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The book Requiem for a Dream, written by Hubert Selby Jr., was published in 1978 and is, in many critics’ opinions, Selby’s most extreme yet sincere illustration of the American Dream or in this case the failure to complete it. The American Dream by definition is the ideal by which any person has equal opportunity available to them as any American to achieve their highest aspirations while living in the United States through hard work and dedication, regardless of their social class or status when they were born. This success is defined by hard work, risk taking, and self-sacrifice, rather than one’s luck or chance. The story, set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, follows the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb, a widowed mother, and her son Harry, a heroin addict, as they each go down their own path in search for better lives, without seeing their own undoing that eventually stray them from their goal. Sarah Goldfarb is, as her character describes in the book, a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose enough weight so she can appear on a television in the dress she wore when she was younger and happier at Harry’s Bar Mitzvah. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to avoid all responsibilities, or “hassles” as Tyrone calls them, and achieve their dreams by shortcutting the system and selling drugs. These shortcuts in life that both Sarah and Harry and his friends take become the antagonist for the story, as Sarah becomes unrecognizably thin, scary to her own friends, and delusional from the amphetamine laced diet pills. Harry and his friends on the other hand, become strung out on heroin, although they swore to never let it happen to them.
Hubert Selby Jr. says that his stories are influenced by just about everything, and that any particular incident may lead to just one line. While the story follows closely three friends who are addicted to heroin, he says the book was not inspired solely by heroin addiction, though it may seem to some to be highlighting only that subject. Selby says that the drug heroin can in fact produce dreams and delusion, the book is mostly about the great American dream, as it is forced down nearly every American’s throat by many big corporations and politicians, and how it failed these characters. Selby believes the American Dream to be the driving force behind one’s life whose purpose, in a free capitalistic society, is to attain things and to keep on moving up the ladder, from the lower class, to the middle class, and then the ultimate goal of the upper class, the wealthiest one percent. He says, “We are taught in an infinite number of ways that the purpose of life is to get – and if you don’t get up early and start getting, someone will get your share.” With that being said, Requiem for a Dream is truly about watching the evil side of American Dream, as it destroys the lives of the characters, but then also becomes a comment on how it plagues the rest of the world in its obsession with acquiring more, causing those who believe in it to ignore the fatal effect it takes on the human person.
The effect on the human person that the American Dream has can be seen across all four main characters. In Harry Goldfarb’s case he grew up with his loving mother Sarah and father Seymour. His mom always supported him, and even after his father’s death, when he became addicted to drugs and started needing more money than either of them had, by letting him pawn the television set. Harry is deep into drugs from the beginning of the story. Harry never planned on being where he is, and, in fact, he has never really planned anything in his life except his next high. Harry always keeps his eyes on the big prize, his dream of owning a coffee shop and theater or speakeasy where artists from all genres can come together and share art in an environment free of the system. He tells his girlfriend Marion, “I never told anybody this, but I’ve always wanted to open a coffee house theatre sort of place”. His goal is not to just sell dime bags on the street. However, his secondary dream is to give his mother the life he knows she deserves but is not able to receive now because of his addiction. When he is doing well in the story, he visits her for the first time in a long time not wanting to pawn her television in great new clothes, explaining how well he is doing as an “entrepreneur” and even bought her a brand new colored big screen television from Macy’s. This idea is asserted when Harry realizes the joy he feels by making his mother happy: “He looked at his mother’s smiling, beaming face and the feeling increased, flowing through him with an unexplained power and energy making him feel sort of…yeah, I guess that’s it… sort of whole”. This secondary goal also seems to drive his primary goal as he wants to please his mother and make her proud of who he is. He wants to make that big deal that will protect him from being just another nobody to an entrepreneur who can live the life of his dreams, and leave Brooklyn a new man. In order to sustain his habit and fuel his dreams, he sells drugs with his best friend Tyrone, a fellow heroin addict and low level dealer.
Tyrone C. Love’s journey and his American Dream is the simplest of the group. While all of the other characters face physical conflict and ideas of personal fault. Tyrone seems to be a basic character with outlying, on the surface conflict. To understand the character of Tyrone and his dream, one has to go back to the person who raised him as a child and gave him unconditional love and support, similar to Harry, his mother. He says, “Seven kids man an she never hit nobody. She jus love us all up an down… an everybody love her”. Everything Tyrone does is fuelled by a promise to his mother that he will make it in life and because she has since passed away in the story, his American Dream is to make it out of Brooklyn and live the life he promised his mother he would have one day. The drugs make the characters numb and ignorant to their own downfalls while high, but Tyrone does not share the same experience. For him, drugs are a means to an end. He desperately is searching for the emotional support he experienced as a child under his mother’s care and to be someone in life. His girlfriend Alice gives him that support for a while but as all things in these character’s lives it is a good thing that slips away and she does not fill the gap in his life, she and the drugs merely soothe the pain. Tyrone is told by his mother in response to the notion of making it big, that all he has to do is love her. He is raised knowing that the ideas of love and material success are two separate things. However, the real world teaches him as he matures that a person’s worth is often found in what you have to give. This idea is asserted in the story where he thinks about his life and realizes he has been losing for far too long and he just wants to have enough to be stable without the drugs: “These streets were ruled by losers. He was on his way up and out. An he didn’t so much care about having a big ass El Dorado and a stable of fine foxes… Sheeit, one ol ladys enough for me… An ah ain’t no greedy ass mutha fucka. Jus enough to lay back with a little store… Jus something to keep me an mah old lady doin fine an not have any hassles”. To matter in the world around him, he needs to have just enough money, a car, a home, and all of the commodities that come with a modest lifestyle. However, when those things leave him, so does Alice, the source of his true desire – love. Tyrone’s introduction to the world of drugs is the byproduct of his broken relationship with his mother. He wanted to show his love to her by making it and with that giving her a better life. When she died Tyrone was left with nothing more than the dream he had before, and so his American Dream is to fulfill his promise to his dead mother and make the dream come to fruition.
