The Dark Side of Desire

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SWBAT distinguish and contrast multiple versions of the American Dream through written response and an examination of text to consider whether pursuit of the American Dream always leads to glory.

Big Idea

Ambition clouds moral aptitude leading down a darkened path.


This lesson provides a great segue into introducing students to the idea that the American Dream is not always a positive concept.  It is sometimes grounded in greed and prejudice. 

I begin the lesson with a nonfiction text, an excerpt from "Letters from an American Farmer" by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur.  Crevecoeur is a French immigrant who offers a unique perspective of what it is like to be an American from the immigrant point of view.  He describes the hardship that he overcame in his native country and his joy in accepting the freedoms of his adopted country.  This text is a very positive portrayal of what it is to be an American. 

Sometimes, I choose to contrast two opposing sides to an issue in order to emphasize one side. Crevecoeur's uplifting portrayal of his experiences provides a stark contrast to the American-born Chester Gillette, who becomes consumed with his pursuit of wealth and women, as depicted in the article, "The Murder of Grace Brown."

I chose this text because it involves the juxtaposition of affluence and poverty.  This theme is prevalent in The Great Gatsby and encapsulated in Daisy's exclamation that "poor boys don't marry rich girls."

Introduction: What does it mean to be American?

30 minutes

The purpose of this assignment is to identify reasons why the first wave of immigrants came to the United States.  It also is an activity that requires students to perform a close reading of the text and subsequently ground their answers with examples from the text. Students will recognize the struggles and harsh living conditions that prompted immigrants to leave their native countries for America.  Students will consider how America is different from other countries and how America became a symbol of opportunity for many.

However, first to acquaint students to the immigrant experience, I play a YouTube video documenting the living conditions of immigrants in American cities.  I follow the presentation with the following questions to be asked in a whole-class discussion: 

What was life like for an immigrant in America?

How did their life compare to life in their native country?

How did the advent of the motion picture industry make the world "a bit smaller?"

I want students to see that life in America was not easy, but in many cases, it was worse overseas.  Also, the video explains how the movies introduced America and Europe to a variety of different cultures.

The class will then read in a round-robin format (students will take turns) an excerpt from "Letters from an American Farmer" by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur.  Following the passage, students will find examples from the text which define the definition of an American, as described by Crevecoeur.  In the last part of the text, Crevecoeur discusses his definition of an American.  Typically, students recognize that being an American to an immigrant possesses a much different perspective.  Students see the limitations imposed on impoverished people by tyrannical despots; something they do not see in America.  Where students see opportunity in America, Crevecoeur talks about limitations and oppression.

Using a Venn Diagram handout, students will summarize the descriptions Crevecoeur includes about life in Europe and his depiction of life in America.  After students examine their findings, they will write a short reflection to the following question, which will be written on the board: "How would you classify life in Europe versus life in America?"

 Students will share their findings in a whole-class discussion. 


American Tragedy

30 minutes

This section is designed to demonstrate to students how sometimes the pursuit of the American Dream and blind ambition can motivate an individual to make bad decisions.  I bring students to the computer lab and ask them to read the article "An American Tragedy: The Murder of Grace Brown."  I have included the URL below and there is an attached question sheet.

Students will answer questions per the attached handout which asks them to consider Chester Gillette, the accused in the article, in terms of Crevecoeur's definition of an American.  The question handout asks students to consider whether they believe Chester Gillette to be a true American as described by Crevecoeur.  Students will also assess the dark side of pursuing the American Dream and whether blind ambition runs contrary to what it means to be an American.


Ticket to Leave

10 minutes

This section may be used as a homework assignment.  Students are formed into groups and use an Internet search to find two modern day versions of the Chester Gillette/Grace Brown case.  (Examples would be Scott Peterson, Jodi Arias, etc.) Students will describe the case, the crime that was committed, how the pursuit of the American Dream prompted the individual to commit the crime, and the results.  Students will present their findings to the class and the sites references.

This activity will later tie into The Great Gatsby when they see how far Gatsby is willing to go to win over the girl of his dreams.  Although he does not commit murder, in a sense, Gatsby kills his true identity and replaces it with a phony facade