“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.

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