For centuries the American Dream has been heating imaginations of millions of people giving a hope for a better life. Liberal ideals established by the United States promise equal opportunities for all, and one’s prosperity becomes a matter of one’s own skills and abilities rather than of origin. However, with the passage of time the perceptions of the American Dream have shifted, and much of its glitter has been darkened. Modern ‘dreamers’ have, in general, less respect for the values of hard work. It is the goal, wealth and prosperity, that has been left from the original representation of the American Dream. The Dream itself and its shifts have found their reflections in arts. The Swimmer, a short story by John Cheever, depicts a collapse of the American Dream with brilliance and brevity characteristic of this writer of genius. The film Glengarry Glen Ross portrays the plain truth about the modern ways of achieving the goal and modern ‘dreamers’, who seem to have lost all moral principles on their way to achieving the Dream. The Swimmer and Glengarry Glen Ross deal with different sides of the matter and with the help of different means but the conclusion that can be drawn from both works is similar: the traditional American Dream has faded away being replaced by the quest for money.
The notion “American Dream” is used very often but it may have different meanings and connotations for different people, thus, it would be appropriate to define what the American Dream is before to discuss its representations. Usually, the American Dream is associated with equal opportunities for all guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Thus, every man has a possibility to achieve wealth through his work and can expect to be awarded according to his merits. In its traditional meaning, the American Dream implies that any goal can be achieved through hard work and diligence and celebrates the values of thrift and industry. However, this concept has changed, as Matthew Warshauer, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, argues: “Many Americans no longer entertain a vision for the future that includes time, sweat, and ultimate success. Rather, they covet the shortcut to wealth”. Thus, the values and the ways of achieving the goal have changed but the goal itself is the same: “the quest for money” (Warshauer, 2003). Warshauer supports his position giving examples of “Millionaire” game shows, state lotteries, and compensation lawsuits that have become so popular. These ways require luck rather than work. Therefore, whatever the ways of achieving the goal are, the essence of the American Dream is the same – financial freedom.
Cheever’s short story The Swimmer describes a few moments of life of a rich man Neddy Merrill. The readers meat him on a Sunday afternoon near the Westerhazys’ pool. Ned Merrill thinks about the “string of swimming pools” that “curved across the county” and decides to swim home down the Lucinda River, as he calls this string of pools under his wife’s name (Cheever, 2003). During his way home, Ned notices that something happens with time and attitude of his friends. It becomes darker and colder, and his former friends treat him either with animosity or with pity. Finally, it becomes obvious that a midsummer Sunday afternoon transformed into an autumn evening, and a man of fortune transformed into a pauper. Ned finds himself stunned with a sudden change near his empty house. Thus, this embodiment of the American Dream is totally crashed and destroyed. The film Glengarry Glen Ross shows another side of the Dream – the ways of its achievement. Real estate agents are confronted with the threat of dismissal: their boss sends a man who declares that only top sellers will stay and the rest will be fired. Then the viewers see the series of deceptions undertaken by the salesmen in order not to be the last on the list, and two of them implement the plan of burglary of their own office. The story ends with the exposure of the thief. Thus, a real world of those fighting their ways to the American Dream is depicted: the man on top is a rude and self-assured impudent fellow who values nothing but money, and those at the bottom are ready to do anything to get on top and have the money.
The essence of the American Dream presented by both works is the same: it is money. In The Swimmer, Ned Merrill presents a type of a middle-aged rich man who enjoys his life that is “not confining” (Cheever, 2003). Describing his life, the author describes a typical picture that everyone has in mind when dreaming about becoming rich: cocktail parties, swimming pools, big houses, countless invitations, - in short, a life of joy. In Glengarry Glen Ross, real estate agents dream about such life – and Blake (Alec Baldwin), sent by their bosses, reached the goal. Explaining the difference about him and Dave Moss (and other salesmen), Blake says: “… you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW”. Blake treats others with contempt and believes that his money gives him the right to do so: “I made $970,000 last year. How much did you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing” (Tokofsky, Zupnik & Foley, 1992).
We know nothing about how Blake achieved riches but we may guess judging from his behavior and from the ways that his subordinates try to exploit. The most common method here is deception. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) talks Lingk into concluding a real estate deal, and the next morning he and his manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) present different lies to this man trying to persuade him not to cancel the deal. Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) agrees to stage a burglary of their office in an attempt to get hold of the leads. The characters of the movie stoop to anything chopping their ways to riches. Philosophy of these men is presented by Blake’s words: “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids” (Tokofsky, Zupnik & Foley, 1992). In The Swimmer, the way to the top of the pyramid is not described, the readers see Ned already on the top. However, there is no word about his sweat or hard work; on the contrary, it is implied that he knows nothing about the hardships of life. Therefore, both works reflect the fact that the value of industry has been seriously undermined and that a way to the Dream can be any since only the goal matters.
When the goal is reached, all the more so there is no reason to remember about ethics and morale. Blake does not bother to be at least polite, he abuses everybody believing the fact that his “watch costs more than your car” (Tokofsky, Zupnik & Foley, 1992) to be a sufficient excuse for such behavior. Ned Merrill is no so rude; he at least shows the signs of good manners. However, he meets only equals and we do not know what his behavior would be if he met somebody from lower social class. Cheever (2003) perfectly describes this life on top: “Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer’s men in white coats passed them cold gin”.
At the same time, Ned’s encounter with Biswangers illustrates how important it is to have money if you want to be respected. Ned thought they “would be honored to give him a drink” but Grace Biswanger calls him “a gate crasher” and refuses to serve him a drink. In addition, “the bartender served him but he served him rudely”, which demonstrated that he had lost his “social esteem” (Cheever, 2003). This was one of the first signs of the collapse of his life. At the end of the story it becomes obvious that Ned had lost everything he had – his money, his house, his life of joy. This is how the American Dream collapses – “they went for broke overnight” (Cheever, 2003); in a moment a man loses everything. In Glengarry Glen Ross, collapse happens even before the dream is realized. Shelley Levene is about to be arrested for the theft – a crime that he committed on his way to riches. Therefore, in both cases, the collapse is sudden and abrupt; it takes only few moments to lose everything that a man has or everything he fought for.
Thus, there are many similarities between the representations of the American Dream in The Swimmer and Glengarry Glen Ross. Both represent money as the core of the Dream, its essence without which happiness is impossible. Both give an impression that almost everything is possible and almost everything is allowed to those on the top of the pyramid. Both depict the collapse of the American Dream as a sudden change that ruins everything and deprives of everything including respect. The difference is that the movie focuses on the methods of achieving the goal in the modern capitalist world, and the short story has the downfall of a rich man as its subject. The message, however, is the same. Both the story and the movie underline how much importance has been given to money lately and question whether money deserves this high respect. In both cases we see the proofs of Warshauer’s (2003) point of view: “It seems that many Americans covet the easy road to the Dream and in the process undercut the core values that established the Dream in the first place”. Thus, the story and the movie testify that the American Dream has degenerated into the quest for money.