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When Thomas Jefferson published his ‘Declaration of
Independence’ of 1776, he set in stone the notion that every US citizen was
“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”, among these were; “Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” By writing this into law, he mapped out
a land where the desire to pursue a good life would not be a mere self indulgence,
instead, everybody’s potential for success, alongside these values would be
legally protected. Although the phrase ‘American Dream’ was only coined by James
Truslow Adams in 1931, the ideology of the Declaration of Independence made by
Jefferson prevailed from 18th century America. The essence of this
Dream presented a glittering metropolis of potential, one much sought after by Amory in the novel This Side
of Paradise, an attractive land for anybody aspiring to a better life
through hard work, effort and skill; no matter how humble their beginnings.

 

As this Declaration of Independence was received, the
response was one of overwhelming positivity from the American people. Quickly
however, the wholesome essence of the Dream became far removed from the
reality. American people began to favour distorted visions of the Dream, in
which anyone could make fortunes – their legitimacy irrelevant – the grey area
of which we are introduced to at the starting point of Arthur Miller’s ‘All My
Sons’, where the influx of the ‘success of the ‘Everyman’ ‘ has slackened
judgement and corrupted ethics.

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Although the appearance of the American Dream was enticing a
Nation in its simple and promising logic, the reality was far more
labyrinthine. The promise of prosperity, success and happiness at the hands of
such limited variables – hard work, effort and skill – captured the faith of
the ‘Everyman’, and as the simple tune of the American Dream was exposed to the
complex and difficult conditions of the 20th century, those who
worshipped it mastered the art of self deception. Fitzgerald illustrates this
as he navigates through protagonist, Amory, the societal, financial and
romantic deceptions shaped by the dream that make up every essence of him /his character, decisions and outcomes. Perhaps
more tragic, in All My Sons, is the self-deception of Joe Keller that will
imprison him and his family until the day of his downfall at the hands of the
American Dream. Bernie Sanders recently highlighted such a downfall, warning
the Nation; “For many, the American Dream has become a nightmare.”

 

Each character focussed on in this essay applies the
tempting ideology of the dream to their lives, and at some point each will suffer
a change of circumstances, resulting in a shift in psyche from ignorance to
knowledge. Parallels can be drawn between the main characters of ‘This Side of
Paradise’ and ‘All My Sons’ to any ‘tragic hero’ from The Ancient Greek tragedies
who will suffer peripeteia, or a dramatic reversal of fortune, and then anagnorisis,
or a critical discovery, often resulting in disillusionment.  This ‘disillusionment’ felt by many of the characters
discussed in this essay will reveal the extent to which they were deceived by
the American Dream, and the devastating changes these deceptions brought into
their lives.

 

Fitzgerald explores in great depth one of the most prevalent
and self-perpetuating deceptions of the American Dream – social conformity and
its benefits – as main character Amory navigates various social arenas of the
early 20th century.  Both the
novel and the play investigate ways in which the characters will yield to both
actual and perceived societal pressures, resulting in both physical lifestyle
changes and fundamental shifts in psyche.

In This Side of Paradise Amory begins to alter his physical
lifestyle from a young age, showing surprising keenness to attend the
prestigious preparatory school ‘St Regis’ leaving his mother and close
companion Beatrice. Although experiencing wavering unhappiness and little
academic success at St Regis, he worshipped the success that the similarly
prestigious Princeton promised and moved confidently into his next stage of
education. Fitzgerald portrays ‘Princeton Amory’ as a routine conformist,
joining societies and teams with little personal reward. He tries persistently
to gain social status by playing football- despite this being an area where he
has little ability- and joins the editorial team for The Daily Princetonian. The narrator summarises this desultory
decision; “Amory found that writing for the Nassau
Literary Magazine would get him nothing, but that being on the board of The Daily
Princetonian would get anyone a good deal.” It is this self-destructive
impulse to conform that ruins his personal eligibility, and the extent of
Amory’s disillusionment at this fact is revealed when he realises that despite
achieving relative success after much persistence in these areas, he was not
fulfilled.  Fitzgerald describes this
disillusionment: “The fundamental Amory, idle, imaginative, rebellious, had
been nearly snowed under. He had conformed, he had succeeded, but as his
imagination was neither satisfied nor grasped by his own success, he had
listlessly, half accidentally, chucked the whole thing”.

