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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The American nightmare: a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin Elliott, Lorris Thirwald

Abstract

The rapid settlement of North America in the seventeenth century was motivated by the dream of success— a dream which the numerous possibilities of that virgin land inspired. The new land of America suggested the possible achievement of a heaven upon earth: the realization of the Utopian myth of timeless perfection. Throughout the subsequent growth of the Republic, this American dream, because of its tremendous strength and of its powerful influence as myth, completely captivated the imagination of the Americans. Consequently, a unique pattern of thought evolved in America; one that has given form and significance to the political, cultural, social, and religious life of the nation; one, in fact, that has moulded the entire history of the United States of America. In this thesis, The American Nightmare, I have attempted to illustrate the effect of the American dream on American literature, particularly on the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and of James Baldwin. To do this successfully, however, I found it necessary to define the American dream: to trace its origins and subsequent development. Moreover, I have suggested that the American dream, once a vital force because it was relevant to the facts of life in America (or apparently so), has, in the twentieth century, become a nightmare, dedicated to illusion and hypocrisy. Indeed, the literature of the chosen writers reflects not only their preoccupation with the American dream and its influence, but also their desire to reveal and to analyse the apparent failure of this dream and the disillusionment, the despiritualisation, and the inhumanity which the quest for success has engendered in America. The society depicted in the novels I have selected for discussion is a bewildered one--an "incoherent" one. The authors themselves, despite their insight into the problems of American life, are indeed victims of the Medusa-like American dream. The thesis is divided into four sections. Section One, "The American Dream," discussing the settlement of America in the seventeenth century, examines the origins of the dream. Moreover, it traces the development and increasing secularization of the dream in the eighteenth century, witnesses the westward expansion of American settlement and its effect upon the nineteenth century vision of America's future, and, finally, reveals the failure of the dream and the subsequent fear, disillusion and bewilderment in twentieth century America. In short, this section shows how the American dream, once a vital force in American life, has now become a "nightmare"—a mirage which frequently lures many to self-destruction. Sections Two and Three treat specific works of Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby) and of Baldwin (Giovanni's Room and Another Country) respectively in the light of the American dream. The thesis concludes with a brief survey of the lives of the two writers, and an evaluation of the effect of the American dream upon their careers.

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