9 Novels About The American Dream: Exploring the Aspirations and Challenges of Pursuing Success in America

9 Novels About The American Dream: Exploring the Aspirations and Challenges of Pursuing Success in America

The American Dream is a concept deeply rooted in the history and culture of the United States. It represents the idea that anyone, regardless of their background or social status, can achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and opportunity. However, the pursuit of the American Dream is not without its challenges, as these nine novels based on the theme of the American Dream expertly explore.

From John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” these literary works provide a profound insight into the aspirations and struggles of men and women in their quest for the American Dream. They paint a picture of an America that promises a better life, but often falls short of delivering on its lofty ideals.

In contrast to the optimistic versions of the American Dream of the 1920s and beyond, some novels delve into themes of disillusionment and marginalization. For example, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” explore the challenges faced by black and female protagonists, respectively, as they navigate a society that denies them equal opportunities.

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However, not all novels present a bleak outlook on the American Dream. There are also tales of success and triumph, such as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” These stories depict individuals who, despite the odds, manage to attain their dreams and find a sense of fulfillment.

It is worth noting that the American Dream is not limited to the boundaries of the United States. As seen in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” individuals from all over the world, from Italy to Thailand to Cambodia, are drawn to the idea of the American Dream and embark on epic journeys in search of happiness and self-discovery.

Overall, these novels offer a diverse range of narratives that explore the complexities of the American Dream. They debunk the notion that the American Dream is a one-size-fits-all concept, revealing that its meaning can vary from person to person. Whether it is the pursuit of material wealth, personal happiness, or a sense of belonging, the American Dream continues to be a central theme in literature that resonates with people from all walks of life.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The novel also explores differing views on the American Dream through other characters like Nick Carraway and Tom and Daisy Buchanan. While Gatsby is driven by his idealized version of success, the Buchanans represent the empty pursuit of material wealth without any real fulfillment.

Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s story to comment on the disillusionment and corruption that can come with the American Dream. Through his characters’ experiences, he shows how the pursuit of wealth and success can often be accompanied by lies, deceit, and the loss of moral values. The roaring twenties, also known as the Jazz Age, is presented as a time of decadence and excess, where appearances and superficiality reign.

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The Great Gatsby offers a compelling critique of the American Dream and the reality of achieving it. It challenges the notion that financial success and happiness are inherently linked, emphasizing the importance of love, authenticity, and genuine human connections. The novel serves as a reminder that the American Dream, in its pursuit of material wealth, can lead to emptiness and a loss of identity.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Set primarily in Harlem and rooted in the cultural and political climate of the time, Invisible Man provides an immersive and vivid portrayal of the challenges faced by African Americans in a society that often denies their humanity. The protagonist’s journey takes him from the rural South to Harlem, and eventually to New York City and Washington, D.C. Along the way, he encounters a range of characters, each representing a different aspect of the American Dream and offering their own perspectives on race and identity.

The novel explores the themes of invisibility and identity, as the narrator grapples with his own sense of self and tries to find his place in a society that often overlooks or dismisses him. Ellison’s writing is rich and complex, blending elements of realism and surrealism to create a narrative that is at once personal and universal. Through the narrator’s experiences, the reader is invited to examine the reality of the American Dream and question the ways in which it is defined and pursued.

Invisible Man is often considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, and its themes and explorations of the African American experience continue to resonate today. The novel serves as a powerful reminder of the challenges faced by marginalized groups in their pursuit of success and the complexities of the American Dream. By grounding its narrative in the realities of racism and discrimination, Ellison’s novel challenges readers to critically examine the systemic factors that shape and limit opportunities for different groups in America.

Related Novels:

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of the hardships faced by the Joads and other migrant workers, capturing the social and economic inequalities of the time. The novel explores themes of class struggle, the exploitation of labor, and the impact of capitalism on the lives of ordinary Americans.

Through his keen observations and powerful storytelling, Steinbeck reveals the harsh realities of the American Dream, challenging the belief that hard work and determination alone are enough to achieve success. Instead, he exposes the systemic injustices that hinder the Joads’ pursuit of a better life and highlights the need for collective action and solidarity in the face of adversity.

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The Grapes of Wrath stands as a powerful critique of the capitalist system and a call for social change. Steinbeck’s vivid descriptions transport readers to the Dust Bowl era and offer a glimpse into the lives of those who were affected by the Great Depression. His portrayal of the Joad family and their struggles serves as a reminder of the resilience and strength of the American people, even in the face of overwhelming challenges.

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Steinbeck’s masterpiece continues to resonate with readers today, reminding us of the enduring ideals and aspirations that define the American Dream. The Grapes of Wrath serves as a timeless reminder that the pursuit of wealth and success should not come at the expense of the less fortunate and that true progress can only be achieved when society comes together to address systemic inequalities.

Key ThemesKey CharactersDose of American Dream
Societal InjusticeThe Joad FamilyChallenges and Disillusionment
Class StruggleTom JoadStriving for a Better Life
Exploitation of LaborMa JoadSacrifices and Determination
Resilience and StrengthJim CasyFinding Hope Amidst Adversity

The Grapes of Wrath remains a powerful and thought-provoking examination of the American Dream, challenging readers to confront the harsh realities of inequality and to consider the collective responsibility of society in creating a more just and equitable future.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller


The play follows Willy Loman, a salesman in his late fifties, as he tries to achieve the American Dream of wealth and success. Willy is married to his supportive wife, Linda, and they have two sons, Biff and Happy. Throughout the play, Willy’s perception of success and the American Dream is contrasted with the harsh reality of his life.

