These novels will have characters and families who are trying to improve their lot in life, pursuing or living the American Dream of upward mobility thru hard work and education.
See also Money | Materialism
Novels About the American Dream
The Great Gatsby | F. Scott Fitzgerald
The narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the history of his friend Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is mysterious, has new money, and regularly throws lavish parties at his West Egg mansion.
Seize the Day | Saul Bellow
Tommy Wilhelm is in his mid-forties. Years earlier he had tried to become a movie star, but now he is unemployed, poor, and separated from his wife. He argues with his father, who is ashamed of him. Tommy put his last bit of money into stocks, and he’s worried about losing it.
The Jungle | Upton Sinclair
Jurgis and Ona move to America, eager to make a good home for themselves. They buy a house, but the payments are higher than they expected. The whole family take hard, menial jobs connected to the meat industry. Their financial situation worsens, necessitating further indignities and inciting Jurgis to violence.
Sister Carrie | Theodore Dreiser
Carrie is eighteen living in 1889, headed for Chicago. She moves in with her sister and her husband and gets a low paying job. After living in poverty for a while, she meets up with a man she had previously met, Charles Drouet. He gives her some money and sets her up in a room. They start living together. She meets his friend George, and they have an attraction to each other. Charles is looking for an actress for a play and casts Carrie in the role.
An American Tragedy | Theodore Dreiser
Clyde Griffiths grows up poor with his evangelist parents. Starting in his teens, he is drawn to material things and excitement, engaging in activities his parents condemn. Eventually, he begins working at a factory owned by his uncle. Clyde keeps setting his sights higher, with work and women.
Democracy | Joan Didion
Inez Christian marries Harry Victor, a prominent politician, and supports his career to the detriment of her own goals. At seventeen, she meets Jack Lovett, a CIA operative, and begins a love affair with him.
My Antonia | Willa Cather
Jim Burden recollects the life story of Antonia Shimerda. As children, their families moved to rural Nebraska where they became neighbours. They become friends, being close in age, and with Antonia eager to learn English. An upset in the Shimerda family creates some distance between the two. Years later, the Burden’s move in to town and Antonia takes a job nearby.
Wise Blood | Flannery O’Connor
Hazel Motes spends four years overseas in the army. After his release he goes back to his hometown in Tennessee with the intention of doing things he has never done. His religious upbringing enters his thoughts, leading him to follow a preacher down the street. When the preacher talks about Jesus, Hazel says he is also a preacher and is going to start The Church Without Christ.
The Tortilla Curtain | T.C. Boyle
Delaney Mossbacher runs into an older Mexican man with his car. Delaney is initially concerned about his car and insurance costs. The man is badly injured. He doesn’t speak English. Delaney settles the matter with twenty dollars, but soon feels bad about the man’s limited options. The injured man, Candido Rincon, is too hurt to work. Along with others, he is living in a nearby canyon. His wife is looking for a job. The narrative continues with each family’s vastly different American experience.
The Street | Ann Petry
Lutie Johnson lives with her son Bub in 1940s Harlem. While away working as a live-in maid, her husband starts seeing another woman. She leaves him and spends years working and studying, eventually getting work as a file clerk. She takes a suite in a run-down apartment with an unsettling superintendent. She encounters a lot of racism in her daily life. She is determined to keep herself and son out of the seedier side of their environment.
Of Mice and Men | John Steinbeck
George Milton and Lennie Small are transient farm hands in California during the Great Depression. They are en route to a new job after abruptly leaving their last farm due to a misunderstanding over something Lennie did.
Lennie, a large and strong mentally handicapped man, loves stroking soft things and dreams of living “off the fatta the lan’”. George is a small man and a quick thinker who takes comfort in Lennie’s company and looks out for him, and also dreams of having his own farm.
The Adventures of Augie March | Saul Bellow
Augie March tells his story of maturation beginning with his time in a poor area of Chicago as a teenager. He lives with his simple-minded mother; his brother, Georgie, who has a mental problem; his older brother Simon, who develops a desire for wealth and status; and Grandma Lausch, not his real grandmother but a boarder with a strong personality. Augie has a series of jobs thru his teens, eventually becoming the assistant to William Einhorn, a wealthy, disabled man who becomes his mentor. Augie has many jobs and pastimes as well as romantic entanglements.
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