Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Study Guide

Hunter S. Thompson

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Themes


The American Dream

In numerous interviews Hunter Thompson has discussed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a story about the death of the American dream. Traditionally, the American dream is about economic success. In this traditional version of the American dream a person can achieve material success through hard work and determination. This version of the American dream revolves around concepts such as home ownership, career advancement, good salary, nice car, happy family, and other physical items, but these trappings of the American dream are always earned never given.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson never provides a clear definition of what the American dream means to him, but he provides clues. The text makes multiple allusions to Horatio Alger, a late 19th-century writer who popularized the "rags to riches" story central to the traditional concept of the American dream. Raoul Duke compares himself to Alger on multiple occasions, which represents his attempt to redefine the American dream through his writing as well as Thompson's own ambition to rise from his humble beginnings and find literary fame and success. Thompson's idea of the American dream is also shaped by his lifelong fascination with F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, which details the rise of Jay Gatsby from humble beginnings to fabulous wealth. The Great Gatsby, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reveals the flaws at the heart of the American dream. Despite his fabulous wealth, Gatsby cannot achieve acceptance into higher social circles, which ultimately costs him the woman he loves and his own life. In The Great Gatsby those who have achieved the social and material wealth of the American dream find the lives of others generally disposable, just as the denizens view life and personal safety disposable when such lives and safety stand in the way of profit.

Yet the American dream also extends beyond material wealth. In Part 1, Chapter 8, Thompson as Duke reflects on his time in San Francisco in the 1960s. He says, "San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of." He writes about freedom of movement and of action. He and his compatriots are infused with a positive energy in their resistance to outdated and harmful ideas of dominance and oppression that have governed America for centuries, particularly a propensity for war and racism. The "careless" nature of the characters in The Great Gatsby—meaning they literally lack care for other people—has dominated American life for decades, but the movements of the 1960s seek to change those attitudes. In the 1960s they're fighting to end the Vietnam War and bring civil rights to everyone, but these movements are about bringing large and fundamental changes to American culture. Thompson's version of the American dream is not based on material prosperity, but on ideals of personal freedom and connection between all people.

The Las Vegas version of the American dream fits neither the traditional economic model nor Thompson's model. The American dream in Las Vegas is about achieving material wealth through luck and chance rather than work. Thompson describes hollow-eyed gamblers at the Mint's casino tables in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. This version of the American dream is one of greed that ends in desperation. He recounts the story of a former neighbor who won big in Reno for several weeks and was tempted back to Reno with promises of more luxury and the chance to win more money. He returned deeply in debt, which caused him to lose his store and take out a loan to appease violent casino henchmen. The Reno and Las Vegas version of the American dream takes away material success and causes personal injury. Beneath the glittering spectacle and promise of easy money is an undercurrent of malice. Las Vegas punishes losers, and the story of Thompson's neighbor indicates the system is set up to make people lose, sooner or later. The obsession with winning and material gain for a few—the casino owners—also destroys any chance at the personal freedom or connection with other people emblematic of Thompson's 1960s American dream. You can't exercise personal freedom in an environment where everyone is watching and waiting to punish erratic behavior that may disrupt the gaming—at least not without persistent fear of being caught. You can't connect with other human beings if you're focused only on the cards or the dice. For Thompson the focus on suppressing anything unusual or different, the focus on winning at all costs, and the persistent danger of losing everything makes Las Vegas a microcosm of all America in the early 1970s, and the versions of the American dream that celebrated liberty and determination are dead.

Politics and Culture Clash

Hunter Thompson is well known as a political writer, and political commentary is evident underneath the cultural commentary in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson makes multiple negative references to President Richard Nixon and his vice-president, Spiro Agnew. On one occasion Raoul Duke works himself into an anxious frenzy while taking adrenochrome (oxidized adrenaline) and watching the president on the news saying the word "sacrifice" over and over. Dr. Gonzo urges him to "stay relaxed," then changes the TV channel. The use of the word "sacrifice" calls forth images of the lives sacrificed to the Vietnam War as well as the sacrifices of personal freedom that lead Thompson to call President Nixon a "bastard." In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the cultural and political are inseparable. The end of 1960s idealism gives way to the greed and hostility he believes defines Las Vegas culture, and by proxy current American culture. He says Nixon would have made a "perfect mayor" for Las Vegas because he embodies all of Las Vegas's worst tendencies: greed at the expense of vulnerable and ill-informed people, a focus on strict rules of behavior, harsh punishment for those who don't fit into society or break those rules. He writes that "it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon." He is referring to the popularity of tranquilizers, very different from the psychedelic drugs of the 1960s, designed to expand consciousness. Tranquilizers calm people, keep them sedate, and make them less aware of the stresses unfolding around them. Thompson's connection between the Nixon administration and the popularity of downers indicates a need in the population to numb themselves against the anxieties and oppression of this political rule, or a political culture that encourages them to do so.

