Since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Dream has been a prominent feature in American society and culture. According to historian and author James Truslow Adams, it is ‘that dream of a land in which life should be richer and better and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.’ (Adams, 1931)Whilst Miller and Fitzgerald do portray the possibility of achieving this, their texts The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman mainly depict the harsh and cruel reality of the American Dream. The authors focus on the consequences of what such aspirations can create for their characters: Gatsby and Willy, scrutinizing the loneliness, delusion and eventual downfall that many Americans experienced in the mid-20th Century following the Wall Street Crash (History.com Editors, 2010). The two protagonists of their respective texts are unable to ever truly reach what they view as the ‘true’ American Dream and their deaths may be seen as a warning to others who attempt to pursue it.
One of the major underlying themes in Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is the loneliness and isolation that those who pursue the American dream face. This feature is also present in Miller’s Death of Salesman. In contrast, however, the main protagonist never achieves the dream of financial success, suggesting that it is futile to even pursue it in the first place. Jay Gatsby, the eponymous character of Fitzgerald’s most successful novel, demonstrates how isolating and desolate a person’s life can become as a result of pursuing the American Dream. Although the text is entitled The Great Gatsby, the book is written through the perspective of the potentially unreliable narrator Nick Carraway and the first chapter is devoted to explaining his background, rather than Gatsby’s. Eble argues that this use of narrator is ‘the only technical problem of presenting the story’ (Eble, 1974). However, it could be argued that this narrative technique separates Gatsby from the reader as they are unable to ever truly understand his thoughts and feelings reflecting Carraway’s own sense of curiosity and separation. Fitzgerald also uses the technique of delayed character revelation to further isolate him. He is only seen from afar and, although, in chapter three, he is finally promoted to a speaking role, there is still an underlying shroud of mystery about him. Fitzgerald builds on this intrigue and curiosity through guests at the party who speculate wild theories that he was ‘a German spy’ or a ‘murderer’. Gatsby is, therefore, set up as a lonely figure who is separate from the reader. This is further solidified by the fact that Fitzgerald makes the artistic choice not to ever describe Gatsby’s physical appearance. Whilst some have argued that this was purely because he based the character on himself (Sincerely, F Scott Fitzgerald, 2013), it does further reiterate the separation between the eponymous character and the reader. Not only is Gatsby presented as being isolated from the reader but also from the rest of society, illustrated by the lack of respect the American Upper Classes have for him, despite his accumulation of wealth. There is a physical division of East and West Egg and Tom, the embodiment of Old Money America, disregards him as ‘Mr Nobody from Nowhere’. This snobbery and distaste for him by the traditionally wealthy Americans could be explained by the illegal nature of how Gatsby gained his wealth. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is highlighting that, despite the fact that Gatsby has achieved what the widely accepted idea of what the American Dream is, he is not welcome due to the fact that he is from New Money.
In the 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, Miller also explores the idea of isolation. However, unlike the character of Gatsby, who throws large and extravagant parties in an attempt to lessen or remove his loneliness, Willy Loman isolates himself from society. This is demonstrated through the shift of tone and view point as the play progresses. In the first two acts, the audience witnesses Willy’s internal thoughts and feelings, through his flashbacks which helps them empathize and understand Miller’s character. However, Miller shifts the point of view to an external one in the Requiem, highlighting Willy’s isolation in death. To further emphasize this loneliness, the audience never witnesses Willy’s suicide as it occurs off-stage. Through the use of sound and an empty stage Miller depicts the car crash: ‘music crashes down in a frenzy of sound’. This could not only represent the physical destruction of the character Willy, but also the destruction of his American Dream and his loneliness in this feeling due to the isolated and violent nature of the crash. Another way in which the isolation of the eponymous character is presented is through the treatment of his family. Miller uses fragmented and disjointed dialogue during Willy’s conversations with his wife due to his continuous interruptions and tearing down of her ideas and opinions. As well as this, his breakdown in his relationship with his eldest son, Biff, highlights his slow descent into alienation and loneliness due to the stress and impact the pursuit of the American Dream has had on him. Ironically, Happy’s monologue on his opinion of his father’s dream may actually symbolise Willy’s own thoughts and feelings as, throughout the play, Willy’s youngest son is presented as an embodiment of his father’s wants and needs. He states that he could have a nice car and apartment and ‘what’ he’s ‘always wanted’ but he would still feel ‘lonely’. This realization that he may never be truly happy, even if he achieves the American Dream may be the feeling that Willy also has. Willy’s continued pursuit to isolate himself is also demonstrated through his outburst at Charley who offers him a job. Due to his pride, Willy turns him down and threatens to ‘rap him one’ despite the fact that Charley is simply trying to help. This extreme reaction could be because Willy had always had a perception that he and Charley were equals as they have been neighbours for a long time. After the job offering, this reality comes crashing down on Willy and he distances himself from his friend upon realizing that the two are from different classes.
