2. An attempt to define the “American Dream”
3. The American Dream in Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)
3.1 Blanche DuBois and the perception of the American Dream
3.2 Stanley Kowalski and the perception of the American Dream
4. The American Dream in Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” (1949)
4.1 Willy Loman and the perception of the American Dream
4.2 Biff and Happy and the perception of the American Dream
In this seminar paper I am going to work out the perception of the idea of the American Dream in the two plays A Streetcar Named Desire from 1947 by Tennessee Williams and Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 by Arthur Miller.
I chose this topic because firstly I find the theme of the American Dream really fascinating. The idea behind the term consists of so many different factors and I was not aware of all of them in the beginning. Further, I liked the idea of looking at two different plays that have been written around the same time, have totally different plots but are yet somehow linked by the subliminal theme of the American Dream.
To find a suitable definition of the American Dream I mainly oriented my analysis around the works of America’s founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as well as Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, John Winthrop and James Truslow Adams. Based on these texts I transferred these factors on the plays by Williams and Miller and searched for differences and similarities. The following text will therefore be concerned firstly with a definition of the term ‘American Dream’ and the conversion of these notions in the characters Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ drama A Streetcar Named Desire and in Willy Loman as well as his sons Biff and Happy in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.
2. An attempt to define the “American Dream”
To precisely define the ‘American Dream’ and its facets, I think it to be necessary to firstly define what ‘America’ is since the term ‘American Dream’ obviously describes the dream of a whole nation.
America is a nation of seemingly endless opportunities. It is a country which holds many different natural resources in many different regions and landscapes like mountainous areas, deserts, coastlines and rainforests. This shows that already geographically it is a nation of great diversity. Furthermore, American society is of the same diverseness. It is a society influenced and formed by many different cultures and nations. From the beginning of America’s colonization, various nations have begun to settle in the ‘New World’ and have formed it after the example of their homelands but with the notion to better their living situation. They were “melted into a new race of men” to form “the most perfect society now existing in the world.” [Crèvecoeur: 908]
The different aspects comprised in the American Dream are deeply influenced by the history of the American nation as a nation of diversity.
The early settlers who came from England in the early 17th century to escape religious persecution shared the wish to purify their church in order to make it appealing to God and to worship him adequately. Disappointed of the corruption of the Church of England, they then fled to America where they wanted to form a new kind of society in which the gap between the rich and the poor was not as big as in Europe anymore [Crèvecoeur: 905ff] and everybody was free to worship God without being prosecuted. It follows that the wish for freedom is a major component of the American Dream.
With the War of Independence in the late 18th century and the striving for economic and political autonomy from England as the mother country which has always held the power of decision over the colonies in America, the craving for independence in general again became crucial. The colonies’ independency from the kingdom was obtained on July 4th, 1776 with ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Subsequently, another factor added to the American Dream. In the Declaration it was seen as “self-evident: that all men are created equal” [Jefferson: 971].
This equality of all members of a society was also a basis of the American Dream that is still apparent today.
Yet other aspects of the American Dream are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [Jefferson: 971] as is also put down in writing in the Declaration of Independence.
When the waves of European immigrants came pouring into the United States beginning with the late 19th century, the notion of America being a vast land of just as vast opportunities for everybody and being a country in which everyone could be free and independent was still eminent. People came from poor and war-struck Europe to build up a new life for themselves. To improve their living standards with prospects of a happier and eventually prosperous life, these immigrants of a variety of cultures and countries settled in the United States and yet added to society’s diverseness. The promises of independence and freedom led the newcomers to believe that they could become rich quickly. From this thought of easily getting a good job in the new country in order to just as easily make a lot of money to secure the family’s well-being, the notion of vocational success with no regard to heritage or ethnic background subjoined to the American Dream. [GEO: 130ff] However, success and monetary wealth could only be achieved by hard work, determination and diligence. With these virtues one would soon be successful in business. Nevertheless, frugality would be just as important as the ambition to work hard [Franklin: 786 ff]. In this striving for wealth in terms of money it should not matter what religion or ethnic group a person belonged to. Being self- determined to become successful and to make efforts to attain a higher living standard, would eventually “prove how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness.” [Franklin, The Autobiography: 852] People should be seen for what they were and what they achieved rather than to be judged or even discriminated because of the “circumstances of birth or position” [Adams: 19]. To assure a success of the American Dream for the whole society and not only for individuals, every individual should show the will to share. “(…) [T]he care of the publique must oversway all private respects (…)” [Winthrop: 302].
In the course of the 20th century, however, the American Dream turned from a dream of a perfect society to the dream of individual success. Moreover, this success today often only involves money and success on the vocational level. The factor of competition added to the notion of the American Dream. What counts in modern American society is being compatible with other individuals and to prove superiority. Success needs to be shown.
Whereas the early settlers saw their newly built community “as a Citty upon a Hill” [Winthrop: 304] to show the Old World how perfect the new social order worked out in the New World, today this “Citty” has a less idealistic connotation. It simply means to be wealthy and thereby be wealthy enough to show it. Owning at least one car, a house, a pool, having a good job position and a perfect family situation and to openly confront society with this is today’s dream for many Americans. Yet, living up to society’s moral standards is important in order to be seen as a successful person and to be thought worthy of having achieved the American Dream. Having a family and practicing a respectable profession belong to these moral standards of conformity.
Thus, monetary success is closely linked with prestige. Someone who works hard for the purpose of eventually becoming rich will be successful in the end. In return, someone who can afford to show his prosperity must therefore be ambitious and diligent; otherwise he or she would not be able to openly expose the wealth obtained. Thus, someone who is prosperous is often highly esteemed in society and well-liked, just as Benjamin Franklin has already put it in The Way to Wealth: “[N]ow I have a Sheep and a Cow, every Body bids me Good morrow” [Franklin: 787]. This rather obvious connection of money and a good reputation leads to the reasoning that the American Dream is often understood as a superficial attempt to be the best by all means possible.
Nonetheless, success in business and affluence yet take up the most part of the modern American Dream. Of course, richness comes to those people who do not necessarily have a good reputation or are ambitious in working but gets to those who are ruthless and do not pay any attention to others in order to get what they believe to be their share of wealth. Also, it obviously does not matter in what way one comes to success, because winning money through a lottery is also reckoned as the fulfillment of the American Dream in modern society.
In conclusion, the American Dream involves freedom and independence, opportunities for all as well as equality. Nevertheless, success is the most important factor of all. Success will lead to wealth and thus to esteem in the eyes of society. In earlier days success was only to be obtained through hard work and determination. The misleading idea that monetary success is mostly achieved by those who are ambitious and hard-working and thus deserve to be much valued and admired for their diligence is still widespread in society. Yet, in modern society success is to be understood as the materialization of the American Dream. In this connection it is irrelevant by which means success is achieved. [Tracy/ Helms: 9ff]
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- Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
- American Dream Tennessee Williams Streetcar Named Desire Arthur Miller Death Salesman Kurs Century Drama