When one talks about the 1920’s, which is known to be the Jazz Age, excess, corruption, and the American Dream are just a few topics which are relevant to this time period. Two examples would be Anzia Yezierska’s short story The Lost ‘Beautifulness’, and Raoul Walsh’s movie The Roaring Twenties, in which both works demonstrate how the American Dream leads to disillusionment. The short story is about a poor Russian family that immigrates to America. The son is gone to war in France, and both parents have to work hard to earn their money. Hanneh’s job is to wash linens for a rich woman named Mrs. Preston. In comparison, Walsh’s movie is about a soldier named Eddie Bartlett, who, after losing his job having come back from war, gets involved in the bootlegging business in order to achieve the American Dream.
First off, the short story and the movie both reveal the disillusionment of achieving the American Dream through material possessions
. For instance, Hanneh’s dream is to have a white kitchen that looks like her rich employer’s, Mrs. Preston. Therefore, the poor lady spends all her money (which she spent a long time saving), to buy the necessary paint to redo her kitchen. Hanneh says that "[w]hen I see myself around the house how I fixed it up with my own hands, I forget I’m only a nobody. It makes me feel I’m also a person like Mrs. Preston. It lifts me with high thoughts" (“The Lost ‘Beautifulness’”113). She makes her landlord’s apartment look like it’s a rich house,
but in reality, she still belongs to the lower class people and she is still struggling, living in poverty. Moreover, in The Roaring Twenties
, Eddie Bartlett becomes a bootlegger, and his main concern is to make as much money as possible by manufacturing illegal bottles of alcohol. He believes that by doing so, he will be able to achieve the American Dream. Eddie also believes that he can win over his sweet heart Jean by buying her all sorts of material things. He spoils her with presents, and tells her: “[y]ou want the Brooklyn Bridge, all you got to do is ask for it.” (The Roaring Twenties) However, in the end, it is true love that wins over material possessions, since Lloyd is the man who wins over Jean’s heart. Hanneh and Eddie are both disillusioned that material possessions is a key to happiness and the American Dream.
In addition, there is also the disillusionment of achieving the American Dream by changing social classes. In ‘The Lost “Beautifulness” ’, once the main character Hanneh paints her kitchen white like the elite people, she feels as if she fits in with the upper class. The poor Russian lady says that “Mrs. Preston make me feel like I’m alike her” (“The Lost ‘Beautifulness’”113). However, the reader realizes that there is a distinct social difference between Hanneh and Mrs. Preston. In a certain way, Hanneh’s employer is oppressing her just like most of the people from the higher class who dominate over the poor. At one point in the story, Mrs. Preston tells Hanneh that she is “an artist- a laundress artist” (“The Lost ‘Beautifulness’”114) as if washing linen, which is usually a job for the lower class people, is supposed to be the poor lady’s specialty, and that this is what she is good at doing. Also, in The Roaring Twenties, once Eddie gets into the bootlegging business, he opts to be “a big shot”, and believes that he will achieve the American Dream through money and power. However, once the stock market crashes, Eddie becomes a cab driver, and his dream ultimately destroys him at the end of the movie, where his rival’s gunmen shoots him and dies at the footsteps of a church in Panama’s arms. Both Eddie and Hanneh who are trying to move up in social rank demonstrate how the American Dream leads to destruction and disillusionment.
Finally, both stories demonstrate the disillusionment that war can transform someone into a hero. In Yezierska’s short story, Hanneh believes that Aby will come back as a big hero from war. While waiting for some meat at the butcher-shop, Hanneh’s neighbors gossip about her, and one of them states that “[s]he thinks her son is the only one soldier by the American Army (“The Lost ‘Beautifulness’”113). However, in reality, lots of other men are fighting in the war just like Aby. Furthermore, in The Roaring Twenties, Eddie Bartlett expects to be greeted as a great hero coming back from war, but soon realizes that the world has moved on since he left for war. As he expects to return to his old job where he worked as an auto-mechanic in a garage, Eddie finds out that his boss does not need him anymore because someone else has replaced him. His ex-employer tells him: “I haven't anything for you” and that “Times have changed.” Also, in a voice-over narration concerning the beginning of the 1920’s, the narrator reveals that “the people of New York are tiring of the constant triumphal procession of returning troops” (The Roaring Twenties), and that many things are changing from women, prohibition, to the cost of living where prices have gone up. In both stories, the two men come home to nothing. Eddie is left unemployed, and Aby comes back to homeless parents.
In the end, the American Dream destroys the main characters in both stories because they are disillusioned. In the short story, Hanneh’s vision of accomplishing the American dream takes a completely different turn at the end of the story, where she gets evicted from her apartment. Again, in The Roaring Twenties, Eddie Bartlett loses everything in the end: his status, wealth, and Jean. He is literally destroyed when he gets shot at the end of the movie, and tumbles down the church steps. The hope of both characters who strive to attain the American Dream through material possessions and social status is ultimately shattered, and they are left with less than what they had in the beginning.
Bread Givers. Anzia Yezierska
. Persea Books, Inc. New York, New York. 1999.
The Roaring Twenties. Dir. Raoul Walsh. Warner Brothers, 1939.