Whilst Fitzgerald and Millers character are portrayed as feeling isolated for different reasons: Gatsby is unable to find sanctuary in American High Society whereas Willy is full of exhaustion and pessimism, their isolation originates from the American Dream. The alienation and emptiness this ideology can create is demonstrated by the authors in in their similar funerals. Following Gatsby’s murder ‘nobody came’ to his funeral. This portrays the isolating world that was Gatsby’s reality and reinforces the idea of dehumanization and apathy. When describing the scope and scale of Gatsby’s parties, Fitzgerald focuses on the huge number of people that are present, but, in contrast, none attend his funeral. This could be because they are too self-absorbed in their own lives to care about him. Fitzgerald may have portrayed their selfish nature as a critique of consumerism in the 1920s and how people would often discard an item once it was no longer useful or fashionable, like Gatsby. There is a suggestion that the American Dream has had such an impact on people’s lives that they are beginning to treat people like objects.
Like in Fitzgerald’s novel, Miller depicts the funeral of Willy Loman equally as tragic. His wife, Linda is shocked and asks ‘Why didn’t anyone come?’. Like Gatsby, the funeral highlights the lonely life that Willy had. This contrasts to an earlier statement made by Willy who spoke of Dave Singleman, a successful salesman who had ‘hundreds attend his funeral’. Centola argues that the character ‘reflects Willy’s conviction that personal salvation can be linked to success’. (Centola, 1993) In support of this, it could be argued that Miller’s depiction of Willy’s preoccupation on Singleman’s popularity and being well-liked demonstrates the consequences of his deteriorating mental state and growing isolation. This further highlights how isolated Willy has become before his death. Both Fitzgerald and Miller’s characters experience the loneliness and isolation as a consequence of the American Dream, however, whilst Gatsby tries to ignore or fight this emptiness by throwing huge parties in an attempt to bond with the American upper classes, Willy alienates himself from friends and family. Despite this however, upon their death, their isolation caused by the American Dream is finally revealed during their ill-attended funerals.
A further way in which the authors portray the stark reality of the American Dream is through their presentation of characters’ delusions. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the protagonist believes that he is the ‘son of God’. This belief that he can reinvent himself may indicate why Gatsby is so desperate to ensure everything in his life is perfect, including his relationship with Daisy. In Death of a Salesman, Miller also presents Willy as a self-aggrandizing figure. In a conversation with Howard Willy claims that he was once averaging ‘a hundred and seventy dollars per week in the year of 1928’. Although this may have been true, Miller emphasizes Willy’s perception of the past and his belief that he should be treated differently to the rest of society. Fredrik Artan, in his article Narcissism and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Artan, 2014) argues that his lying, hypocrisy and self-deception suggest that he is a narcissist. Whilst, some may view him in this manner, due to his obsession with being liked and his insistence on always being right, it could be argued that Miller did not intend to present him in this way. Instead he hoped to highlight how Willy’s delusion and deception are a product of society and the American Dream, illustrating its problems. By the 1940s the social democratic dream had faded (Gerstle, 2006) and there was a lassiez faire approach adopted. Society was, therefore, more independent to reflect this. However, Willy’s whole job and life depends on the dreams and aspirations of others, as he is a salesman, which completely contradicts this ideology.
A further way in which Fitzgerald presents delusion is through Gatsby’s insistence that he is able to ‘repeat the past’ in order to achieve his American dream, which is symbolised through Daisy Buchannan. Much of this delusion is metaphorically represented through the green light and Gatsby’s continued attempts to ‘reach out’ to it throughout the novel. Although some argue that the green light is simply symbolic of Gatsby’s old relationship with Daisy, it could represent much more. The green light is a metaphor for the eponymous character’s hopes, dreams and delusions. In his article, Gatsby and the Revolutionary Road, Rob Worrall explores the consequence of being a dreamer and argues that ‘Gatsby’s riposte of denial captures all that is wonderful (‘great’) about the dreamer – and all that is doomed to disappointment and destruction.’ (Worrall, 2016) The ‘destruction’ that Worrall may be referring to is Gatsby’s death. However, it could also link to the consequences the American Dream can have on other characters as well, like Daisy. Initially, she shares the delusion with Gatsby that the two can be together. Fitzgerald presents this challenging of societal ideals through the metaphor of a pearl necklace, which she breaks just before her wedding to Tom. Arguably, this pearl necklace represents her dismissal of the traditional American Dream and her love to Gatsby. Unlike Gatsby, however, Daisy does eventually succumb to societal pressures, hence why she does not attend his funeral.
Miller also uses metaphors to portray the delusion that the characters are suffering from, like Biff’s sneakers, which have the symbol of the University of Virginia on them. These represent his dream (his ambitious and promising future). However, as a teenager, he was under the impression he would not need to work hard to achieve it as his father told him being ‘well liked’ was more important. Like Fitzgerald’s Daisy, Biff eventually sees through the delusion of the American Dream. Miller represents this through the burning of his sneakers, following him not getting into university. This belief is further iterated in his monologue where he points out to his father that he is ‘a dime a dozen’ and not special in any way, despite the fact Willy ‘blew him… with hot air’. Miller highlights the negative impact Willy’s delusions have had on Biff’s life and it contrasts with his depiction of the rest of the Lomans who are still trapped in the nonsensical belief that they will achieve the dream. Miller’s character recognises the worthlessness of his father’s American Dream and has broken from the delusion of hope for a better future, emphasized in further in his monologue. He expresses his opinion of his father’s high expectations and ask “Why am I trying to be who I don’t want to be?”. Miller is perhaps depicting his discontent with his Father’s delusional hopes.