 

Such alterations of physical lifestyle are paralleled in
Miller’s depiction of the Kellers in All My Sons, as the family adopt a
‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ persona in order to both conform, and gain subtle
one-upmanship on their neighbours. Miller reinforces the persona through the
insertion of repeated material motifs – such as their white picket fence and
the family car – into regular discussion in the play. Despite the severity of
what is at stake for the Kellers, each character devotes significant energy
into superficial, Dream led conformity. Christopher Bigsby’s perspective
explains; “They all construct fictions that enable them to justify themselves
in the eyes of others.” The way that they continue unabatedly to conform –
despite the severity of what is at stake– demonstrates exactly the power that
the Dream has over them; driving them to be a ‘perfect’ family no matter what.

 

Perhaps one of the most tragic areas explored by both Miller
and Fitzgerald is that of love, and the level of moral vacuity of characters who
attempt to apply the ideology of the Dream to an area usually associated with
deep, interpersonal affection. The idea that personal fulfilment would result
from adhering to the simple rules of the Dream may of seemed initially healthy
in work and other material pursuits, however, it is made quickly apparent by
Fitzgerald – through a series of confusing heartbreaks – and by Miller , with
an explosive and devastating end to a marriage – that when this ideology is applied
to love, each character is foolishly transcending the complex, emotional nature
of relationships.  When dealing with the
disillusionment suffered by these characters, many similarities can be found
between Miller and Fitzgerald. In All My Sons, the simultaneous destruction of
Joe Keller’s marital and paternal relationships – despite his energies to
provide and care for them – leads him to commit suicide. Miller draws on the
tenet that although Keller was acting in the interest of his family, these
relationships will inevitably be destroyed as above all else, man has a
responsibility to mankind in it’s entirety. This comes from Catholic influence,
and parallels can be drawn between its message in All My Sons, and it’s purpose
in ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, by Hemingway. Drama critic Harold Clurman
expresses this in his own words: “A man must be responsible not alone to his
wife and children but, ultimately, to all men. Failure to act on this fundamental
tenet must inevitably lead to crime.”

 

Amory is deeply misguided by the deceptions of the Dream,
and the way that the Dream has interfered with his handling of interpersonal
relationships is made clear by the title of Book 1: ‘The Romantic egotist’. His
romantic attitudes are not grounded, and, conditioned by the Dream, mostly uses
love as a means of ego reinforcement. This is demonstrated in his meeting with
lover, Isabelle: “On that half minute, as their lips first touched, rested on
the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egotism.” His restlessness in
romance also serves to represent how the deceptions of the Dream have removed
satisfaction from non-materialistic pursuits, such as love. 

 

The first half of the 20th century was one of drastically
evolving moral codes, alongside a multitude of political changes, which rapidly
shaped the societies the characters of This Side of Paradise, and All My Sons
are immersed in.

 

In This Side of Paradise, Amory – a character who Fitzgerald
notes “would have been concerned with fashioning a code or sustaining a belief”
influenced by the restraints of Puritan American heritage – is confronted by
the distinctive 1920’s. This was an era of Republican leadership and
fundamentalist ideology, as noted by a historian: “The nation turned away from
the reforming zeal of the Progressive Era and the moral vision of Wilson’s
wartime leadership toward a government whose policies opposed federal
regulation”.  Fitzgerald explores how
these new attitudes, combined with the American Dream were able to decay
Amory’s Puritan moral framework, something which is echoed in the tripartite
structure of the novel.

The American Dream, propelled by the attitudes of this era
infiltrate Amory’s life and form the narrative of Book 1: The Romantic Egotist.

An interlude then signifies a turning point, telling of Amory’s time at war
through just two letters and minor narration. Monsignor Darcy, a kind of foster
father figure to Amory rages at the violence, and reveals pride in Amory’s
“dutiful and sober” entrance into the war, emphasising the shift from the
deceived and immature Amory of Book 1, to the experienced and disillusioned
Amory of Book 2 after The American Dream is shattered. Fitzgerald’s use of the
modernist device is effective in providing readers with a physical gap in time,
to which they can refer to be Amory’s ‘turning point’. The third part of the
tripartite structure addresses clearly all aspects of Amory’s disillusionment,
mostly as a result of his declining morals. For example, in chapter 2,
‘Experiments with Convalescence’, Amory treats his pain caused by lack of
personal prosperity using alcohol, an addiction which develops without mercy as
the novel progresses.

