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.


5 thoughts on “The American Dream: Founded and Foiled by Hope

  1. You make an interesting point. I agree that the hope that drives Gatsby and Lily was also their undoing. I would also go as far to say that Shelley is an example of that undoing in the film, Glengary Glen Ross. His hope that he would eventually turn his luck around and begin making sales again is what put him in his difficult predicament. He could have easily sought out different employment, but chose to remain a salesman by any means necessary because of his hope that is luck would turn around.

  2. I understand what you are saying. Some people are never satisfied with what is presented to them or what they have achieved, so they hold out believing they can do better. The American dream teaches us that there are no limits, but sometimes we have to learn to be happy with what we have already achieved. Lily could not be happy because she was never satisfied and never really achieved anything. She would take one step forward and two steps back. I think it was Thoreau who wrote that even if you are poor, be happy. Less possessions mean more freedom. But in America the more “trappings” people have the more they want.

  3. I think that your are really hitting upon something fundamental about the American Dream. It is like the Icharus myth: you fly too high and sun melts your wax wings. In all, this has been a problem for Americans ever since De Tocqueville, who commented on the “infinite perfectibility” of the human condition. Because Americans could always improve themselves or their station through work and the democratic process, they always felt as though they should and ought to want to, leading to what De Tocqueville called the anxiety and desperation of Americans.

  4. The American Dream Founded on Hope

    I like the appreciation of the American dream as an ambiguous one, as well as the idea that hope and aspiration is its hallmark. Also the idea of perfection as a facade I think is a very exact interpretation of Daisys deficit. I myself compared gatsby and lily Bart and I think this comparison in this essay is perhaps more profound than my own in its description of these aspirations of superficial love lives as a gamble in themselves.

  5. I agree with a lot of the above comments, and really appreciate the way you voice this paradox that is, as Zach puts it, nonetheless fundamental to the American dream. One must be driven by hope, but hoping, past a certain level of achievement, can thrust you back into failure. I think we even saw this in The Queen of Versailles, which is to say that it’s a flaw in the American dream that continues to haunt us. In particular, that as you rise, your lifestyle changes, and not only do you want to continue your rise, but should you overshoot and fail, you can’t go back to being happy with the limited means–or even a slight increase over–that you once had. It’s fickle, the American dream, and I think that’s why some of it’s great successes are also it’s greatest failures.

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