What Do You Expect, American? Dreams and Expectations in Literature

Bremer Fendley

The stereotypical American Dream

“You stuff somebody into the American Dream and it becomes a prison.” (Craig L. Thomas). The American Dream, defined as “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary) is a concept originating in the early 1930s. It’s constantly assessed, looked down upon, looked up to, changing, yet stagnant, making it a common topic to tackle in literature. Through reading the literature in my last unit of Junior High School English class, what I’ve learned can be put into a simple statement. Dreams and expectations fall into three categories: aspiring, aspiring and taking action for questionable reasons, and aspiring and taking action for the right reasons.

The “aspiring” route of chasing a dream is well showcased in the poem “Miniver Cheevy “ by Edwin Arlington Robinson. This poem follows the story of Miniver who raves about the alluring life of a bold, noble warrior. For example, in the second stanza, “Miniver sighed for what was not, And dreamed, and rested from his labors; He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot, And Priam’s neighbors.”(Robinson). Cheevy knew the life he wanted and thought about it constantly, but he didn’t do much else. Throughout the poem, the narrator describes that Cheevy believes those times are “the days of old” therefore improbable to achieve or come close to now. Coming to this conclusion, Cheevy never tries, “Miniver Cheevy, born too late, Scratched his head and kept on thinking; Miniver coughed, and called it fate, And kept on drinking.”(Robinson) Cheevy “aspired” to live the life he wanted to live, but didn’t meet the expectations of action necessary to live that life.

The Great Gatsby

The case of “aspiring and taking action for questionable reasons” is evident in “The Great Gatsby” the well-known novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby is driven by wealth, a desire for high standards of living, “a big future” for himself, a desire to win over a woman, and insecurity for his association with his low-class family name. The romanticized nature of Gatsby’s life is evident in the quote “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people, his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.”(Fitzgerald). There’s one thing that Gatsby does which Miniver Cheevy wouldn’t do: take action. Gatsby does end up gaining wealth and near the life he wanted, yet through questionable and mysterious ways. However, his attempts at convincing an old love interest (a now-married woman) to return to his love with his newfound wealth are unsuccessful up until his eventual death. Gatsby took action, but his intent was questionable.

Of Mice and Men

Finally, the way of “aspiring and taking action for the right reasons”, well described in the novel “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. George, a man in his younger years, is adamant about his dream of owning a ranch with Lennie, a mentally disabled friend whom George cares for. Throughout the story, he doesn’t go long without repeatedly telling Lennie as well as himself about the elusive dream ranch with crops, close access to a river, and all the potential of the land. For example, “George’s hands stopped working with the cards. His voice was growing warmer. “An’ we could have a few pigs. I could build a smoke house like the one gran’pa had, an’ when we kill a pig we can smoke the bacon and the hams, and make sausage an’ all like that. An’ when the salmon run up river we could catch a hundred of ’em an’ salt ’em down or smoke ‘em…” (Steinbeck) George knows the expectations associated with this dream. He and Lennie work towards the pay to acquire the ranch and a plan is nearly sorted out with financial help from a fellow worker, only to be halted by complications with Lennie. George aspired and worked like Gatsby but without the intent of gaining social points or high opinions of others, rather out of the want for a quiet, safe, and sustainable life with Lennie.

After reading and analyzing the texts throughout my last unit of High School Junior English, I’ve learned many things about the nature of expectations and how they influence us. A dream may sound desirable, but the expectations of living in according to and achieving that dream is what puts the majority off. I’ve also learned the “American Dream” isn’t set in stone, evident in the large as well as the minute differences between the dreams of the 3 characters I spoke about. It’s constantly fluctuating throughout the growth of culture, the growth of the individual, and the growth of social comparison. To conclude, dreams, the “American Dream” or anything alike are subjective, and the way one goes about setting expectations is a defining factor.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, 1924

Robinson, Edwin A. Miniver Cheevy, 1910

Steinbeck, John E. Of Mice and Men, 1937

“The American Dream.” — Definition, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com

High School Dummy.