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Willy believes that success is attainable for anyone who is well-liked and attractive, but he is constantly confronted with his own failures and the changing nature of the American Dream. He is haunted by the idea that he has not lived up to the expectations of his family and society.

The play is structured in a non-linear fashion, with flashbacks and present-day scenes intermingled. This reflects Willy’s deteriorating mental state and his struggle to come to terms with his own failures.

Main Themes

American DreamExplores the idea of the American Dream and its attainability
SacrificeExamines the sacrifices people make in pursuit of success
Reality vs. IllusionContrasts the harsh reality of life with the seductive illusions of success
Generation GapExplores the differing values and aspirations of different generations
MarginalizationLooks at the marginalization of individuals who do not conform to societal expectations

“Death of a Salesman” is a powerful exploration of the American Dream and the challenges and sacrifices people face in pursuit of success. It is a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers and audiences today.

Native Son by Richard Wright

The novel is a powerful critique of the oppressive forces that affected African Americans during this time period. Wright vividly captures the struggles and injustices faced by black people, as well as the societal inequalities that hindered their pursuit of the American Dream.

Bigger Thomas represents the paradox within the American Dream – the desire for success and upward mobility conflicting with the systemic barriers and discrimination faced by African Americans. His experiences highlight the limitations placed on black individuals in a society that values materialism and places little value on their lives.

Native Son puts a spotlight on the harsh realities of racism and poverty, which were often overlooked or ignored by white society. By immersing readers in Bigger’s world, Wright forces them to confront the uncomfortable truths of racial inequality and the struggles that many African Americans faced on a daily basis.

Through the character of Bigger, Wright explores themes such as the desire for freedom, the devastating effects of racism, and the tensions between different racial and cultural groups. The novel also delves into the psychological effects of living in a society that devalues black lives, ultimately leading to Bigger’s tragic downfall.

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Within the novel, Wright uses various literary devices to create a captivating and immersive narrative. From the vivid descriptions of the South Side of Chicago to the rich character development, Native Son provides a compelling glimpse into the lives of its characters.

In summation, Native Son by Richard Wright is a thought-provoking and powerful novel that captures the complexities of the African American experience in America. It serves as a critique of the American Dream, exposing the contradictions and limitations faced by black individuals in their pursuit of success. The novel’s themes and compelling storytelling make it a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the challenges and aspirations of pursuing the American Dream from the perspective of marginalized communities.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The story centers around Sethe, a former slave, and her daughter, Denver, as they navigate a society that is socially and economically stacked against them. Sethe’s past experiences of enslavement and trauma linger heavily, representing the horrors that many African Americans have endured in their quest for freedom.

Morrison’s novel also touches upon the theme of materialism and its impact on the pursuit of the American Dream. The character of Beloved, an ancient and mysterious figure with a haunting past, serves as a symbol of the materialistic desires that can consume individuals, leading them astray from their true aspirations.

The American Dream and Its Differing Interpretations

Beloved explores the varying interpretations of the American Dream through the lens of different characters. Sethe’s longing for freedom and a better life for her children is a revolutionary interpretation of the American Dream, as she aims to break free from the chains of slavery and create her own destiny.

In contrast, characters like Paul D and Ella view the American Dream as a way to obtain material wealth and rise in social status. They are more focused on the market-driven ideals of success, often at the expense of others. This contrasting perspective offers a critique of the materialistic nature of American society and the sacrifices made to achieve it.

Unlocked Secrets and the Consequences of Fear

The theme of secrets and the consequences of fear are central to Beloved. Sethe, haunted by the horrors of her past, has locked away the traumatic experiences she endured. However, the arrival of Beloved forces her to confront these secrets, ultimately leading to a cathartic release and a new understanding of herself.

In a similar vein, the character of Denver represents the fear and isolation that can result from living in the shadow of the past. Her journey throughout the novel is one of self-discovery and the ability to overcome her fears to forge her own path.

Beloved is a powerful exploration of the American Dream and the challenges faced by those seeking success in America. Through Morrison’s eloquent storytelling and richly developed characters, the novel offers a profound insight into the complexities of the human experience.


What are some novels that explore the concept of the American Dream?

Some novels that explore the concept of the American Dream include “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

What is the American Dream and how is it portrayed in literature?

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of their background or social class, can achieve success and prosperity through hard work and determination. In literature, the American Dream is often portrayed as a double-edged sword, with characters striving for success but facing numerous obstacles and disillusionment along the way.

Can you recommend some novels that focus on the challenges of pursuing the American Dream?

Yes, some novels that focus on the challenges of pursuing the American Dream include “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison.

Are there any novels that explore a different perspective on the American Dream?

Yes, there are several novels that explore a different perspective on the American Dream. One example is “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, which explores the experiences and aspirations of a young Latina girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago.

Alex Koliada, PhD

By Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for studying aging, genetics, and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics. His scientific research has been published in the most reputable international magazines. Alex holds a BA in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California, and a TEFL certification from The Boston Language Institute.