The American Dream

Having a family and finding a nice place to rear children does not seem like an unobtainable goal in the twentieth century, but once it was. In the past, a nice home, two automobiles, and high social status was a dream that would ensure happiness for the common man. Their dream was of the American Dream, defined by Webster as “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.” Currently, the American dream varies from person to person, touching every aspect of their lives. The authors, John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever create characters, who pursue the values and ideals of the American Dream. Once the dream is obtained, they realize that the American Dream does not always guarantee personal happiness, acceptance, or contentment.

In the past roles for women and men were strongly defined, and even if their beliefs differed from these roles, they followed them anyway. In John Updike’s “Separating,” Richard is a man who also like many others followed his assigned role, of providing for his family. This character does not just provide his family with the necessities for their lives, but also with many luxuries. Richard and his wife Joan have been married for many years, and have raised four children. Their children are no longer young, and they decide to break the news of their separation to them. As Richard and his wife discuss how tell their children Joan asks, “Do you have a better plan? That leaves you the rest of Saturday to answer any questions, pack, and make your wonderful departure” (Updike 2436). The tone set by that statement gives the reader some indication that this separation may evolve into a divorce, and that Richard may desire to be somewhere else. What could make Richard want to leave his family, home, and the life he has spent years building? John Updike answers this question by depicting Richard simply as an unhappy man in pursuit of happiness. Richard describes his last moments with his family as “ Each moment was a partition, with the past on one side and the future on the other, a future containing the unthinkable now. Beyond four knifelike walls a new life for him waited vaguely” (Updike 2436). Richard is very emotional about his decision, for it not only means leaving his family, but also everything he knows should have made him happy. In the story neither Joan nor his kids are described as undeserving, Updike does not speak of a trouble marriage or bad kids, because he wants the reader to understand this separation is only about Richard. Richard represents the many men throughout the world that no longer follow the roles and values assigned to them by the American Dream. He has chosen to defy society and break the rules, by not suppressing his personal happiness for that of his family, but instead leaving one family with the possibility of starting another.

Out of the three authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the only one of them that gives the readers a view of a character from childhood to adulthood in the story “Winter Dreams.” At the age of fourteen, Dexter a caddy at a golf club decides he is ready to quit because he is too old. Before actually quitting Dexter has an encounter with Judy Jones, a typical brat, but he sees her as “Beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be who are destined after a few years to be inexpressibly lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men” (Fitzgerald 2126). Dexter than chooses to quit and “was unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams,” into his future (Fitzgerald 2127). Dexter attended college, and became a successful business man who “often reached out for the best without knowing why he wanted it- and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges” (Fitzgerald 2128). Dexter obtained a reputation throughout the town as promising young man, and while on an invitation to the same golf club that he once caddy at, he met Judy Jones again. Judy Jones exemplifies for Dexter the best, and she was to be his. Dexter’s winter dreams is a mirror of the American Dream, he had the success, and the only thing missing is the wife and kids. Judy Jones was exactly what every successful man needed; beautiful and well bred, these attributes presented competition amongst the men. Dexter saw her popularity, as something that added assurance to his opinion that she was perfect for him. Time went by and Dexter fell in love with Judy, but his love was not returned, and so he was engaged to Irene Scheerer. During this time, he was to see Judy for the last time; as usual, she talked of there possible future, knowing that there would never be one. The only difference is Dexter also knew for, “He loved her and he would love her until the day he was too old for loving-but he could not have her” (Fitzgerald 2138). Dexter had come to accept that Judy could never be apart of his American Dreams, as he would never be apart of hers. At the age of thirty-two Dexter is married and living out the American Dream, when Judy is mentioned to him through an acquaintance named Devlin. Devlin describes Judy as nice and old, this comes as shock to Dexter who felt that the alluring Judy could never be characterized as such. Dexter had achieved the American Dream, and accepted it with the knowledge that his winter dreams would never be fulfilled.

In John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” he symbolizes a life journey for Neddy through his determination to swim cross-country through his neighbor’s backyard. The event begins on a Sunday with his Character Neddy Merrill at a gathering with friends. The gathering is that of the typical middle class with socializing and drinking without the worries of tomorrow. Neddy is a man who is not content with the American Dream he has obtained, and he is constantly in search of something to fulfill the empty void in his life. Neddy displays his need fulfillment trough the easiest of task such as, “Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny” (Cheever 2351). Cheever’s characterization of Neddy let’s the reader know that this journey is just one of many for Neddy. Neddy is a favorite among his neighbors and a seemingly confident man, but he is always looking for a challenge. During this Sunday afternoon Neddy encounters a storm, and is unaware at this point that this storm will symbolizes a change in his life and will not bring excitement and reward, but instead sadness. Cheever allows Neddy to first experience consequences of the storm through abandoned neighbor’s home, which causes Neddy to question whether or not he has lost his memory. Then Neddy himself undergoes a change “Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway-beer cans, rags, and blowout patches-exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful” (Cheever 2353). Then Neddy ponder the question of “Why was he determined to complete this journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious” (Cheever 2353)? Neddy has never viewed accomplishing the American Dream as something of importance, so he does not value it. As Neddy continues his journey he is treated harshly by others, and the only people who are nice to him, are thought to be communist.

The journey is beginning to take its toll on Neddy, there is mention of his house being sold, a friend having an operation that he can not remember, and he is not accepted by those who once begged for his appearance. Cheever now refers to Neddy as Ned, a sure sign that he is so far along on his journey that he will never be able to return to his old self. Now, Ned has no where to turn, but then he remembers “Love-sexual roughhouse in fact-was the supreme elixir, the painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of his heart” (Cheever 2356). This need will send him to Shirley Adams, a women he has been having an affair with, but she as everyone else is through with Ned. Distraught with tears Ned tries to reason out the days strange events of rudeness, and figures it is nothing a good drink and clean clothes will not cure. With this in mind Ned decides to return home, not able to maneuver through the swimming pool as once, but now feeling his age. On arrival, Ned is confronted with the truth that his house is empty, and his family is gone along with his American Dream. Yes, Ned allowed the lack of contentment, the need for excitement, and a prank to ruin his life.

The authors, John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever stories give readers an inside view of what can become of the American dream. The characters Richard, Dexter, and Ned, all pursue the goals and values of the dream, but something remains amiss. Through their pursuits they have found that fulfilling their void, or choosing to leave it unfulfilled comes at a price, and it is the loss of the dream. First, Updike’s character chooses to end his American Dream, and start over. Next, Fitzgerald’s character is unique in that he achieves the American Dream, but he longs for another. Then, there is Cheever’s story of Ned that out of all the rest is the saddest, because Ned has achieved the American dream, is not content with it, and loses it with nothing else to fall back on. These authors all convey a message that the American Dream symbolizes wealth, family, and, social status, but it does not warrant satisfaction.

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