s romantic fantasy seem a selfish one, when it was, in fact, selfless, powerful, even. The power of motherhood to change women, and to give them purpose and ambition, is one that I think, in this post-feminist world, we are too quick to diminish. In particular, when we look to the past, we are too likely to ignore the fact that, in an economic and social context that denied women so much power, so much ability to dream and achieve, motherhood represented an important, transformative achievement. In this contemporary context of the “can women have it all” debate, it’s too easy to dismiss the importance of any and all choices women make to protect and provide for their children. It likewise affects our ability to respect women of the past. Luhmann’s film is just one example of this, and it is a loss—for women in general, but also for the film. Luhrmann might be obsessed with pulling quotes from the text like little type-written gems, but his dismissal of Daisy lost him a particularly good one: “You dream, you,” Daisy says to Pammy. “You absolute little dream” (117). It’s not as glamorous as Gatsby’s mansion and parties, but it’s a parallel American dream, and just as important.

“You Dream, You”: Finding a Woman’s American Dream in her Children

Often the American dream is discussed as universal, as potentially accessible to all those who strive for it. It strikes me, however, that when we go on to attempt to define that dream, the American dreamer is, by default, a man. For Franklin, Thoreau, Gatsby, and even Frederick Douglass, the American dream is one of financial independence and success. But what of the American for whom such a dream is inaccessible? What of the women, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to whom financial independence came with all sorts of other prices? This is a more complex American dream, if it can even be called that, and it’s much more subtly represented in the American literary canon. Moreover, it would be oversimplifying to say that marriage to a financially successful and/or loving man can stand in as a “replacement” American dream for women. In Ruth Hall, Harriet Jacobs, and Daisy Buchanan, we find three women to whom neither the male “American Dream,” nor even a typical “marriage plot” success were available. For all three of these women, I see their ability to provide for and protect their children as standing in, more or less effectively, as an alternate type of dream. 

The way that Harriet Jacobs closes her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gives a great example of what represents success to a woman who can’t access the male American dream. Harriet Jacobs’ narrative tells of her fight for freedom and independence, both for herself and for her children. “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free!” she says, but adds that “The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own” (370). Throughout Incidents, Jacobs’ children have been a driving force for her; even her pregnancies, though she professes shame about her sexual relationship with her children’s father, were political, rather than passive acts, which she hoped would free her from the obsession, though not the possession, of her cruel owner. It’s also important that her story doesn’t end “the usual way, with marriage.” In lots of previous literature about women—the mind goes immediately to Austen, though she’s not American—it seems the culminating event of a woman’s life is marriage. Jacobs life subverts this trope; so does the fictional life of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, which begins where your typical “marriage plot” novel usually ends, and shows that even a seemingly idyllic marriage is not always a guaranteed happy ending. 

For Ruth, like Harriet, life ultimately comes to revolve around her children, and her happy ending is her eventual ability to support them. Also like Incidents, the novel doesn’t end with “a home of her own,” but with the implication that Ruth, Nettie, and Katy will soon find one. The final chapter sees them at the grave of Ruth’s husband, and the scene is one of looking forward as much as it is of looking back. It is a goodbye to the married life that Ruth had, a letting go of her nostalgia for the stability of marriage, replaced with a sureness that she can support her children, and that there is someone—not a relative, but a friend, who respects Ruth for her abilities, rather than being responsible for her by family ties—who will take care of her children if anything happens to her.

In The Great Gatsby, we often limit our view of Daisy Buchanan and her interaction with the American dream to how she motivates and—arguably—foils Gatsby in his own aspirations. But what of Daisy’s own dreams? I think something crucial that is more often than not overlooked is that by the time Daisy returns, she is not only a wife, but a mother. Gatsby’s obsession is with Daisy’s rejection of Tom; his delusion of Daisy has no room for the child, Pammy, and what she represents. When, late in the novel, Gatsby is finally introduced to Pammy, Nick observes that “he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before” (117).  It could be argued that Pammy is a physical representation of the love that existed between Tom and Daisy, but I think it is more than that. She represents Daisy’s own ability to create; she is Daisy’s child, and only Daisy, in her dreamlike, disconnected way, can protect her, just as Ruth and Harriet protect their daughters. (That Daisy gave birth under ether, while Ruth and Harriet gave birth undrugged, and what this says about Daisy’s dreaminess, is a compare/contrast for another essay.) Becoming a mother changes Daisy, a change that Gatsby cannot comprehend; she cannot return to the past because she cannot erase that change, no matter how much Gatsby would like her to. It is this, I think, not a carelessness or greed, that ultimately prevents her from returning to Gatsby: the life Gatsby offers her has no place for Pammy, and so also has no place for this new Daisy, Daisy the creator and protector.

 This is, to me, the greatest flaw in Luhrmann’s new Gatsby adaptation, that he doesn’t include Pammy being presented to Gatsby and Nick. The result is a huge underestimation of Daisy, a disrespect for what she achieves as a mother. It makes her decision to not join and perpetuate Gatsby’s romantic fantasy seem a selfish one, when it was, in fact, selfless, powerful, even. The power of motherhood to change women, and to give them purpose and ambition, is one that I think, in this post-feminist world, we are too quick to diminish. In particular, when we look to the past, we are too likely to ignore the fact that, in an economic and social context that denied women so much power, so much ability to dream and achieve, motherhood represented an important, transformative achievement. In this contemporary context of the “can women have it all” debate, it’s too easy to dismiss the importance of any and all choices women make to protect and provide for their children. It likewise affects our ability to respect women of the past. Luhmann’s film is just one example of this, and it is a loss—for women in general, but also for the film. Luhrmann might be obsessed with pulling quotes from the text like little type-written gems, but his dismissal of Daisy lost him a particularly good one: “You dream, you,” Daisy says to Pammy. “You absolute little dream” (117). It’s not as glamorous as Gatsby’s mansion and parties, but it’s a parallel American dream, and just as important.