A white picket fence and 2.5 children is the standard model of the American dream. It is an often quoted ideal and the literal dream of many people in the country. However; there is a problem in the definition of this dream in that the very nature of such an ideal makes it impossible to define when or if that dream has been attained. This is a question that plagues many when searching for the picturesque “American Dream”. It also leads many to struggle for unattainable goals and not realize the reality that they are living in while trying to achieve an alternate version of their own circumstances in what they perceive to be a better reality. This desire to escape one’s reality is brought to attention by Alexis de Toqueville in his literary work, Democracy in America. He highlights these tendencies and describes their source as rooted in the opportunities that are afforded to Americans (De Toqueville, Democracy in America). Another critique of the American ideal of escapism comes into play in The Truman Show, a film directed by Dennis Gassner that looks into the life of a man, Truman, who is living what many would assume to be the definition of the American dream, but when he discovers it to be fake does everything in his power to escape. The Truman Show embodies Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that the American Dream inspires its people to become restless in their own realities.
One of the primary ironies exhibited in the Truman Show is the dichotomy between the ways the respective forms of escapism present themselves in each Truman and his loyal audience. For Truman, the desire to- and method of- escape are quite apparent, he is literally trapped in his created dome of reality, which once discovered to be artificial, he is desperate to leave. For those who follow Truman’s every move through the show, the drama of the escape is lacking, but it is every bit as real. The people who watch The Truman Show experience an escape from their own life into Truman’s. They partake in his day-to-day trials, achievements, and milestones as though these events were present in their own lives. The realities of many of these people are likely very similar to Truman, who (disregarding his massive celebrity status which is unknown to him) lives a rather standard middle class American life; a picturesque vision of a classic and attainable “American Dream”. However, here the truths of De Toqueville’s Democracy in America can be seen rather apparently. De Toqueville spends quite some time discussing the cause behind this seemingly illogical mentality that he states as “the singular agitation displayed by so many happy men in the very midst of their abundance (De Toqueville, 512).”
One of the primary means of escape that is picked up on by both De Toqueville and The Truman Show is materialism. In the film, the people of Truman’s world seek to obtain the idyllic life as created in the show by purchasing the items from the show. There are times when a character in Truman’s life will blatantly advertise a product to the audience of the show, and it is revealed that there is a catalog where everything from the hot chocolate to the houses themselves shown in Truman’s world can be purchased by viewers. These viewers are using the material items in Truman’s world in an attempt to attain what they perceive to be the “American Dream” as they see it on television. Truman, on the other hand, knows nothing of how his world is depicted to be perfect and lives in it’s reality unaware of the apparent glamor. This is in stark contrast to Truman’s millions of viewers, who though aware of their own situations, still strive to find themselves in a replica of Truman’s life.
De Toqueville comments on the effects of people being aware of their station in life, as well as where they fall among those around them. De Toqueville states, “It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans will pursue well-being and how they show themselves continually tormented by not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it (De Toqueville 511).” This statement is true of many individuals. When men find success, it tends not to be greeted with celebration except for a brief time, after which it becomes a question of how the individual could have obtained that particular level of success more quickly or efficiently. Truman does not suffer from this human side effect of prosperity. De Toqueville compares the people of “the Old World” to those living in America with highly applicable parallels to those that can be made between Truman and his audience (511). De Toqueville cites such Old World individuals to have “a serene countenance” and “often let a playful humor appear (512).” This is reminiscent of Truman. He is living what outwardly would appear to be a near perfect example of the classical American dream, except with out the 2.5 kids; however, it is marred by the fact that his reality has in actuality been fabricated by a television producer. The ignorance of that fact by Truman allows him to carry on his life in blissful unknowing until things related to the television show begin to literally and figuratively fall apart around him. When he does discover the truth of his situation, he suddenly feels an intense desire to get out of the artificial creation of perfection that has been crafted for him and define his own self. This attitude of adventure is also observed by De Toqueville in Americans of his century. He notes the ambitions of all the young men who purchase huge tracts of land simply to go explore and tame it (De Toqueville). Truman displays such desires from a very young age, even remarking to an elementary school teacher that he wanted to be an explorer, a statement that the actress gave a very quick and decisive counterargument to (Gassner, The Truman Show). The innate desire to explore ingrained in Truman by his American identity, as distorted as his is, lasts with him into adulthood where he consistently tries to escape his world to Fiji.
A final agreement between De Toqueville and Gassner is explained simply by De Toqueville. He states that the level of ambition seen in Americans for well being in all forms- material, social, spiritual- is “as old as the world: what is new is to see a whole people show it (De Toqueville, 512).” In The Truman Show, this cultural yearning for a single ideal is embodied by the audience of the show by their absorption in the programming, many viewers having followed it for its full 30-year lifetime. The ambition of the people has pivoted to achieving the American dream they watch on a daily basis as opposed to seeking their own perspective and goals in relation to an individual dream. This phenomenon is seen frequently in cultures that tend toward celebrity idolization as a form of materialism. The reality of the American dream for any given individual is outwardly expressed by the material possessions that can be observed by outsiders to that person’s reality. This leads to a situation as seen in The Truman Show in which people use access to the physical attributes or possessions of an idolized individual in trying to further their quest for the American dream. The problem with this mentality is that the individual to whom the culture is aspiring to attain their reality is often not in a comparably better state than the individuals who seek to become like them. This is highly apparent in Truman’s situation, as while millions of people are near literally buying the shirt off his back, he is trying everything he can think of to escape the reality he is in (Gassner). This dichotomy highlights a key principal evident in both De Toqueville and Gassner’s works; if the American dream is not defined individually, then people will constantly be searching for a way to attain what others define that dream to be, leading to an ever present desire to escape their own reality. This escapist mentality is almost a part of the fabric of the dream itself. It encourages the people who look to the American dream for inspiration to continue to reach ever higher in search for the next level of success, despite the fact that the state they are seeking to obtain is full of the same restlessness.