Behold the Dreamers is the novel by novice author Imbolo Mbue. The story revolves around Jonga and Edwards families that are both affected by the 2008 economic crisis. Jende and Neni Jonga are immigrants from Cameroon who desperately try to get American citizenship and stay in the country. Employed by Cindy and Clark Edwards, Jonas soon discover that working hard is not enough to secure their dreams. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates that this dream is not always attainable, and even those who manage to realize it may lose everything they have struggled for unexpectedly. This essay will argue that the idea of the American Dream is an illusion and that working hard towards one’s vision of prosperity and happiness does not always bring the desired results. The thesis will be supported by one of the book’s experiences, Jende Jonga.
Jende’s Struggle for the American Dream
Jende and Neni Jonga are the book’s protagonists, and all the events in it are described from their points of view. They are a family from Cameroon and move to the United States to build a better life. Both of them are captivated by the notion of the American Dream, believing that if they work hard, they will get the same opportunities as everyone else in the country. Although they are a family, their versions of the dream differ. Jende’s vision of happiness and fulfillment is purely materialistic as he views making money as one of the most important things in the world. This idea stems from his upbringing in a low-income family and the fact that in Cameroon, people have to be born into a wealthy family to succeed in the world, whereas in America, one can prosper without family support (Mbue, 2016). Neni’s dream to become a pharmacist also comes from her upbringing in Cameroon, where pharmacists are respected. Thus, the husband and wife bring their Cameroon dreams to America because, in their mind, it is the one country where they can come true.
Jende genuinely believes in the idea of the American Dream. He moves to America to support his family and give them a better life. However, he knows nothing about the country beyond his cousin’s accounts and that idea. The hero is confident that working hard and being a conscientious worker is enough to achieve his dream and he is not prepared for the reality of working in America. Jende is petrified by the process of an interview for a high-paying job. “His ability to impress a man he had never met before” is all he can think about (Mbue, 2016, p. 3). This quote illustrates how nervous and how unfamiliar with the process of job interviews in the United States Jende is. It is difficult for him to understand why he needs to impress his potential employer or why he needs to wear a suit and has his CV with him. Jende thinks that he can secure a job if he assures Mr. Edwards that he is a good worker. In this case, his naivety and eagerness help him as Clark Edwards appreciates the latter in his employees.
Jende’s idealism that he shows consistently at the beginning of the book slowly vanishes due to his experiences in the country. In the United States, immigrants need to prove themselves to everyone else constantly. Jende is sincerely surprised that he has to lie on his asylum application to stay in the country and provide evidence to support that lie (Mbue, 2016). He is also shocked when he learns that telling that lie was in vain. In his worldview, America is a country of equal opportunities for everyone, so he should not have to lie to obtain citizenship. Lying to authorities is something he associates with his old life in Cameroon, where he had to deceive the government to get an American visa. In addition, his friends do not have the same problems. They receive green cards quickly and can afford impressive houses, while Jende struggles significantly with his asylum application process. The longer Jende stays in the country without asylum documents, and the more he has to lie to authorities, the greater his disillusionment with the American Dream becomes.
Furthermore, the random nature of success in America is something Jende struggles to comprehend. The green card lottery is an excellent example of this. Becoming citizens is the ultimate goal for Jende and his family. He views it as his only chance to earn money and support his wife and children. For Jende, the green card holders are “conquerors with pockets full of dollars and photos of a happy life” (Mbue, 2016, p. 15). It can be argued that gaining citizenship in the United States is the ultimate American Dream for him and many other immigrants. However, it does not matter how hard he works and how deserving he is of that opportunity. His cousin Winston wins the green card lottery randomly and succeeds in the country, while his friends receive help from family or become legal citizens through marriage. Meanwhile, Jende works tirelessly towards this goal and fails. That does not mean that Winston and his friends from home do not work hard, but unlike Jende, they were luckier. Over time he learns that success is often unpredictable and arbitrary.
Lying is another recurring theme in Jende’s journey in America. He has to lie to leave Cameroon, invent a story of his prosecution to apply for asylum, and avoid telling Cindy Edwards the truth about her husband. Jende has a very straightforward understanding of what it means to be a conscientious worker, and, as far as he is concerned, he is one. In his capacity as a chauffeur for the Edwards family, he often has to lie and cover for his boss. This part of his job is not easy for him as he considers himself an honest man. He is also bound by a non-disclosure agreement and cannot tell anyone about what his employer is doing or with whom he is meeting. Jende views it as his duty to follow that agreement, but as Cindy Edwards grows more paranoid and jealous, he begins to question that responsibility. Telling her about Clark’s affairs would violate his contract and results in its termination. Although he decides to lie to Cindy to keep his job, he loses it as she fires him out of spite.
The idea that everyone is equal and can have the same opportunities is further destroyed when Jende is fired. In the story, it is emphasized by Barack Obama becoming president. At the beginning of the book, Jende is fascinated with Obama and talks about him with Clark Edwards, as he is impressed by “a black man with no father or mother, trying to be president over a country” (Mbue, 2016, p. 30). He compares his experience with that of Obama as they are both of African heritage and do not have a privileged background. As the latter strives to become the president, Jende’s tries to become a citizen, provide for his family, and ensure that his children have opportunities he did not have as a child. By the end of the book, Obama is elected president, but Jende loses his job because he refused to spy on Clark Edwards for his wife. His American Dream is shattered despite all his hard work, and he and his family have to return to Cameroon. Thus, Jende learns that even in America, people do not have the same opportunities.
In conclusion, Behold the Dreamers tells a compelling story about the struggles of immigrants in the United States and their gradual disillusionment with the American Dream. Jende Jonga arrives in the country with a strong belief that he can have the same opportunities as everyone else. However, he realizes that being hardworking and loyal to his employer does not necessarily mean that his dream will be fulfilled. Jende discovers that most people get opportunities at random, and they are often taken away by chance. Lying also plays a role in his growing cynicism towards the alluring concepts. Jende finds himself lying to the government and his employers and eventually loses his job because of his deceit of Cindy Edwards. Overall, the book shows that the American Dream concept is an illusion and cannot always be reached by those who work strenuously towards it.
Mbue, I. (2016). Behold the dreamers. Harper Collins Publishers.