Throughout the play, Linda Loman is presented as refusing to accept or even acknowledge her husband’s faults and the negative consequences of the American Dream. This is especially prominent in the final line of the whole play where ‘we’re free’ is repeated by her several times. By ending the play on such a poignant moment, Miller is emphasizing the delusion that the American Dream can create. Tony Coult, a playwright, critic and Drama teacher, argues that this statement highlights how she is a ‘prisoner of her and her husband’s American illusions’. (Coult, 2002) This draws attention to the materialistic perspective that Miller has created for the Lomans, reflecting that of much of mid-20th Century society (Gerstle, 2006). This is due to the fact that Linda only believes they have freedom due to them paying off their mortgage. Furthermore, by using the analogy of a prison, Coult may be suggesting that Linda is more than trapped and that Miller is punishing her for her materialism and delusion, created by the American Dream.
Like Gatsby, Miller’s characters are desperately seeking out the American Dream but have no way of truly achieving it. Fitzgerald’s character, Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman both highlight the delusion and deception that can be caused by the American Dream however, both authors also highlight the possibility of abandoning that dream. This is through the characters of Daisy and Biff although It should be taken into account that these characters do so for different motivating factors. Whilst Daisy falls into the societal pressure she is under, Miller’s character Biff, challenges the American Dream, determined to do something different with his life.
Another way in which the American dream’s stark harsh reality is presented is through its cyclical nature. In Miller’s Death of a salesman this idea is explored in the final few pages. Through the use of Happy’s unconditional positive perception of the American Dream demonstrated when he says ‘He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have’, Miller may be highlighting how he has not learnt from his father’s mistakes and he is doomed to be caught up in the everlasting reality and futility in reaching the American Dream. This is solidified by the contrast between him and his brother at the funeral. Whilst Biff remains critical of his father, stating that he had the ‘wrong dream’, Happy argues against him, foreshadowing his damnation to make the same mistakes as his father.
Like Willy, Fitzgerald’s character, Gatsby, also acts as a fallen hero. His ability to dream continues to inspire Nick Carraway. The final few lines of the novel give the readers a sense of hope, despite all the despair that has just occurred, with one of the final sentences being: ‘we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther’. This suggests that people will continue to dream and try to climb the social ladder. Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s use of the comparatives ‘faster’ and ‘further’ emphasize the determination people have to always better those previous to them, therefore, repeating the same mistakes. Arguably, Fitzgerald is highlighting the cyclical nature the American Dream has, despite the tragic consequences it can cause (like the death of Gatsby).
It could be argued, however, that whilst Fitzgerald presents the hopelessness in attempting to escape the dream, Miller has a more optimistic outlook. In Death of a Salesman, Biff is able to break away from his father’s grasp and make his own decisions about what he wants to achieve in the future. He is also aware that he is still able to succeed even if he does not follow the conventional dream. This demonstrated in his monologue where he dismisses his office job and states “all I want is out there the minute I say I know who I am!” He is aware of how important individuality is and how far it can get him in life. Evidently, this shows his abandonment of the dream and his changed perspective of the future. In contrast to this, Fitzgerald highlights the power and influence the dream can have on people and its impossible escapism. This can be illustrated through the character of Daisy who has the option to abandon her life as a high-class socialite and be with the love of her life. Daisy does consider leaving her old life behind but a tragic turn of events, means that she has no option but to return to her own world. It could be argued that Fitzgerald is demonstrating how the rejection of the traditional American Dream can lead to dire consequences, hence its cyclical and futile nature. Although there is some contrast in the presentation of characters and their attempt to escape the American Dream, there is still an underlying theme of the negative consequences. It could be argued that both authors hoped to warn the audience or its stark reality and strong cyclical nature, however whilst Miller suggests that this cycle can be broken, Fitzgerald is more pessimistic, highlighting the dire reality.
In conclusion, both texts depict the harsh and stark reality of the American Dream which is that it often ends in tragedy. Both protagonists become socially isolated however, whilst Willy embraces this loneliness, Gatsby tries to overcome it by throwing huge parties, and both fall into the trap of delusion and deceit which may explain why their funerals are so ill-attended. Furthermore, the two writers highlight the cyclical and cruel nature of the dream through other characters, like Nick and Happy. However, they may offer some hope that their future is not determinist, illustrated by the characters of Daisy and Biff and their contrasting dreams. Both Fitzgerald and Miller hoped that by portraying the negative consequences and futile attempts at achieving the American Dream that it may become a cautionary tale for those in American society who also have the same aspirations.