Sister Carrie and the American Dream

The American Dream has surely based on the concept of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” but it is above all, a matter of ambition. James Truslow Adams, an American writer and historian, in 1931 states: “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”, which not only points towards a better standard of living for Americans but also denounces a degree of greed in the US society. Ambition not only “killed the cat” but killed relationships as well in texts like Sister Carrie and Death of a Salesman. While the American Dream was supposed to be a collective success at its initial stage, ambition, along with a pinch of greed and materialism were perfect ingredients to the realization of an American nightmare rather. The two above mentioned texts not only expose their readers to a fictitious American tragedy but they also reflect the downfall of the real American Dream that emerged in 1776 in the US society.

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Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser has been acknowledged as “the greatest of all American urban novels”. Carrie Meeber, the female protagonist of the text, is a symbol of ambition. At the age of eighteen, she sets to Chicago to realize her American dream. She meets Drouet, a young man by whose fine clothing she is quite impressed in the train. Already, readers get to understand that Carrie lives in a vicious cycle of materialism where financial stability is essential. Later on, she is even more impressed by him thanks to his materialistic help after her financial downfall. Carrie is so elated by the way Drouet treats her that she allows him to rent an apartment for her which is followed by her departure from her sister Minnie’s house, leaving only a note behind. At this point, a rupture can be discovered in Carrie and Minnie’s sister relationship. It is materialism and ambition that in fact led to Carrie’s sudden departure.

Everything works out well between Carrie and Drouet until another better opportunity crops up in the woman’s life: Hurstwood. Even in a better financial position than Drouet, Hurstwood manages to woo Carrie. Though kidnapped by him later on, she accepts him because he has got money, ten thousand dollars that he stole from his employers. Drouet, disappointed by his beloved’s treachery, is, in fact, a victim of ambition; his love has been weighed with financial success. Carrie coupling with Hurstwood also creates a rift in the friendship of the latter and Drouet. Again, readers are exposed to an instance where ambition destroys relationships. While Carrie is fulfilling her American Dream by pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, she is also breaking a family apart; Hurstwood was married and had a daughter. A husband-wife and a father-daughter relationship have been destroyed due to ambition and ardent desire of fulfilling an individual American Dream.

A better opportunity in the form of Carrie and the sight of all that money in the safe of his employers lured Hurstwood to pursue his American dream. His financial downfall was simply a result of high ambition. In the same way, Carrie, though having acquired stardom at the end of the text, is unhappy with her life. She presumed that fulfilling one’s American Dream meant acquiring wealth and fame, whatever be the cost. Eventually, readers realize that Carrie and Hurstwood, blinded by the desire to realize their American Dream respectively, mixed the concept of ambition with greed and materialism. Hence, this whole process of misconception and destruction of relationships are enough to categorize Carrie’s and Hurston’s American Dreams as American nightmares rather.

In Death of a salesman by Arthur Miller, Willy Loman’s determination to live up to the American Dream and to seek material happiness is what takes his life eventually. He can be categorized as a static character wanting to realize his American Dream by mere charisma. The character designed by the playwright who acts passionately towards the realization of his dream is Ben Loman, Willy’s older brother. For Ben, the American dream is the ability to start with nothing and somehow make a fortune: BEN: William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich! Through Ben, Miller’s play suggests that one must be ruthless, sometimes even wild, in order to achieve success. This very dynamic approach towards the American Dream is what makes Willy Loman envious of his brother’s success and machismo. The contrast between a passive approach and dynamic ambition towards the realization of the American Dream is the cause of the rift in a brother relationship between Willy and Ben.

Another instance of a rift in relationships in regards to ambition and the American Dream can be found in the father-son relationship between Willy and his son Biff. Willy always believed that personality, not hard work or innovation, was the key to success. His personal views even justified adultery. This is where conflicts arose; Biff was against this trait of his father’s personality. It is only after learning about Willy’s infidelity that Biff decides to pursue his own American Dream. However, he is torn between two American Dreams: becoming a salesman like his father or immersing himself in nature. Different ambitions and perceptions of the American Dream eventually led to Biff being convinced that his father had the “wrong” dream. At this point, the arising question is: is ambition contributing towards the realization of an American Dream or is it wearing an American nightmare at the cost of destruction of relationships?

In me, too, sing America by Langston Hughes, the speaker has to have the ambition or an even more pressing reason – his survival, his sense of self, and his sense of racial equality. He also possesses a persistent optimism, which manifests itself in the speaker’s assurance that one day, he, too, will “be at the table.” At this point, one can discover the diverging perspectives about the American Dream. Since its creation in 1776 with the independence of the US, the dream was supposed to be a collective concept of success but it rather brought about discrimination and rifts during the process of its concretization. At this point, one can assume that different perceptions obviously make different aims and ambitions come to the surface and these very important differences contribute progressively towards conflicts, resulting in the realization of an American nightmare rather than an American Dream.

Undoubtedly fiction is the reflection of realism. Sister Carrie and Death of a Salesman, having been analyzed for this assignment, not only point out towards fictitious rifts and destructions related to the perception and realization of the American Dream. They simultaneously give feedback about the US social, economic and moral state in the past. When the definition of the American Dream split, the ways to accomplish it were multiplied as well. The whole system of capitalism, therefore, brought about signs of white supremacy, black inferiority, racism and racial politics which eventually ended up in a cold war between the whites and the blacks at that time. Then started the process of white politics and black politics.

Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech is clear evidence focusing on the destruction of relationships due to ambition in the American society. While initially after the independence of the US the whole nation was supposed to act with unity and solidarity to achieve prosperity, individual or rather communal ambitions led to the partition of the American Dream. The ambition of the white community was to rule over the black community and maintain white supremacy. On the other hand, the ambition of the black community was to claim equal rights and be given equal opportunities as the whites. This cold war between these two communities had only one reason behind ambition.

Founded in the 1900s, several civil rights movements including the NAACP had for mission to realize the ambition of the Blacks’ American Dream. Now it was no longer simply a matter of personal opinions or materialism; now it was mainly a matter of racism. While the powerful white community was convinced that the “equal but separate” doctrine was a fair concept applicable to the US society, the civil rights movements succeeded in proving that this was a clear attack of apartheid which shall never realize the initial American Dream. Therefore, one can deduce to which degree ambition can not only severe fictitious relationships, real blood relationships but also and most importantly, racial relationships. Destruction of relationships existing between two different races/communities means the extinction of at least one of them; hence, ambition should at no point be confused with individual greed, materialism and mainly racism in a context like the US.

What is very paradoxical with the issue of American Dream or American nightmare is: different people have different ambitions and these ambitions do not remain the same with time; the society evolves and so do the ambitions. The real ambiguity in the US context now lies in the fact that Obama is the president of the US, having been voted by the majority of the white population. Will a black American lead the American Dream towards a white supremacy or a black victory? To clear the doubt, the only thing for Americans to do is to work progressively towards a single collective ambition. Transcendentalism is a concept beyond the reach of the American society for the time being since it is still under the reign of inequality and materialism. To succeed, Americans should let the American Dream remain a matter of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, all bearing the same common ambition in mind or else ambition will not merely kill a cat but a whole nation.

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