For Marion, her American Dream is one shared with her boyfriend Harry, they both dream of earning enough to open her theatre and gallery. Marion was raised with oppressive parents. She struggled most of her life to escape their dominance over her lifestyle and her choices. She has attempted many things to free herself from them, and now she has found that heroin allows her to free her mind of the grips of her well to do parents. She finds her happiness and escape when she finds Harry and his dream: “It was then, for the first time in her life, that she felt alive, really and truly alive, like she had a reason for existing, a purpose in her life and she had realized that purpose and would now pursue it and dedicate her life to it”. Although Marion herself is not very invested into the drug dealing life she is willing now to do anything to succeed at life, so when her boyfriend and their friend Tyrone are needing money to cop, she will give them it to hopefully realize their dreams. This group of drug addict friends can’t afford to be without drugs when they are their way out of Brooklyn and what they see as their golden opportunity to follow their own dreams. This leaves Marion contemplating some insane measures to score dope for her and her friends, even selling herself to do so. Throughout the book it is evident that she is at a crossroads in her life. Her dream consists of leaving her parents behind to make a new life with her boyfriend Harry. The two of them put everything on the line and at times even themselves in order to achieve their shared goal. They both are relying on that big drug deal to get themselves free from the city’s hands and free them from the strings that attach them to it, as well as the strings that are holding them in their place as broke junkies.
Finally, for Sarah Goldfarb the American Dream is not based around drugs or freeing herself from the city, it is to look her best when she appears on television in her debut on the big screen. Sarah Goldfarb lives among older women with similar interests as her, in her apartment complex that is also in Brooklyn. At this point in her life she spends all of her time in front of a television set, eating her chocolates, or talking with her friends in front of her apartment as they tan. While she lives contently and quietly alone, she gets a phone call inviting her to appear on a show, and this gives her a new goal in life. She becomes overwhelmed and entranced by the idea, but realizes she will need to lose weight fast: “She looked at the phone for a minute then picked it up and put it gently on the cradle. On television. O my God, television… Maybe I should diet? I won’t eat. I’ll lose thirty pounds before I’m on television”. Her American Dream, although it seems very naive and simple minded, is now to lose weight and fit in order to fit into her red dress and gold shoes. This outfit is one that brings back happier memories as her now deceased husband, Seymour, loved it and it was the one she wore at Harry’s Bar Mitzvah. This was a time in her life when everything was going well and Harry was more loving towards her.
While all of these characters have their own ideas of the American Dream and future plans in life they would love to accomplish. They all have a deadly hamartia that strays them from the path they want to be on, for all of them taking shortcuts to accomplish their goals and addiction will move them away from the dreams they had and force them into the darkest part of their lives. Sarah Goldfarb opts to try a new diet pill to shed the weight quickly, although it is amphetamine laced and destroys her mind. She fell for a trap and immediately jumped to the conclusion that she would without a doubt appear on television, the thing she was first addicted to and the thing she believed the most in. While this is obviously a scam to readers, she is too naive to see it and from watching television so much, loses touch with reality and has no bottom in sight. Unfortunately in her case she has no one to help her find the truth until it is too late and she inevitably becomes addicted to the pills that she believes “help her.” This happens because her son is lost everyday in his own addiction with heroin, her husband is dead, and her friends do not see a problem until she is unrecognizable to them. Harry and Marion’s plan to follow their version of the American dream and make a huge amount of money from drug deals, then quit the drug dealer and addict life forever, is strayed when they face the problem they knew could be a problem from the start, being strung out. The problem that these two, and most drug users that also deal, is that they encounter a deep urge to not use their own stash, that not only cuts directly into their profit, but also severely clouds their judgment. For Tyrone there is nothing for him to fight against but himself, he holds all responsibility for his life and his actions. While all of the characters choose to take drugs, and slip slowly too deep into their addictions, so does he. At the end of the book he is convinced by Harry to go down to Miami where they believe the heart of the drug trade. On the way down from Brooklyn to Miami, Harry reveals he has gangrene and tries to seek help in a clinic but ends up getting the police called on them. Harry goes to the hospital where his arm is amputated and Tyrone ends up in a prison camp. They all choose not to follow the pick yourself up by the bootstraps approach and work hard to make it, they want to make it big and do so putting in the least amount of effort and time. This desire to get everything they ever wanted by doing the smallest amount of work, to take shortcuts and continue to use drugs is what kills all of their dreams and they have no one to blame but themselves in the end.
Requiem for a Dream is a poignant illustration of the American Dream or in this case the character’s failure to complete it because of their own hamartias. The book tells the universal story of seeking improvement from being at the bottom of society to one day being rich and living without hassles or worries. The author, Hubert Selby Jr. believes the American Dream is to attain things and to keep on moving up the ladder, from the lower class, to the middle class, and then the ultimate goal of the upper class, the wealthiest one percent, but knows that Americans and the world are becoming too greedy. This leads the story to become a picture of what happens when people choose to take shortcuts and take more than they give, it is a story of the failure of the American Dream. The consequences of this greed lies in the way it destroys the soul and causes the characters to lose their senses of reality and humanity, at the end of the story lying to each other about how much drugs they have and not even loving each other. Although they fail to ever see their dreams come true and it to all get better in the end as in television shows, Selby illustrates that the American Dream is in reality more destructive than it is productive as it leads these characters to kill themselves slowly and only become more enchained in their addiction and less free and happy than they were before pursuing their goals.
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