Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The American Dream/Horatio Alger (Motif)

Horatio Alger and the American Dream form an ongoing motif throughout Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Alger was a 19th century American novelist who is best known for his stories about young boys working hard to lift themselves out of poverty. His work is often associated with the concept of the 'American Dream' because his heroes are rewarded for their hard work with happy nuclear families and a solid place in the middle class.

In the 20th century, many scholars argued that Alger’s stories glossed over the dramatic economic inequalities of Gilded-Age America. Critics also accused him of equating personal fulfillment with material wealth (Weiss). Only two years before Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing, the scholar Richard Weiss published The American Myth of Success, a scathing critique of the notion that hard work is all that is necessary to succeed in America. In his study, Weiss referred extensively to Alger’s work, claiming that the novelist is “identified with the golden age of American plutocracy” (48). With this in mind, Duke's references to Alger and the American Dream are heavily ironic.

When he receives the call for the assignment in Las Vegas, Duke exclaims to his attorney, "This is the American Dream in action! We'd be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end" (11). However, he later indicates how the pathway to the American Dream has become convoluted as of late, wondering, "but what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas" (12). Duke's references to Alger are pointedly sarcastic; at the end of the novel, he describes himself as "a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger ... a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident" (204). Ultimately, this motif underlines Duke's countless observations about how diseased American society has become.

Spiro Agnew (Symbol)

Spiro Agnew was the Greek-American Vice President who served under Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. During his tenure, Agnew took a vocal stance against liberals and opponents of the Vietnam War. He also publicly denounced the American press for overanalyzing president Nixon's words, calling journalists "the unelected elite" and accusing broadcasters of being "hostile critics." Two years after Fear and Loathing was published, Spiro Agnew became the first American VP to resign in disgrace under charges of corruption and tax evasion; Nixon followed suit less than a year after that.

In Fear and Loathing, Duke often invokes Agnew in an ironic manner, aligning Nixon's VP with images of superficiality, greed, and antagonistic authority figures. He describes the Mint Hotel as "Bob Hope's turf. Frank Sinatra's. Spiro Agnew's. The lobby fairly reeked of high-grade formica and plastic palm trees - it was clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders" (44). He also uses Agnew to illustrate his conflicting feelings about being a member of the press at the end of the novel, saying, "Agnew was right. The press is a gang of cruel f**gots" (200).

The News (Motif)

Thompson often uses the news as a way to remind both the reader and his characters about what is happening in the world beyond Duke's drug-addled escapist narrative. Even Duke admits that he is looking for "news of the outside world, but ... the newspaper racks made a bad joke of that notion... They don't need the [Los Angeles] Times in Vegas. No news is good news (157)."

Over the course of the novel, the news motif serves to underline Duke's point about the dissolution of the truth-seeking counterculture and the way the "news" perpetuates certain myths about drug use and the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Duke's cynical perspective serves to make an otherwise unpredictable character a little more sympathetic; he uses drugs to escape from the sobering state of the world around him.

At the end of the novel, though, Duke (who is finally coming down from his high) becomes frustrated with the fact that he hasn't gotten much done during his trip to Vegas. He expresses his disappointment in himself by lambasting his own profession, wondering, "Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f**koffs and misfits..." (200).

The Military (Motif)

Duke professes a staunchly anti-military viewpoint over the course of the novel. The American government sold the public on the Vietnam War by claiming to be safeguarding the world against the threat of communism, while many decried the fact that America's vibrant youth was being sacrificed for no other reason than the selfishness and greed of those in power. Duke points out the parallel between the American military and the decadence of Vegas: "A gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles ... and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the power to protect it" (156).

Duke has his first actual run-in with the military in Chapter 5, when he talks to a group of veterans who have come to watch the Mint 400. Duke is deeply disturbed by the patriotic iconography on their dune-buggy, but pretends to share their cultural conservatism in order to send them on a wild goose chase after the journalist Peter Davis. Later, he reminisces about the mid-1960s in San Francisco, where "there was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... and that, I think, was the handle-- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that..." (68). Here, the "military sense" means pursuing a goal without understanding the moral implications; many young GIs who fought in Vietnam did not understand what they were fighting for, a confusion only compounded by the fact that they rarely glimpsed the Viet Cong's guerrilla armies.

Finally, when Duke and his attorney are posing as narcs, they tell a naive cop from Georgia, "the [criminal] that took the [young girl's] head was about six-seven and about three hundred pounds. He was packing two Lugers, and the others had M-16s. They were all veterans..." (147). Here, Duke makes a connection between drug addiction and military service; although Duke is speaking in jest, it is true that many GIs who fought in Vietnam faced immense psychological damage that prevented them from functioning in civilian life. In this way, Duke references this problem to point out the hypocrisy of the cops and other authority figures attempting to punish drug users while still perpetuating the war.

Bob Dylan/Robert Zimmerman (Symbol)

Robert Zimmerman is musician Bob Dylan's given name. Duke frequently uses Dylan as a symbol of the counterculture, even though Dylan himself rejected the label, "the voice of a generation." In the 1960s, Dylan's music was an important chronicle of social unrest, and whether or not he liked it, he became a polarizing figure.

For example, when the conservative former astronaut is speaking out against immigration, Duke retaliates by giving his name as "Bob Zimmerman" and insulting "goddamn bonehead Polacks," to which the astronaut screams, "...You're all shit! You don't represent this country"(192). Later, at the end of his trip, Duke muses,"The only song I might have been able to relate to, at that point, was 'Mister Tambourine Man'" (197). Critics frequently interpret the surrealistic lyrics of that particular song to be alluding to a man trying to find his direction after sleepless nights and rampant psychedelic drug use.