“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.

Unhappy Women Writing: Separating Fanny Fern and Ruth Hall

In an 1855 letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall: “The woman writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men… but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked, as it were, –then their books are sure to possess character and value” (Ticknor 142).

 Though Hawthorne saw in Fern’s novel a quality he found lacking in the work of most women writers, most other critics of the time felt the opposite. The “stark naked” way Fern presents the story of Ruth Hall was criticized broadly as being unfeminine, and Fern was attacked for her satirical treatment of characters based on her own family. Ultimately, these were not critiques of the novel, but of Fern’s position as a successful woman writer, and how she made use of that position. In my paper I explore a distinction that the critics of the time were unable (or unwilling) to make: that there is a difference between Ruth Hall and Fanny Fern.

 Even though Fanny Fern was initially writing for money, by the time she published Ruth Hall, her writing was also serving as social commentary. However, within the text Fern is very careful not to let her protagonist make the kind of commentary made implicitly in the narrative. Modern day readers can put aside the obsession with the Fanny Fern’s gender and actually read Fern’s social commentary about gender and work. Rather than fearing Fanny Fern’s observations, we are able to examine Ruth Hall’s relationship to her work as a writer, and separate that from what Fanny Fern was saying about what it meant to be a woman supporting herself as a writer at the time. 

Economy Response–Meena Dieterich

In Thoreau’s “Economy” chapter I found myself struck by Thoreau’s criticism of institutional learning. It’s a two-part critique, wary of the expense of education as well as skeptical that those skills which are learned in the classroom might not be acquired more thoroughly–and be of more use–through practical experience. I was drawn to this section because I find it to be as applicable a critique today as it must have been in Thoreau’s time. Of course, like much of Walden, it’s not practical to take Thoreau literally. If every student intending to pay room and board at a college instead used that money to build a hundred-some square foot cabin, we’d have an awful lot of cabins, and very few places students might study together. But Thoreau’s dissatisfaction at the separation between those who build colleges, and those who then pay for the leisure to study there rings true. “It might be better than this,” he suggests, “for the students… to lay the foundation themselves… they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this endless game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.” I feel like this is a daily reality–an uncomfortable one–at my school, where men and women from suburban Maine work tirelessly, for not much money, to provide the clean buildings, good food, and manicured grounds that we students consider part of the “Bowdoin experience” we pay an exorbitant amount for each year. At the same time, the reality of most college graduates today is that in order to find employment we have to put in our time in unpaid internships, “learning by doing” in a way that we apparently didn’t in school. There’s a harshness to these modern realities that Thoreau doesn’t predict; I don’t think a walk to the harbor is the solution now. But I think that makes the allure of his suggestion that we live life, rather than learn it, even stronger, at least to me.