Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie and Baz Luhrmann’s film, The Great Gatsby both explore the illusion of the American dream through their criticism of society and the acknowledgement of the repercussions of the pursuit of happiness. The main ideas that dreams are illusions and the past impacts the present is primarily focused in both the film and the play. Furthermore, the utilisation of symbolism and characterisation depicts each individual character’s personal dreams and how they try to avoid reality.
Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby explore their interpretations of the American Dream through their highly symbolic representations of America as a whole. The audience sees both sides to the American dream. Luhrmann uses Gatsby to illustrate a life full of money, material objects and parties whilst Williams illustrates a life of poverty, boredom and loneliness through the narrator’s point of view, Tom Wingfield. Luhrmann portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values and uses characters within the film as emblems of various American social trends and to depict the ultimate result of the corruption of the American dream. The protagonist, Nick Carraway, explains how the American dream was originally about ‘discovery, individualism and the pursuit of happiness’ and how ‘it eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther’. Primarily, the film focuses on the corruption of the American dream, personified by Jay Gatsby, a dreamer intent of procuring the attentions of his long-time love Daisy Buchanan at any cost. Luhrmann portrays illusion as a predominant theme in the film through the use of a variety of literary devices. One example is the green light that symbolises Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for a life with Daisy. Another symbol is the Valley of Ashes, which represents the ugly consequences of America’s obsession with wealth. Fitzgerald uses these symbols to convey the illusory nature of the American Dream. This mixed up illusion drives Gatsby’s American dream, making him not only the master of illusion but the victim of illusion. Similarly, Williams in The Glass Menagerie comments on and seems to encourage the pursuit of happiness, but they acknowledge the repercussions of the pursuit and question the true definition of happiness. The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930’s, a time of loneliness and turmoil, a result of the greed in the 1920’s. Characters within Williams’ play avoid facing reality which ultimately portrays an illusionary world. Dreams faced in the play are the source of conflict, primarily when one character’s dream doesn’t face up with another’s. The outcome of this is that the characters have no time to work on their goals. An example of this is that while Amanda wants her children to fulfill the classic American Dream of hard work and success, Tom has dreams of being a writer, and Laura is too shy to even leave the house. ‘Gentleman caller’, Jim O’Conner, seems to be the only one throughout the play that demonstrates the facing of reality. He says, “Being disappointed is one thing and being discouraged is another, I am disappointed but I am not discouraged.” Jim believes in himself, knowing that if he works hard, he will one day achieve great success. The central problem is that characters within The Glass Menagerie and The Great Gatsby are caught up in living in their own illusionary world. While portraying very different dreams amongst the characters, both Williams and Luhrmann utilise their dialogue and literary devices to depict their perspectives on the American dream.
Both The Glass Menagerie and The Great Gatsby have a predominant theme of the past impacting the present which depicts both Williams’ and Luhermann’s elucidation of the American dream. The play and the novel previously use the perspectives of unreliable narrators which subsequently manipulates the plot. Nick Caraway’s narration in The Great Gatsby, similar to the recount by Tom Buchanan in The Glass Menagerie, reminds the audience of the consequences of the past. He argues that ‘you can’t repeat the past’ but Gatsby replies ‘why of course you can’. This is demonstrated in Gatsby’s attempt to erase his past of poverty however, he ironically wants to repeat history with his love affair with Daisy. Nick Carraway additionally narrates towards the conclusion of the film that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. This quote deciphers the characteristically American dream that Jay Gatsby believed, that anyone can have he or she wishes. He put extensive amounts of time and effort into recreating his image into something higher or more advanced than what he once was, which was done out of Gatsby’s belief that he could go back and ‘rewrite’ the love story between him and Daisy. Williams presents a similar idea of ‘living in the past’ through Amanda Wingfield who still clings to the past, constantly reminding Tom and Laura of her ‘seventeen gentlemen callers’.