Though Dexter seems to have better access to the material portion of the Dream, he builds up his hopes around Judy Jones. When Judy first asks him who he is, Dexter pauses before giving his answer. He thinks about his middle-class upbringing but “chooses the one that suppresses his identity. That is given up easily in our society” (Berman 58). Dexter obscures his past in order to portray himself as the type of man that Judy wants; the stigma of having humble origins pushes him to distance himself from his family and roots. It is easy to give up one’s past when it does not fit into the idea of an affluent socialite.
His identity becomes fully shaped by the illusions of a materialistic Dream as he “surrendered a part of himself to the most direct and unprincipled personality with which he had ever come in contact” (Fitzgerald 667). This personality refers to Judy, who Fitzgerald describes as impulsive, fickle, but exceedingly beautiful and alluring to men. At the same time, it could also read as Dexter giving into the drive towards the very glittering things he admired from a young age. He is not satisfied with only doing as well as everyone else financially, but strives to beat them at their own game by getting the girl.
In pursuit of access to a glittering Dream, Helga travels to Denmark citing that America’s racial attitudes are too confining. While there, she enjoys care under her maternal aunt and uncle. They feed her hunger for luxury and attention by adorning her with lavish clothing and parading her around the social circles of upper Danish society. At first she finds it flattering compared to the rejection and hardship she experienced in the United States. That is, until Axel Olsen, a painter and suitor, tells her, “You have the warm impulsive nature of the women of Africa, but, my lovely, you have, I fear, the soul of a prostitute.
You sell yourself to the highest buyer. I should of course be happy that it is I. And I am” (Larsen 604). Although Helga was once engaged to James Vale for similar purposes, she is deeply offended that Axel sees their relationship on such unequal terms. His view of her as an object relying on racial stereotypes spoils their future together. Literary critic Kimberly Monda suggests that “Larsen uncovers the objectification at the heart of consumerism… This objectification returns [Helga] to the white constructions of black ‘primitivism’ she had fled Harlem to escape” (23).
Helga is so drawn to the glimmering baubles available that she plays the role until one man tries to claim possession of her outright. The American Dream of materialism that Helga searches for in Europe defines how she becomes a commodity outside the place that originally left her disgusted by racial oppression. Despite all the outward success Dexter achieves, he is never able to find fulfillment due to how he puts Judy onto a pedestal. With her as the “romantic” ideal, he desires complete ownership of Judy just as he had wanted to own “glittering things.
Evidence of this is when Dexter finds out that Judy is in high demand with many other suitors chasing her simultaneously. Instead of finding himself jealous, “It excited him that many men had loved her. It increased her value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 666). In reality she is very flawed, but Dexter consciously overlooks all of these flaws due to what she represents in his pursuit of the Dream: a trophy. This blindness to the reality of things negatively impacts his ability to reconcile his desires with the true state of things.
Disillusioned by both America and Europe, Helga finds herself lost in opposing messages of the American Dream. She dreads “this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive” (Larsen 609). Because treatments of race that regard Helga’s biracial identity as black based on miscegenation laws, there is no place for her anywhere. Being mixed complicates how she identifies herself with “white” or dominant values while trying to embrace how others see her as black.
As journalist Eric Burns put, “There was no nationwide campaign to improve living conditions for blacks; no such phrase, or even notion, as ‘civil rights’” (78). At this time, Helga has no recourse for finding the right place that allows her both “physical” and “spiritual” freedom. She begins to question how her desires fit into the established narrative for success while still attempting to follow the formula. As a result, the friction between the consumer ideal and the illusion of equality causes her to blame herself for not fitting in.
With no exposure to a different environment, Dexter has no insight into how his Dreams are built to fail. So caught up in the race to catch Judy, “No disillusion as to the world in which she had grown up could cure his illusion as to her desirability” (Fitzgerald 669). This points to the futility of Dexter’s quest. His worldview is so warped by the early encounter on the golf course that he could never see past the veil without it being completely shattered from the outside. Living within this society that encourages unrestrained chasing of wealth does not allow Dexter and self-reflection or awareness of his flawed ideal.
Thinking that the end is in sight, Dexter again pursues Judy without even a second thought about his engagement to Irene. He does not care about his social reputation without any connection to Judy. She embodies the entire idea of the American Dream for him. Yet she inevitably eludes his grasp again as she had done many times in the past. After such a disappointment outside the United States, Helga finds herself back in Harlem; there, she still struggles to find a social space during a time that was preoccupied by external status.
In Kevin Mattson’s historical look at Harlem’s struggle for a democratic urban space, he concludes that, “What Harlemites were discovering could be generalized for many Americans. The culture of consumption and social mobility displaced hopes in a civic consciousness…and a democratic public” (318). Modern society straddles the competing pressures between economic growth and a socially fair citizenship. The phenomenon of equality based on a democratic American identity is taken over by the unrelenting drive for material success that is ingrained into American culture.
What happened in Harlem rings true of the consumerist American Dream left unchecked. Without any accountability for the disconnect between the ideal and reality, people are left to grieve as their dreams are rendered false in light of the truth. Dexter’s Dream collides with reality, leaving a void of devastation. Years later, Dexter thinks that time and distance in the war will allow him to forget his Dream. By chance, an associate mentions Judy in passing, rekindling the intense coveting in Dexter again. He presses the man for details, only to learn that she ended up as someone else’s plain and uninspiring housewife.
The news crushes Dexter who thought that he had made peace with not having Judy, “but he knew that he had just lost something more, as surely as if he had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes. The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him” (Fitzgerald 674). Knowing that she ages ungracefully removes any veil of perfection or beauty that once confirmed her symbolic status. This knowledge obliterates Dexter’s Dream because now it is certain that he will never possess Judy and the glittering things she represented.
Though Dexter feels that his dream is taken away from him, he fails to realize that the premise that his entire ambition was false. The possibility of attaining all the material symbols of status soon unravels for Helga as well. In desperation, she marries the Reverend Pleasant Green for a chance at salvation after the breakdown from Dr. Anderson’s rejection. She long looked down upon other black people who seemed to not question the injustices of a prejudiced society, thinking that they were pathetic and ignorant.
Helga herself eventually realizes that the physical and emotional hardships required to perform the role of a pastor’s wife are severely draining. Existence within the confines of a racist and sexist society tie many black women to a cycle of limited socioeconomic mobility. After realizing the impact of her actions, Helga can only think herself, “It was so easy and so pleasant to think about freedom and cities…It was so hard to think out a feasible way of retrieving all these agreeable, desired things” (632). While Helga can envision the life she once had access to, she loses every ability to even take action towards it now.
Her body and spirit are broken to the point of submission to this grueling existence as a reverend’s spouse and mother of his children. More than that, the chance for her to achieve those ends were limited to begin with. Although the two works are reflections of one particular time period, with similar experiences and consequences, the social boundaries dictated by race and gender form two separate treatments of American identity. Shattering this superficial Dream results in a much graver outcome for people who are shut out of the monolithic, male, white-centered standard.
The consumerist American identity overshadows its democratic counterpart through the superficial trappings of wealth and luxury. This foreshadows the eventual collapse of the self due to realization of how these ideas are incompatible with the United States during the 1920s; the fall also parallels how the image of the “Roaring Twenties” covered many of the underlying issues that contributed to the Great Depression. Even now, there is a struggle between the material and social interpretations of the American Dream contributes to a fractured sense of what it means to be American.