Winter Dreams” the tension between democratic and aristocratic values in America
“Winter Dreams” depicts the struggles of a middle-class character who is attempting to prove himself ‘worthy’ of a woman of American, blue-blooded aristocracy. At the beginning of the story, the hero Dexter is acting as a caddy at a golf course where most of the patrons are of a far higher social class than the caddies. Dexter, a member of the middle class and the son of a grocer, is offended by the treatment he receives at the hands of a much younger girl and abruptly quits, in an attempt to preserve his dignity. This determination to seem like a member of the elite classes will remain with Dexter for the rest of his life. He is continually torn between the value of democracy and the unpretentiousness of his home and the sort of society he covets, which is of the upper echelons of the American class system.
This determination to seem of a higher class than he is haunts Dexter for most of his life. “Thee quality and the seasonability of these winter dreams varied, but the stuff of them remained. They persuaded Dexter several years later to pass up a business course at the State university — his father, prospering now, would have paid his way — for the precarious advantage of attending an older and more famous university in the East, where he was bothered by his scanty funds.” Dexter is determined to seem as if he is of ‘a better sort,’ and he manages to prove himself as a businessman, investing in a chain of laundries after college. However, this line of work is almost as tainted with the hint of lower-class striving as the bootlegging of another famous Fitzgerald hero, Jay Gatsby. When Dexter falls in love with Judy Jones, a tan, athletic woman who is loved by members of the elite, Dexter’s desire to get ahead and his desire for her beauty are fused into one. Gazing at his rivals he muses: “He knew the sort of men they were — the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger. Yet in acknowledging to himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang.” Dexter knows he has qualities of hard work and cunning that these blue bloods lack and he has values of perseverance they do not possess, that enables him to get ahead. But for all of his contempt for their idleness, he still wishes he was like them, not like himself.
The themes of “Winter Dreams” are relevant today because striving and social climbing remains part of American life. The contradictions between the values of being a ‘self-made person’ on one hand, and desiring to mimic the lifestyle of old money can be seen on every college campus today. Many wealthier students who do not have to take out student loans have the luxury of studying subjects that do not automatically prepare them for a career. Poorer students must worry about employment after college, and getting a marketable degree. Many of them study similar subjects as their richer friends, such as English and Art History, and find themselves upon graduating with little hope of a job in an anemic market.
The idea of being able to be ‘whatever you want to be’ and ‘follow your heart’ is preached to all students, but its actual execution is far different, and existing wealth clearly makes life easier for many people. “Like many middle-class families, Cortney Munna and her mother began the college selection process with a grim determination. They would do whatever they could to get Cortney into the best possible college, and they maintained a blind faith that the investment would be worth it” (Lieber 2010:1). However, with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies from NYU and $100,000 in debt, this Cortney is making $2,300 a month. Unlike her wealthier friends, she was forced to take out loans to keep up appearances of the lifestyle of a hip student at a prestigious school who was majoring in something that interested her, rather than a practical degree. She did not want to go to a lesser, cheaper school, but is now paying a heavy price for her aspirations — aspirations that the ideal of the American Dream encouraged her to fulfill. Her NYU degree was like Judy Jones for Dexter — something that extracted too high a price for her to ‘pay.’ Unless she makes a fortune like Dexter, she is unlikely to pay off her student loans in the future. And even if she did, she would never have the resume someone ‘to the manor born’ who never had to worry about making a living, versus ‘finding herself’ after college through travel and unpaid internships.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Full e-text available at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/gatsby/chapter5.html
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” Full e-text available at http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/winterd/winter.html
Lieber, Ron. “Placing the blame as students are mired in debt.” The New York Times.
29 May 2010. [13 Jul 2012] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/your-money/student-loans/29money.html?pagewanted=all
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