 

 Amory’s transition
from innocence to disillusionment is influenced by the futility felt by the
‘lost generation’ – a term coined by Gertrude Stein. This futility is reflected
in the poem ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen who says: “O what made fatuous sunbeams
toil to break earths sleep at all”, a line which is near existential in it’s
profound desperation.  Miller explores
the same futility inherent in The Dream in the midst of war as the Keller
family are faced with the consequences of using death, destruction and war as a
means to make money. The Dream turned Joe from a poor man with big ambition, to
a man fixated on money and business, an attitude which would breed feelings of
futility for the Kellers. Joe’s surviving son Chris tells of the unparalleled
consequence his fathers futile focus on money has caused, “Every day three of
four men never come back and he sits back there doing business?”.

 

The materialistic attitude of the American Dream could be
said to have even more of a devastating presence by the time WW2, the
historical backdrop for Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ arrived.  To meet the challenges of going to war with
formidable adversaries, wartime production on a mammoth scale began, largely in
the form of huge factories producing guns, tanks, ships, warplanes and other
weapons needed to fight. The emphasis placed on this effort, and on the financial
rewards for being a part of it would have been felt by ordinary factory owners
like Joe Keller, as political figures like Roosevelt advocated it strongly, for
example; “These men could not have been armed and equipped as they are if it
had not been for the miracle production here at home”.  However, as the process of mass, and rushed
factory production became a rewarding war effort, fed by the nationalistic essence
of The Dream, morality slipped further down the agenda of many involved. Jim, a
neighbour of the Kellers, considers the moral dilemma between money and morals;
“I would love to help humanity on a warner brothers salary”, and it is clear in
that instant that as Keller shipped out the faulty parts, it was a weighing up
of morality and money, and under the difficult circumstances following the
Great Depression he chose money.

However,
there are different interpretations of the dilemma he faced. One of these is
that he acted only in the good of his family, at one point Keller exclaiming to
his surviving son; “Chris, the whole shootin’ match is for you”. Miller
encourages this interpretation to be taken as the plot unravels, and in the
climax of the play he comes to realise that by choosing the money over
humanity, he has killed members of other peoples families – and indirectly – a
member of his own. After this, he commits suicide, becoming a victim of the war
himself.

 

 

Both authors take advantage of structure and form to shape
their texts, in turn portraying the true nature of the American Dream
effectively.  Miller’s classical tragedy
is used to pervade into the play a consistently ominous and sorrowful air of
unfolding suffering. It also serves to show that the problems of following an
immoral idea or conscience are timeless and repeated throughout human
civilisation. The main protagonist is an ordinary and generally moralistic man,
but has a fatal flaw which will propel him towards his inevitable fate. It
should be acknowledged when thinking about form and the Dream that AMS is a
play and is therefore intended to be watched by an audience, who would be
forced to watch Joe Keller being pushed towards his inevitable fate, death.

Comparatively, Fitzgerald uses form to shape the novel as a
warning of the decline that can result from the Dream, although this is in the
form of the Bildungsroman, which is often significantly less serious than a
classical tragedy, as they rarely result in the death of the protagonist, and
could be explained as a spiritual education.

 

Symbolism is often used by Miller to bring further attention
to the warnings issued about the perversions of the American Dream. For example
in Act 1, the main protagonist of the play – Joe Keller – plays a ‘jail’ game
with kids in the neighbourhood, where he has led them to believe he has a jail
in his home and the power of authority in himself. However, this goes far
beyond it’s literal meaning of an imaginary game, and serves to remind the audience
that punishment, for Keller, is around the corner; allowing them to predict the
disillusionment that will arise from his infatuation with the Dream. Miller
extends this symbol into dialogue between Keller and his wife, Kate, as she
confronts him about the game. Keller reassures her: “You know kids”….”As time
passed they got it confused.” Kate responds ominously, “Except that they didn’t
get it confused.” By extending the symbolism of the game into dialogue, Miller
drags the looming punishment ever closer.

 

 In contrast, Fitzgerald’s
novel appears less symbolic, relying mainly on the narration of Amory’s
experiences to convey messages about the Dream. This style may be a result of
Fitzgerald’s own experiences as part of the ‘Lost Generation’, critic Malcolm
Cowley observes: “Fitzgerald lived in his great moments, and lived in them
again when he reproduced their drama,” “but he also stood apart from them and
coldly reckoned their causes and consequences. This results in a fundamentally
immersive and realistic discussion of the Dream’s consequences as suppose to a
symbolic one.

 

 

 

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