Occasionally Raoul Duke peruses newspaper headlines, all of which serve as a reminder of a U. S. government at war, hostile to those who oppose that war and who seek to escape or rebel against that reality. While he waits for the valet to bring him the Great Red Shark at the Mint, he sees a headline connecting the war with drug use and deaths. His attendance at the district attorneys' conference emphasizes the misunderstanding of drug culture in political and law-enforcement circles. There is no policy approach that seeks to understand or rehabilitate drug users. Instead they are demonized and subject to ever-harsher punishment. Certainly drug users participate in criminal behavior, and Duke and Dr. Gonzo are no exception. Some of their actions are heinous and may deserve punishment. Even Duke is aware that some of their actions, such as Dr. Gonzo's dalliance with Lucy, are empirically wrong. However, their drug use and other behavior is linked to rebellion against the same powers that seek to squash their nonconformist behavior. Political policy doesn't allow for nonconformity, so people like Duke and Dr. Gonzo act out in often violent ways. The idealist nonconformity and rule-breaking of the 1960s becomes much more sinister and destructive as those 1960s idealists find themselves disillusioned and alienated under the thumb of a restrictive political climate in the 1970s.

Drug Use and Effects

Thompson opens Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson, a 16-century English writer and academic: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." The quote appears before the title page for Part One and provides an overview of the purpose driving most of the novel's action. Duke and Dr. Gonzo spend their entire time in Las Vegas under the influence of various chemicals, and their behavior becomes increasingly beastly, starting with hallucinations and awkward encounters with desk clerks and devolving to Dr. Gonzo's barely consensual encounter with a young woman named Lucy and a later violent assault on an elderly housekeeper. Taken in the context of Dr. Johnson's quote, the drug-fueled mayhem takes on the tone of an escape from the mundane pains of life in a time and place—Las Vegas in the early 1970s—where the idealism and hope for a better America seems to have been lost. Duke's wistful reflection about San Francisco in the 1960s in Part 1, Chapter 8, speaks to this pain of loss, of having a glimpsed a better world that never comes to fruition. Las Vegas is the "main nerve" of that pain, representing the materialism and naked self-interest Duke once hoped the country would overcome. The drug use and beastly behavior create an alternate version of reality where these pains are less apparent.

However, in practical use, Duke seems to have a love-hate relationship with drugs. He has several terrible experiences while sampling from his enormous stash in the car, starting with his hallucination of giant bats surrounding the car in the desert in the book's opening pages. On LSD he sees terrifying reptiles in a hotel bar. When he takes adrenochrome, he is convinced he is dying. Despite Thompson's real-life drug use, these scenes and others do not represent a wholesale endorsement of drug use. At the same time, these experiences do nothing to put Duke off using drugs and mixing them in new and exciting ways. Duke's continued drug use represents a scathing indictment on the American culture and his time in Las Vegas. As bad as the drug trips might get, they are generally preferable to the reality surrounding him. Only while Duke attends the district attorneys' conference does he recognize the drug experience would make this reality even worse than it already is. It is telling, especially with Dr. Johnson's words in mind, that as bad as Duke's drug experiences tend to be, he still finds them preferable to experiencing the unfiltered reality of Las Vegas.

Dr. Gonzo's drug use is more problematic. He consistently turns violent while under the influence of drugs, first menacing Duke in the car with his gun, then with a knife later that night in the hotel. Duke facilitates and abets Dr. Gonzo's violent activities, for example covering for Dr. Gonzo and impersonating a police officer when Dr. Gonzo attacks a housekeeper who is only doing her job. Duke insists that Dr. Gonzo send Lucy away, but her safety is a concern only in the context of keeping Duke and Dr. Gonzo out of prison. Duke has some violent impulses, such as his thoughts about killing the hitchhiker in Part 1, Chapter 1—which he may or may not say out loud. He makes a scene waving a sharp object around the press table when he checks in to cover the Mint 400, but in general Duke's violent impulses make their way into action less frequently than Dr. Gonzo's. Under the influence of drugs, Dr. Gonzo truly makes a beast of himself, and the fact that he requires Duke's intervention to keep him out of prison (or worse), shows how fully he loses himself to his altered consciousness. As if to prove Dr. Johnson's point, Dr. Gonzo seldom feels any guilt or anxiety about the consequences of his actions. Duke doesn't go so far as Dr. Gonzo toward making a beast of himself, so he moves from mild anxiety to sweating paranoia, depending on how far under the influence he is at a given time. Only at the end of the novel, as he returns to Denver and takes several amyls, does Duke finally seem to lose "the pain of being a man" and become "totally confident."

On a social and political level, Dr. Gonzo's erratic behavior provides a counterpoint to Duke's descriptions of large-scale violence perpetrated by Las Vegas casino managers in their pursuit of profit. Ongoing references to the Vietnam War provide still a global-scale counterpoint to the actions of two drug-addled misfits bumbling through Las Vegas with occasional flare-ups. Duke and Dr. Gonzo's behavior doesn't adhere to any traditional moral code, but neither do the activities of authorities such as casino managers, police officers, and the U.S. government. Duke and Dr. Gonzo don't operate out of a sense of malice so much as the paranoia and fear that comes with their skewed version of reality and inhibition of logical thinking. The same cannot be said for the casino thugs who beat up people for losing money they don't have or for a government bombing villagers. Mainstream society condemns Duke and Dr. Gonzo for their actions because their drug use keeps them from the mainstream idea of normal behavior, but mainstream society is content to ignore or condone the violent acts of those who play within the rules they have made.

Questions for Themes

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I would like help in revising my short essay. I would like to know what I can do to bring up my grade. This is what the essay topic is based on The promise of the American Dream is a consistent concep
Need help Looking for three Good quotes that help support the American Dream concept in the Great Gatsby. 1 from Gatsby, 1 from Tom and one from Daisy. Also need help explaining each one slightly.
Watch & Read https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFY9w9n4at8 --------- "Death of a Salesman" After you have seen one version of the play, please post to let us know which version you watched, and how you
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