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Every American is familiar with the concept of the American Dream. It is the social myth at the very core of the nation’s identity. Unlike other countries, the United States is not rooted in a shared ancestry, history, or language. Instead, Americans find their unity in a common aspiration—the hope of a better future for themselves and their children in the Land of Opportunity. This is the vision that drove the Puritans to brave the sea, inspired the founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence, and continues to bring immigrants teeming into the country. The American Dream is deeply rooted in the culture and psyche of the United States and its citizens. It is a common theme in literature as American authors struggle to interpret the social myth in light of reality.
One of the most beloved discussions and deconstructions of the American Dream is a novel written by Susan Eloise Hinton when she was only sixteen. The Outsiders chronicles the story of seven boys and their struggle to overcome the stereotypes forced on them by their community. Through the eyes of adolescence, Hinton analyzes the American Dream by addressing the gulfs that separate the Dream from reality, and the reality from the possibility of achieving the Dream.
Another book with a similar purpose is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Unlike The Outsiders, Nickel and Dimed is a nonfictional account of Ehrenreich’s experiences as she attempts to support herself by working various blue collar jobs. Ehrenreich accuses America of abandoning the working poor who, she argues, are unable to support themselves on current minimum wage salaries. Furthermore, her expos? shows an economic system that encourages the abuse and dehumanization of its low-income workers. Even while she stresses the importance of financial stability to the fulfillment of the American Dream, Ehrenreich spends a large portion of the book illustrating how a lack of humanity, in the system and between the classes, is the root cause of the large gap between rich and poor. While Hinton and Ehrenreich approach the American Dream from two very different perspectives, both conclude that a mutual respect and understanding between all people, regardless of class, is essential to fully restore the Dream for all Americans.
The United States of America was founded on the notion that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” should be available to every citizen. The belief that these rights are available to every citizen is a great American myth. In his book The American Dream: The Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, Jim Cullen calls this “idea that individuals have control over the course of their lives… the very core of the American Dream, the bedrock premise upon which all else depends” (10). Hinton and Ehrenreich both attack the validity of the myth that equal opportunity is a reality in America and identify it as a source of prejudice and misunderstanding between the classes.
Ehrenreich’s opinions about poverty, before she began her undercover journalism research, correspond strongly with the way average middle and upper class Americans think. She describes how she “grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success” (Ehrenreich 220). When she attempts to support herself as a blue collar worker, however, she finds that “you [can] work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt” (Ehrenreich 220). In his book, Beyond the American Dream, Charles Hayes describes how the disconnection between the myth and reality stigmatizes the poor: The higher the level of social position reached… the more the people on that level seem blinded by the relative advantage of their position. For example, the middle class expects the bottom level to simply go out and get a job, failing to see the distinct advantage they themselves maintain through quality education and social connections. The typical middle-class businessman… sees himself as deserving while he sees those at lower economic levels as being lazy and undeserving. (18-19) During her experience as a temporary member of working class America, Ehrenreich found the work exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Working as a maid, she describes the “exercise” as “totally asymmetrical, brutally repetitive, and as likely to destroy the musculoskeletal structure as to strengthen it” (Ehrenreich 90). Many of her coworkers work through pain, malnutrition, or pregnancy in order to keep their jobs and because they can’t afford to take unpaid days off. Several of the maids have injuries, treated and untreated, due to their work. Despite the prevalent idea that the poor can break free from poverty simply by working hard, Ehrenreich’s coworkers endure body-breaking work without having the opportunity to save enough to change their situation or seek out a different job.
