Discuss Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What do they add to the narrative?
Ralph Steadman’s illustrations are an iconic part of the text. They appeared in the first printing of Fear and Loathing in Rolling Stone, and are included in most of the editions that have been printed since then. The drawings reflect Thompson’s surreal tone. Grotesque and often sinister, Steadman's images pair well with Thompson's description of Las Vegas’s amorality and America’s broader cultural malaise.
What is the significance of the newspaper articles that Thompson excerpts in Chapter 9?
Duke himself is a journalist, and he frequently refers to magazine and newspaper articles throughout the text. This technique has two purposes. Firstly, it gives the reader a sense of Duke’s orientation as an intellectual and a literary writer. By his choice of reading, we learn that he follows politics closely and cares deeply about human rights despite his rampant drug use and callous treatment of the people around him. The articles also convey the violence and corruption that plagued American politics and foreign policy during this time, which caused many people to become disaffected with the government.
How does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas portray the 1960s?
Written at the beginning of the 1970s, Fear and Loathing is at once a critique of the ‘60s counterculture and a eulogy for it. Duke looks back fondly on the period’s idealism and openness to new ideas and lifestyles. However, he is also unflinching in acknowledging its naïveté, and admits that the counterculture was ultimately unable to achieve the American Dream.
Describe the book’s portrayal of psychedelic drugs. How does it differ from other texts about drugs written in the same time period?
Psychedelic drugs became immensely popular in the 1960s, and many users publicly advocated for them. The most famous of these "acid gurus" was Dr. Timothy Leary, who argued that LSD offered an essential change in human perspective and should become a normalized part of American society. Duke and his attorney use drugs heavily throughout the narrative, and Duke implies that these substances allow him to cope with certain depressing aspects of American culture. However, he also portrays the downsides of drug use in a graphic way, describing his hallucinations, paranoia, aggression, memory loss, and vicious hangovers.
This novel is subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. What does Thompson have to say about the American Dream? Why is Las Vegas representative of America?
Duke frames his extended trip to Las Vegas as a quest to find the American Dream. He seems to believe that the social upheavals of the 1960s were unsuccessful attempts to figure out what the American Dream might look like in modern society. Therefore, he decides to continue his search in Las Vegas, which he considers to be the American city that comes closest to an ideal capitalistic utopia (or dystopia, depending on one’s perspective). However, Duke is disappointed to find that ultimately, Las Vegas is as morally bankrupt and hostile to the common man as mainstream American culture.
What is the significance of the hitchhiker?
Fear and Loathing is an episodic narrative, and many of the sequences that make up the plot center around the interactions that Duke and his attorney have with strangers. Their interaction with the young hitchhiker is the first of these encounters. Later, Duke spots him again at the rest stop shortly before he takes on the Rolling Stone assignment. The hitchhiker represents the innocence of youth—even those young people who have joined the counterculture. The hitchhiker sees Duke and his attorney as threats, and as a result, his presence holds a mirror up to the men, forcing them to question whether their intentions are good or evil. This may be why they get so agitated after their interactions with him.
Why does Duke fixate on Horatio Alger? How is Alger’s work related to the novel’s themes?
Horatio Alger wrote novels about poor young men working their way to wealth and happiness through the capitalist virtues of hard work and ambition. In the twentieth century, many critics began to deride Alger’s work because it did not account for the vast inequities in America’s culture and economy. Nevertheless, Alger's novels defined the ‘American Dream’ for many readers. Duke, however, does not buy into Alger's conception of the American Dream. Instead, he sees his time in Las Vegas as part of his quest to find out what a contemporary, realistic version of what the American Dream might look like.
Is it more accurate to categorize Fear and Loathing as a novel or as a work of journalism? Explain your reasoning.
It is impossible to know exactly how much of Fear and Loathing is fictionalized. However, it shares many features with traditional works of journalism. Thompson describes real people, places, and events, and the narrative is driven by a critique of American politics, culture, and society. It is a hybrid work that uses the structure of the picaresque novel, but the underlying thematic concerns ultimately make it a work of journalism. Specifically, Fear and Loathing is an example of Gonzo journalism, a genre that Thompson pioneered. Gonzo journalists embedded themselves in the events they were covering and the written results generally straddled the line between fiction and non-fiction.
In the preface, Thompson quotes Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Why do you think Thompson chose this passage to preface his novel?
Duke compares his behavior to that of an animal many times throughout the text (emphasized by Steadman's accompanying images). Indeed, he subtitles the work, “A Journey into the Savage Heart of the American Dream.” He seems to believe that by regressing into a drug-fueled stupor and indulging his most basic instincts, he can escape from the broader social problems that are plaguing American society. Although he is often insensitive to the people he encounters, Duke appears to genuinely care about the rights of people around the world, as evidenced by his reactions to the news. He is easily depressed by social injustices and views drug use and wild behavior as an escape.
Interpret the ‘wave speech’ at the end of Part II, Chapter 8.
One major purpose of Fear and Loathing is to serve as a critical epilogue for the 1960s. In his ‘wave speech’, Duke argues that history is fundamentally unknowable, and that trying to impose a narrative on it will always be problematic. Nevertheless, he suggests that the counterculture finally declined due to complacency. He argues that the movement's leaders were so confident that they were in the right and would succeed in changing American culture that they failed to anticipate obstacles; as a result, the ideology crumbled in the face of opposition, like a wave receding from the shore.