The Great Gatsby and American Beauty, The American Dream
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Anyone can succeed through hard work and persistence. That was the original American Dream, and that notion has somewhat been at the heart of American culture through history. However, composers F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1926), and Sam Mendes, director of the movie ‘American Beauty’ (1999), explain in their texts that the pursuit of the American Dream is futile. In addition, Fitzgerald shows that subscribing to it leads to irresponsibility and a lack of morals, and doesn’t make you happy. Mendes shows that it brings about superficiality and an unrealistic expectation of self. They do this through characterisation, metaphors and various linguistic and (in Mendes’ case) audio visual techniques. Both texts are set in their current times, and directly criticise their cultures by playing out a story where disastrous consequences occur to those subscribing to the ethos of the current culture.
In the post WWI consumerism of the 1920’s, success was associated with lavishness and extravagance, and attaining the reputation of upper class and ‘old money’. Fitzgerald uses the characterisation of Gatsby to show the unattainability of this particular American Dream for those not born into money. His status as an enigma during the first part of the book makes us believe that Gatsby has achieved the Dream, but through the course of the book, we see Gatsby as more and more deluded. He creates and believes in a fake history, in the belief that his status as ‘old money’ (from his claims that he studied in Oxford among other things) will eventually win the heart of Daisy. One cannot fake their past so utterly, and through the subsequent unravelling of his vision of Daisy, Fitzgerald criticises the way materialism and individualism makes people yearn for unattainable goals.
In the late 1990’s however, the definition of success was perfection. Attaining the American Dream required a perfect house, perfect family, perfect career and a perfect life. Yet this is completely impossible for everyone, ‘old money’ or not, due to the imperfect nature of human beings and our lack of control of other people and our circumstances. In American Beauty, Sam Mendes looks at middle class society, and the consequences of pretending to have reached the unreachable American Dream. Mendes uses characters such as Carolyn to show the superficiality of this society.
Carolyn is deliberately made a real-estate agent, a job she claims is to “sell an image”. She presents herself as having attained the dream through the clothes she wears, but it’s all a façade, she has to instruct Lester to “act happy”, and throughout the movie most of her dialogue is forced. Mendes has Carolyn use lots of mantras such as “In order to succeed, one must present an image of success at all times” and “I refuse to be a victim”, lines that serve to fool even herself into believing she’s attained what she cannot.
In The Great Gatsby, the West Eggers (old money) are not affected by the Dream’s unattainability as they were born into its fulfilment. However through the use of extended metaphor, Fitzgerald makes out these characters to be irresponsible towards others. The car is the symbol of the times, owned mainly by the upper classes due to their cost. On being told she was a careless driver Jordan, a wealthy girl from old money, remarks; _”Well other people are…They’ll keep out of my way…It takes two to make an accident”_, metaphorical of the West Eggers’ attitude to life. The irresponsibility of Tom and Daisy who were born into the Dream’s fulfilment and _”smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”_ combined with the delusion and persistence of Gatsby, who tried to attain the Dream, was indeed a clash of two bad drivers, a ‘car-wreck’ which ended up killing both Myrtle and Gatsby.
Mendes also uses extended metaphor to examine the lives of his characters, in this case that of the American Beauty rose. It is said to be pretty on the outside, yet rots quickly on the inside and breaks on the touch. Mendes places the rose prominently throughout the movie, notably as the title, in Carolyn’s garden and predominantly in and around the Lester’s affair with Angela. By placing the rose here, Mendes shows that although Lester thinks that having Angela may appear to be good for him, it is actually destructive for both of them and everyone around them. More importantly he draws parallels to the households of American suburbia, who appear to have realized the American Dream, yet like the Fitts’ and the Burnham’s are riddled with broken relationships.
Mendes shows that these broken relationships by portraying both the families’ “family scenes”, in which the members have little to no connection with each other. In the Burnham’s dinner scene, the wide camera angle is used to great effect, with lots of space between the characters and the edge of the frames to establish emotional distance. Conversation is limited and forced – Lester uncaringly Jane about her school day before ranting about his own. In the family scene at the Fitts’ household, virtually no dialogue is exchanged, all of them stare blankly at the television, and Ricky’s entrance goes unacknowledged. Both scenes show how the American Dream distances family relationships, and how its individualistic nature pushes them more and more into themselves.
In both their texts, Mendes and Fitzgerald show the fallacies of their respective American Dreams, its unattainability, and the negative consequences that trying to achieve it has on the people of their time by paralleling the catastrophic stories of fictional characters with the real world. While the original dream may have had some merit, both composers are of the joint belief that the pursuit of healthy relationships and moral living are far more important than any image or status, which in the end does not fulfil.