Like Ehrenreich, Hinton also argues that equal opportunity is a myth that contributes to prejudice. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy, the narrator, lives in a world divided by social class. The poor kids living on the East side, labeled “greasers” by the rest of the community, endure a multitude of stereotypes and stigmas. Ponyboy, and the other boys who make up his adopted family, or gang, know the labels well. On their way to a fight, they “embrace the stereotypes” (Inderbitzen 360), chanting: “‘I am a greaser…, I am a JD and a hood. I blacken the name of our fair city. I beat up people. I rob gas stations. I am a menace to society. Man, do I have fun … O victim of environment, underprivileged, rotten, no-count hood!’” (Hinton 144). Despite their willingness to unite under these stereotypes, however, Ponyboy’s account of events brings the reader to a different understanding of the greasers. One member of the gang, in particular, allows the reader a fresh perspective on these dehumanizing stereotypes. Dally, who has “spent three years on the wild side of New York and had been arrested at the age of ten,” is the hardest kid of the group: “tougher, colder, meaner” (Hinton 19). Even Ponyboy, though he respects Dally, doesn’t like him. The tough fa?ade rapidly crumbles, however, when Johnny, Dally’s friend, dies from injuries sustained while rescuing children from a burning building. “‘That’s what you get for tryin’ to help people, you little punk,’ Dally blurts at Johnny’s body, ‘that’s what you get…’” (Hinton 157). Dally’s own life circumstances have taught him that selflessness, such as Johnny’s heroic efforts, results only in personal disaster and pain. Since his childhood, Dally has learned to meet the world with a cold detachment in order to survive the harsh, inner-city streets. When he loses the only person who had slipped past his defenses and grown close to him, the pain overwhelms Dally. He pulls an unloaded gun on the police, forcing them to shoot him. Though Dally embodied many of the stereotypes forced onto all greasers, ultimately he was just a child trying to protect himself in a world where no parent had ever cared for him. The great tragedy of his death is that Dally still had the potential to be an extraordinary person. In him, Johnny saw a strong, “gallant” hero (Hinton 84), someone to look up to. Dally’s efforts to save Johnny from the fire at the risk of his own life provide a glimpse into the person he might have become had the circumstances been different. Unlike the labels suggest, Dally was not ruined beyond repair or redemption by his environment. He was still a human being, and, as such, he still had the ability to choose who he might have become. The myth, therefore, perpetuates stereotypes that prevent empathy and guidance from being given to kids because they are viewed as already beyond help.
Despite the myth of equal opportunity, the American Dream is still carried in the hearts of poor and rich Americans alike. Ehrenreich and Hinton each comment on what the Dream looks like through the eyes of the poor and compare it to the Dream as interpreted by the middle and upper classes. After examining the Dream of each class, both authors conclude that the Dreams are complimentary, not antagonistic. In Nickel and Dimed, the viewpoints of those struggling with poverty come in the form of interviews with Ehrenreich’s coworkers. Near the end of her job as a maid, Ehrenreich asks the women who she was working with how they felt about the owners of the houses they clean, “who have so much while others, like themselves, barely get by” (118). Answers two of the women give shed light on a commonality in the Dream held by each person struggling with poverty. Lori responds, “All I can think of is like, wow, I’d like to have this stuff someday. It motivates me and I don’t feel the slightest resentment because, you know, it’s my goal to get to where they are” (Ehrenreich 118). Colleen’s answer is somewhat different: “I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then… if I had to… and still be able to buy groceries the next day” (Ehrenreich 119). Though Lori and Colleen have different Dreams, the need for economic security is common to both. Without enough income to begin saving, the poor are trapped in their current situation without hope of escape. Even the ability to find a higher paying job is severely limited by lack of time, energy, and transportation. The smallest disaster could push their delicately balanced lives over the edge and leave them without either a job or money.
