American Dream: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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The American Dream is a concept that seems to exist in the minds of most Americans, but there is no single definition for it. At its heart is one thing: money. In both Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, portrayals of the American Dream are given which deviate greatly from the norm. Pulp Fiction represents extreme exploitation of American capitalist ideals, and Fear and Loathing is a reflection on rebellion against American society.

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Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is set in the Underworld of Los Angeles. The characters in Pulp Fiction are not outsiders like Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. They are top players in the criminal world, exploiting the system and taking the ideals of American capitalism to its extreme.

Marsellus Wallace, despite not playing a major role in the film, is by far its most powerful figure. The audience knows very little about him, other than the fact that he is some sort of organized crime boss. Marsellus Wallace is essentially a businessman, a CEO, doing whatever he feels is necessary to maintain his lifestyle and power. He stays in power using violence and intimidation, much like the way American society actually functions. When taken out of an everyday context and put into a criminal one, the murder of other humans for the gain of capital is absolutely absurd, but it happens every single day in the real world and people just accept it. Marsellus and his enforcers, or really any criminal enterprise, is analogous to the way capitalist societies actually function.

In Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke is extremely critical of the society in which he lives. He spends a great deal of the story reminiscing about the hopeful spirit of the 1960s, and hypothesizing all the various ways in which it was killed, or perhaps allowed to die. Duke makes references to Horatio Alger throughout the novel. Alger was a 19th century writer who popularized the rags-to-riches narrative. He wrote several novels about lower-class boys who achieved middle-class comfort through hard work and honesty, a classic version of the American Dream. Rather than gaining outrageous amounts of wealth, the heroes of his stories often live happily ever after in a comfortable, respectable middle-class life. Alger’s optimistic stories did not accurately portray the realities of life for lower-class Americans during the Gilded Age, offering instead a sugar-coated version of social mobility. Duke ironically references Alger several times, viewing him as a symbol of the false American Dream.

Duke believes that the 1960s counterculture movement came close to redefining social norms and power structures, but ultimately failed. One of the main reasons this happened, according to Duke, was because of the “generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel” (Thompson, 178-179). Counterculture leaders became arrogant and complacent, and supporters blindly followed them. The movement whose goal was to question the entirety of the American system had become a bunch of blind followers, believing that whoever cultural icon they revered had the answers. This eventually led to a cultural split within the movement itself, which Duke goes on to discuss, concluding his thoughts with “the energies of The Movement were long since aggressively dissipated by the rush to self-preservation” (Thompson, 180).

Duke and Gonzo go to Las Vegas in attempt to discover a modern version of the American Dream. Duke has no faith in the rags-to-riches capitalist idealism that he constantly ridicules with his ironic references to Horatio Alger. Alger was a 19th century author who popularized the “rags to riches” narrative. He wrote several books about poor boys pulling themselves out of poverty with honesty and hard work, and being rewarded with a family and a place in the middle class.

Instead, his version of the American Dream is associated with the rebellion of the 1960s-it includes personal freedom and equality, not financial gain and material objects. They hope to find a new niche culture to replace the large counterculture movement that died out with the 60s, but leave ultimately disappointed. What Duke finds in Las Vegas is a more twisted version of the American Dream; one in which money is the sole determinant of one’s status. The high-rollers, often conservative white men, have their every whim catered to by staff; and the “undesirables” are kept out to ensure that the big spenders don’t experience any hassles. This creates a society in which the rich continue to grow more rich and powerful, and the poor become more and more disenfranchised.

Duke explains the Las Vegas mentality by making the casino owners sound like mob bosses: “a gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles…and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it” (Thompson, 155). As the rich grow more powerful, their security gets tighter, excluding a larger group of people from the “closed society”.

With the 1970s also came a resurgence of right-wing support from the American public, and backlash against the large counterculture. The War on Drugs began, and downers came in style when Nixon took office. Duke and Gonzo are rebelling against these harsher policies with wilder and more aggressive actions. They’ve abandoned the pacifist, hippie mentality for senseless violence and destruction. They’ve become disillusioned with The Movement of the previous decade, and are lashing out against the increasing disapproval of their lifestyle throughout the country. During the trip, the men display wildly indulgent behavior with regards to drug use and the spending of money. Duke deliberately pushes the concept of consumerism to the extreme to demonstrate the absurdity of the throwaway, materialistic American society.

The first time Duke drops Gonzo off at the airport, he hits the airport souvenir shop and spends the rest of his money on “garbage-complete shit, souvenirs of Las Vegas” (Thompson, 69). Money is treated as if it’s no object, despite the fact that Duke and Gonzo don’t seem to have much more money than what they’re paid for the assignments, because most of the time they’ll simply leave without paying. They ran up a tab of about $29-36 per hour for 48 consecutive hours and sneak out of the hotel without paying it, only to go to another hotel across town and do the same thing there (Thompson, 69).

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American Dream: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (2021, Jun 16). Retrieved from