The United States was founded on the ideals of opportunity, equality, and progress. The progression from settlement to revolution to expansion in America presents a powerful picture of America in 1929. The history of America presented to us here is shown to create a romantic and promising environment that contrasts with the rest of the story, as the American dream and its promise of opportunity crumbles in the wake of the great depression. The ideas of dreams verses reality and outward appearance verses internal turmoil are woven into the stories of the girl, the boy, and the elderly gentlemen as they navigate the depression and the failing American dream.
A ship sailing towards a star on the horizon, patriots fighting for freedom, the building of railroads, towns and cities. These images all represent parts of the American dream. The history of America is about building up, expanding westward, and living in a reality where a group of patriots can defeat the most powerful empire in the world. From the perspective of Lynd Ward’s characters, they can go nowhere but up. The snapshots of American history that Lynd Ward presents are not only to show us the environment of prosperity in the 20s, but the mentality of the characters that live there. As the boy and girl have their fortunes told, they see their dreams coming true in the crystal ball. The hope they have for the future is shown as magical, far removed from the reality they will have to face. By showing us their view of the world and the country they live in, we are able to better see the emotion and turmoil they face when the 30s hit. We are able to see that the depression was not only a difficult time, but was a complete surprise. The ideals of the American dream were a reality to them, and they truly believed all they wanted was attainable.
The story of the boy and the girl represents the idea of dreams verses reality that is introduced with the short but powerful history of the United States. Nothing shows this contrast more than their trip to the carnival together. The happiness and dreamlike quality to their excursion as they ride the rides, dance, and fall in love shows their innocence just before the novel dives deep into the depression a few images later. The trip is cut short by a rainstorm and a vivid image of lightning cutting across the sky. The final image of the 1929 section and their trip to the carnival shows the boy and girl under cover from the rain as everyone scrambles to escape. The metaphor presented in this image gives a preview of the next section, as everyone will try to escape or hide from the struggles of poverty. The real contrast with the carnival scene, however, is the final image of the novel: the boy scrapes together money to take his fiancée back to the carnival, but the stark contrast in the mood shows the change the depression has brought down upon the couple. The American dream is dead, and the couple rides a roller coaster together, holding onto each other. The emotion in the boy’s face shows only fear as he seems to look back on their time together and realize that while their dreams once seemed not only attainable but inevitable, only uncertainty remains.
While the history of America was representative of the disillusionment of the American dream, it also played into the theme of appearance verses reality. The success and progress of the United States was reaching its tipping point as the thirties approached, despite the fact that the roaring twenties kept up all appearances. This idea is best embodied by the elderly gentleman, who runs a cutthroat business as he cuts pay, leaves many jobless, and crosses ethical lines to control his employees and the union they form. His success in business, however, starkly contrasts with the reality of his physical health. Over the year during which his part of the story takes place, the man inches closer and closer to his death. He relies completely on his caretaker, and despite his outward appearances as a power-hungry CEO, he is a lonely man, weakening as the year goes on and as his company struggles in the depression. The contrast can be seen most clearly if we look at the images in the months of July and August. In July, the old man fights the union: he calls in the government, setting off a violent series of images as the union clashes with armed guards. The power position this old man holds is clearly demonstrated, in a very vivid way. August, however, sets a completely different tone. In every image we see how weak this man has become. He falls and cannot rise without help. He is bedridden. The final image of the month features an hourglass, as if counting down to his death.
The American dream is presented to the reader in a series of images showing the United States’ proud and patriotic history. Over the course of the story, we see that this dream serves as a foil for the depression. The progress of the United States is brought to a halt, and the characters’ hopeful dreams for the future are left behind as they try to hold their lives together and remain as they once were.