Pursued by many—and interpreted in countless ways—the American dream remains a legendary concept that combines democracy, freedom, opportunity, and equality. However, despite numerous attempts to define and locate it, its real meaning and purpose remain vague. So just what is the American dream?
Theorists, philosophers, sociologists, politicians, novelists, and journalists have offered definitions of the phenomenon over the years. President Clinton once summarized it as such: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you” (Hochschild and Scovronic 9). Tim Kasser and Richard M. Ryan cite financial success as the major and most satisfying component of the American dream (411). According to Peter Calthorpe, the American dream is intertwined with the concept of the “American Metropolis”, which is “the sum total of the city, its suburbs, and their natural environment”, and is its “evolving image” (15) that includes a combination of such values as diversity, frugality, community, and human scale (16). Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld refer to it as “a broad cultural ethos that entails a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone in society, under conditions of open, individual competition” (6). Finally, Hunter S. Thompson, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, implied that the American dream is a physical place “somewhere in the Las Vegas area” (58).
So many definitions and so many different ways to interpret the idea leave more questions than answers. One thing is clear: the American dream is usually associated with financial success, social acceptance, and personal comfort. One pursues the goal of becoming financially stable and independent while at the same time seeking to join a larger community of other financially stable and independent people. In a typical social upbringing, we are taught the idea of “desirability of pursuing the goal of material success” (Messner and Rosenfeld 6), and so, as adults we commit to this goal, often seeing it as the only reason for our social existence and as the driving force behind initiating contact with other members of our social realm.
The other component of the American dream relates to our homes: the image of a good family with a standard set of values reflecting good parenting reveals the ability to protect children from all kinds of inappropriate influences and to provide kids with the chance to get ahead in life. This is a stereotypical model of the perfect family. In other words, the American dream equate to finding happiness in modern society.
This poses a few more questions: if finding the American dream means becoming happy, why do many families with stable incomes, who often have their own houses and personal cars, still face problems? Why do not they seem happy? This discrepancy is also reflected by movies like American Beauty, Fight Club, and Office Space, where the whole notion of material success and a perfect family life as a goal is deconstructed on film.
In American Beauty, for example, the main character’s life projects on the surface the very image of the American dream, but once viewers dive down and are introduced to his boss and family members, they realize that the work environment does not bring the character any joy. In fact, his marriage is falling apart and his daughter hates him. The basic concept of the movie highlights this idea of artificiality, of maintaining an image for all to see that contradicts how real life and real aspirations are compared to that. When the main character is asked about his wife, he delivers the point perfectly: “Our marriage is just for show. A commercial for how normal we are when we’re anything but” (American Beauty).
Another movie from the same year – Office Space – concentrates more on the ideas of material comfort and desire to be appreciated at the workplace. It expresses the opinion that a job is simply a job and not a stairway to one’s biggest dreams. When one starts getting stressed out and trying to maintain focus on his or her work duties at the expense of mental and physical health, it is damaging. The main leitmotif of Office Space is that office workers lose sight of the goals they should pursue to instead work for the sake of working. One might call it an ironic side-effect of the search for the American dream when the result itself becomes irrelevant because the searcher gets too caught up in the process. “What if we’re still doing this when we’re fifty?” asks Peter Gibbons, the main character of the movie. “It would be nice to have that kind of job security,” his colleague responds (Office Space).
It is clear that things do not always work out the way one expects them to. Is the American dream a fiction, a pretty fantasy with no possibility to exist in real life? Was it ever possible? We look at examples and track scholars and writers who discuss the form that the American dream should take. They seem to share some common ideas and patterns, but in the end, the American dream remains a concept without any solid footing in reality. It is essentially what it is called – a dream. It is “a brilliant ideological invention,” but “in practice it leaves much to be desired” (Hochschild and Scovronic 10).
There is a certain gap between belief in the American dream and its implementation. Core values promoted by scholars, educators, and theorists – “success for each one and the collective good for all” (Hochschild and Scovronic 7) – must balance each other out in order for this system to work. The excessive amount of any of those criteria may lead to a society of self-centered individuals (too much success for each one) or a tyranny of the masses (too much collective good for all). Taking this information into consideration and recalling the words of President Clinton cited earlier may cause a reader to deduce that the American dream is supposed to lie closer to the meritocratic side of the spectrum. It is based on the notion that all people have their own individual abilities, and the country’s task is to provide them with opportunities to put said abilities to good use and thus acquire the success they deserve. Practical implementation of this does not always work in accordance with the plan. The movie examples mentioned illustrate this point well, addressing the exact problem with the theoretical aspect of the American dream concept and the results of practicing it in real life. As we don’t live in a meritocracy, rewarding people for skills and talents and giving them fitting jobs is difficult for our current social construct. Unfortunately, it means that the American dream is unachievable and actually reliant on us first reforming society.
Teaching the basic principles characteristic of the American dream is a good step. To bring its outline closer to a material form, according to Hochschild and Scovronic, we should use the educational system as many parents and students still trust it to help them “translate the American dream from vision to practice” (11). Planting the idea into people’s heads will make it possible for everyone to experience new social growth. Every educational facility, including public schools, universities, and colleges, can be used to teach and further interpret this idea. If more and more people strive to change existing conditions in accordance with the conditions necessary for achieving the American dream, we might actually approach the time when this dream becomes reality.
In conclusion, the American dream as a concept and an ideology can be viewed almost in the same way the biblical commandments are viewed, but with a difference in purpose: while commandments provide ideological tools toward achieving greater goals, the American dream is itself a goal that promises achievement. It might not come along the way writers, directors, and thinkers have imagined, but theoretically, it can come to fruition. Using our combined mind power and physical work toward this objective, we can figure out how to turn this noble concept into an actual experience.
American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari. DreamWorks, 1999. Film.
Calthorpe, Peter. The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993. Print.
Hochschild, Jennifer L., and Nathan Scovronick. The American Dream and the Public Schools. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Kasser, Tim, and Richard M. Ryan. “A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65.2 (1993): 411. Print.
Messner, Steven F., and Richard Rosenfeld. Crime and the American Dream. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.
Office Space. Dir. Mike Judge. Perf. Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, Stephen Root, and Gary Cole.
Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. Film.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.