Little House on the Prairie and the Loss of the American Dream


Laura Ingalls-Wilder paints a luscious American landscape behind a portrait of a pioneer family, whom leave Wisconsin for the newly acquired Kansas in the American expansion of the west.  In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder takes us on a journey similar to that of the Oregon Trail game we used to play in elementary school.  Derived from personal accounts, most of the details given to the landscapes are beyond breathtaking.  Although Wilder pays great attention to detail with the surroundings the characters inhabit, there is much to be discussed with the overall theme of the book: the American Dream.

Before we dwell further into this theme, we must attempt to define the “American Dream.”  In a definitive sense it is the drive that all citizens of the U.S. should have an equal opportunity to achieve success through a mixture of determination, initiative, and hard work.  In the philosophical sense, the “American Dream” can be debated as to a meaning.  For most it means striving to achieve your dreams.  Striving to reach for the greatest possibilities.  For me it appears to be striving for your dreams whilst deriving a slave mentality to achieve these often high and unachievable fantasies.  For most, it simply means achieving happiness or a peaceful state of existence.  In Wilder’s book, we see when the “American Dream” is in its true definitive sense.  We see this through the work of Pa and Ma when they travel with the girls through a dangerously thin, icy Mississippi River.  We see this when Pa develops the initiative and determination to build a house from the ground up, not simply because he was trying to achieve a sense of independence, but because without such a determination, there would be no shelter for his family; it is all about survival.

Wilder, I believe, is trying to exploit how the American Dream may be a seldom achievement.  Although we are often painted these happy instances juxtaposed with some shaky situations (ex: Ma’s ankle getting sprained by a rolling log during construction of the house), the deeper reading consists of seeing how all of this hard work that Pa and his family are putting in to this dream of a new life, ultimately, through a series of circumstances, he cannot achieve this dream for his family.

Wilder foreshadows the downfall of the American Dream through Pa and his experiences with the ever changing situations of the new America at this time.  By showing us certain instances of Native American interactions (Pa and some of the girls explore and abandoned Indian site and collect beads; or when some come and order Ma to make them cornbread) we are forced to believe that they stand as a symbol of how this American Dream cannot be acquired.  The Native Americans are standing as a living homage to the very thing that prohibits Pa from achieving his dream in the end of the book.  Through the desecration and interactions of this time between the Native Americans and the Federal Government, it is safe to theorize that this story has purely karmic elements interwoven into it.  For example, when Pa is on a hunt and two Native Americans come and order Ma to make them cornbread, Laura contemplates releasing Jack on the men, however she remembers how her Pa forbade her from letting the dog go under any circumstances.  When he tells her she should always obey, after he returns, he warns her of how bad the situation could have turned.  Because of this a karmic effect takes place when the family comes down with Malaria.  When this happens, Jack somehow drags a doctor called “Mr. Tan” to the house (he works with the Indians in the territory) where he helps the family recover from the sickness.

This karmic effect further transgresses into the downfall of the pioneering family.  Pa begins to develop a quick hubris towards the possibility of claiming even newer land; fresh land that has recently been slated of any Indian presence (or so they are told).  Aside from the many wolves in the territory on top of this, the family soon is left to find that they must leave their newer house due to the animosity between the Government and the Native American inhabitants.  Through Pa’s greedy attempts at achieving newer fresh land that is more wild than where they have settled in Kansas, the karma kicks in from the Native Americans again.  By pressing further through the ignorance that the Indians were being forced out of the very land Pa wished to occupy, he was ultimately forced to abandon that prospect.

The American Dream is ill-achieved in Little House on the Prairie, and although we are shown instances and moments when that dream seems to be a reality, we are soon thrust on our heads to see that it was not necessarily true at all.  Although there was all this work and determination from this pioneer family to make this dream work, in the end, nature and the twisted sociopolitical manifestations of man and their effects caused this family’s dream to be shattered.

“So we trudged across the thin veiled ice,

On our way to the place of our new device;

And Pa, who would work with his hands

So Bare,

Never knew, what would come

From the dreams that crawled

Up from his hair.

The sickness came, as well as

With the Red-man’s claims

To wanting slices of corn bread,

We gathered beads,

And got to see,

The Indian’s moccasin treads.

And with the beat and howl

Of the wolf’s scowl,

I saw my Pa’s dream die.

Like the moon when it was full one night

In the stillness of the prairie life…”


2 thoughts on “Little House on the Prairie and the Loss of the American Dream

  1. The failure of the family’s pursuit of the American Dream at the end of the novel draws an interesting commentary upon that topic, and I’m glad you mentioned that. If the Ingalls had simply been able to succeed in this territory, stealing land and destroying culture, I think a much different idea about the American Dream would be promoted in the novel. However, their failure to truly disrupt the Native American’s lives shows the futility of this Dream.


  2. It is interesting to reflect on the changing nature of the American Dream. For some time I had a feeling that the usual meme of home ownership, the ability to support one’s family, pursue one’s interests and retire (that is, not work till you drop) was leaving out an essential part. That part was the idea of security (leaving aside all existential arguments about the nature of that concept). As a modern single mom, part of my idea of “the dream” revolves around not having to live paycheck to paycheck; having the security of thinking that one serious illness won’t blow everything you’ve achieved away. Wilder describes an American Dream more about the ability to reinvent and rebuild; more about resilience. It would be an interesting study to compare these earlier pioneer visions of “the Dream” to what people perceive it to be now.


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