Vance identifies himself as a “cultural emigrant” who occupies a unique position, one that allows him to observe both working- and upper-class cultures. This perspective was especially noticeable as he stood in a Walmart not long ago. He was there because he’d volunteered to buy Christmas presents for under-privileged kids. Because he himself was once poor, he found it difficult to actually buy the presents the organization had suggested—they all seemed either useless or patronizing. In the end, he made his own choices about what working-class children might want to find beneath the tree on Christmas morning. He notes that he sometimes resents members of the upper class because they can be elitist. At the same time, he recognizes that he is happier in his current life, and he can’t deny that affluent people tend to have more cohesive families, happier children, and higher church attendance rates. “These people are beating us at our own damned game,” he writes.
It’s significant that Vance writes that the upper class is “beating” hillbillies at their “own damned game.” He has spent the majority of Hillbilly Elegy showing how important family values are to hillbillies, so the fact that he admits defeat in this realm indicates that the other behaviors he’s outlined about hillbilly life—instability, violence, drug abuse, complacency, a lack of personal agency—are so destructive that they impede upon the community’s ability to successfully adhere to their strong family-oriented values.
Recently, Vance took a teenager named Brian out to lunch at a fast-food restaurant. Brian reminds Vance of himself as a fifteen-year-old, especially because his mother is addicted to drugs and his father doesn’t factor into his life. Several months later, Brian’s mother died. “What happens to Brian?” Vance asks. “He has no Mamaw or Papaw, at least not like mine, and […] his hope of a ‘normal life’ evaporated long ago, if it ever existed.” Although Vance isn’t optimistic about Brian’s prospects, he insists that the boy’s only hope “lies with the people around him,” people like Vance and the greater hillbilly community. Brian’s success will ultimately come down to whether or not he can find a support system that promotes the idea of personal agency in the face of hardship. If Brian can “access a church that teaches him lessons of Christian love, family, and purpose,” Vance believes he might attain something like stability and happiness.
Again, Vance highlights how impactful a strong support network can be for a young person struggling to survive poverty in America. He portrays the church as a place that provides stability and “purpose.” His decision to use the word “purpose” in this context indicates his belief that religion can inspire otherwise cynical and hopeless people to cultivate personal agency that will encourage them to work hard to improve their lives rather than accepting defeat and blaming their shortcomings on external factors they can’t control.
Vance closes by describing a recurring dream he’s had since childhood, wherein he’s trapped in a conference room inside a tree house with Lindsay and Mamaw. Suddenly, Bev enters and starts wreaking havoc on the room, upturning furniture and screaming. Mamaw and Lindsay escape through a hole in the floor, but J.D. is left behind. He wakes up just as his mother is about to grab him. He notes that he hadn’t had this dream in a long time until several weeks after graduating from Yale. This time, though, he was the antagonist, and he was chasing around his dog, Casper. Finally, he caught Casper, but instead of hurting him, he looked into the dog’s kind eyes and decided to hug him. He woke up feeling glad that he had controlled his temper. Usha slept peacefully at his side, and when he got up for a glass of water and saw Casper staring at him, he patted him on the head before returning to the comfort of his bed.
Vance’s recurring dream represents the identity crisis a person must go through when climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Having achieved upward mobility, suddenly Vance becomes the antagonist in his own dream, a clear indication that he sees himself as having switched sides. He now regards himself in a negative light because he feels like a traitor, as he has “betrayed” his community by leaving it behind. And although the dream ends with reconciliation, it symbolizes the never-ending emotional and psychological complications a person faces after having been lifted out of poverty. Indeed, Vance frames upward mobility one last time as an endless process of guilt, self-realization, and adaptation.