Mary Johnson

Document Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

John Dudley


This project focuses on how John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) portray individuals’ interaction with the dominant fiction of the American Dream. At the time of these novels’ publication, the ideology of the American Dream was a prominent feature of America’s culture, encouraging individuals that success is possible if they work hard enough. Steinbeck and Smith challenge this concept as their novels depict scenarios which thwart individual’s opportunities at success and characters whose hard work goes unnoticed. Specifically, I explore how the trauma and adversities characters experience in childhood and adolescence affect their ability to use agency and succeed at Kaja Silverman’s concept of the dominant fiction. Using trauma theory to explore characters’ behavior allows for a complete understanding of how their past and present conditions affect characters’ actions. Accepting the complexity of trauma’s influence is essential to understand that achieving the dominant fiction is not dictated by hard work alone, but by a plethora of circumstances, many of which the individual cannot control. These novels explore how trauma survivors must work through their traumas in order to exercise agency over their lives. I argue that while each novel ends with characters who are embarking on their final stretch of the American Dream, both Steinbeck and Smith’s novels critique the dream’s accessibility by showing individuals whose personal lives prevent them from participating in the dream. While the novels end on a positive note, the vast duration of the novels’ exposition and rising action focus on the adversities characters face and their inability to become part of the dominant fiction despite their determination. I assert that while at face value these novels appear support the viability of the American Dream, they unearth the deep-seated inequalities and injustices which prevent at-risk individuals from breaking free from their societal constraints.

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


American Dream, Betty Smith, Dominant Fiction, John Steinbeck, Trauma, Upward Mobility

Number of Pages



University of South Dakota



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