The Dream of the rich, as expressed in Nickel and Dimed, comes from the author’s own perspective. Both Ehrenreich’s desire to research and write the book, as well as comments she makes about her own state of mind, reveal her own, middle-class Dream. Reflecting upon her “savior complex,” Ehrenreich admits, “Even my motives seem murky at the moment. Yes, I want to help Holly and everyone else in need, on a worldwide basis if possible. I am a ‘good person,’…, but maybe I’m also just sick of my suddenly acquired insignificance. Maybe I want to ‘be somebody,’…, somebody generous, competent, brave, and perhaps, above all, noticeable” (Ehrenreich 99). The need to matter is one she constantly wrestles with while preforming the menial tasks required of her from the various blue collar jobs she works. In order to cope with each of her jobs, Ehrenreich either finds meaning in it or creates meaning from pure fantasy. In what she calls a “psychic flotation device” (108), Ehrenreich pretends, “I am not working for a maid service; rather, I have joined a mystic order dedicated to performing the most despised of tasks, cheerfully and virtually for free—grateful, in fact, for this chance to earn grace through submission and toil” (108). Unlike those who risk going hungry day by day, with no foreseeable route of escape, Ehrenreich is not really in any danger of starvation. Her basic needs are met and her current situation is only a charade. Her Dream focuses much more heavily on the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (“Need-Hierarchy Theory”). It is, in fact, these needs that have driven her to spend time living as one of America’s working poor. By temporarily giving up her privileged position, Ehrenreich is fulfilling her own Dream of doing meaningful work and being somebody who matters.
In The Outsiders, the Dream of the lower class is expressed through the narrator. Like Ehrenreich, Ponyboy also shares with the reader his own fantasy: I loved the country. I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade … The gang could come out on weekends, and maybe Dallas would see that there was some good in the world after all, and Mom would talk to him and make him grin in spite of himself… She could talk to Dallas and keep him from getting into a lot of trouble. (Hinton 56) Like Colleen and Lori, Ponyboy also desires a certain amount of economic stability and freedom, but his Dream goes much deeper than that; he also wants peace. In his neighborhood, torn apart by social class, the greasers cannot even walk alone without fear of being jumped by the socs, kids from wealthy families who “had so much spare time and money that they jumped [greasers] and each other for kicks, had beer blasts and river-bottom parties because they didn’t know what else to do” (Hinton 51). Ponyboy’s idyllic version of the country represents his Dream for the world: a place where nobody has so little money that they are “hardened beyond caring” (Hinton 67) like Dally or so much money that they have nothing left to work for, like the socs. In his Dream, he is once again cared for by his parents. He is allowed to enjoy his childhood rather than wrestling with adult problems in an adult-less world. The Dream of the upper class is related by the soc Cherry Valence who confides in Ponyboy, telling him that being rich isn’t all it’s made out to be: ‘We’re sophisticated—cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is for real with us. You know, sometimes I’ll catch myself talking to a girl-friend, and realize I don’t mean half of what I’m saying… Rat race is a perfect name for it,’ she said. ‘We’re always going and going and going, and never asking where. Did you ever hear of having more than you wanted? So that you couldn’t want anything else and then started looking for something else to want? It seems like we’re always searching for something to satisfy us, and never finding it. Maybe if we could lose our cool we could.’ (Hinton 46) Cherry’s Dream, ironically, is to have a Dream—something to strive for. Like Ponyboy, she lives in a world consumed by money, only, rather than having too little, she has too much. The class culture she grew up in demands she meet social expectations, never letting her true self shine through. In talking to Ponyboy, she is able to make a genuine connection with another human being because she does not have to worry about keeping up appearances or fitting into cultural stereotypes.
Just as Ehrenreich was able to fulfill her Dream of bettering the world and doing something meaningful by entering into the world of the working class poor, Cherry also found her Dream fulfilled when she stepped outside of her own social class and befriended a greaser. For both Hinton and Ehrenreich, the only way to restore equal opportunity to America and allow each individual the possibility of living the American Dream is through mutual friendship and respect between social classes.
Works Cited Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. New York: Oxford, 2003. Print. Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. Print.
Hayes, Charles, D. Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong Learning and the Search for Meaning in a Postmodern World. Wasilla, AK: Autodidactic Press, 1998. Print.
Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: The Viking Press, 1967. Print.
Inderbitzin, Michelle. “Outsiders and Justice Consciousness.” Contemporary Justice Review. 6.4 (2003): 357-352. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.
“Need-Hierarchy Theory.” A Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford Reference Online. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.
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