Thomas Sutpen, Jay Gatsby and “The American Dream”

Faulkner & Fitzgerald 1925 (Gatsby’s pub.)

I’ve found an MA thesis online, written in 1977, that discusses specifically what I brought up in a general way at our first meeting:  that the concept of The American Dream is as important to Faulkner’s portrait of Thomas Sutpen, as it is to Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby. Sharon Shreve Strohmaier, a graduate student at Drake University, begins her thesis with an Abstract that I summarize below (using a good deal of her own language)

Strohmaier’s thesis discusses the ways that both Faulkner’s Sutpen and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby engage in “fatal pursuit[s] of the American dream,” which she defines a “goal of personal success … sought in a state of unlimited possibility.” The “dreamer” believes the success can be reached “by faithful and arduous pursuit” and that it will lead to social acceptance and even admiration.

Strohmaier draws the following parallels between the lives of Sutpen and Gatsby.
  • They share insignificant beginnings and lack of family ties
  • Neither has formal education and both rely on self-education
  • They create their own personalities through their own efforts (self-definition instead of social prescription)
  • They act with great discipline and have a clear timetable for achieving their dream
  • The accumulation of wealth is a secondary but integral part of their dream
  • Both use morally and legally suspect methods to obtain that wealth
  • Sutpen and Gatsby achieve initial (if qualified) success after they become wealthy
  • But both also wish to gain a measure of respectability in their very different societies. They never succeed and remain outsiders
  • In the end, both characters fail utterly to achieve their dreams, in part because of a trait I would call naivete – but which Strohmaier describes as their “over-simplification of reality [that leads them] to ill-founded assumptions of success”
Strohmaier concludes that pursuit of the American dream is often fatal for the dreamer “who fails to recognize the difference between the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the material” and who ignores the responsibilities at the core of human relationships. Strohmaier points to the great irony of the American Dream (especially as portrayed in literature and the arts): often the most a dreamer can accomplish is “to fail magnificently.”

I would add to this commentary that in classic American literature and popular myth the impossibility of realizing the American Dream has been portrayed in heroic (or mock heroic) terms, and has long been described as “an essential” part of American history and “the American character.” Since the shattering of old norms in intellectual discourse beginning in the late 20th century, the concept of “The American Dream” has become an object of ridicule or worse. But it seems to me that a good deal of American history, literature and culture cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the old Dream’s power to stimulate the imagination of Americans with diverse histories and backgrounds.  The Dream survived for many generations in spite of its inherent ambiguities and the continuing uncertainty about whether its ideals were achievable and noble … or whether they were pernicious illusions.

PDF Downloads:

Strohmaier, Abstract of MA thesis (1977) (1 page)

Strohmaier’s full thesis (below) doesn’t present the most sophisticated analysis nor does she write particularly well – but I find many of her points interesting, her quotations from sources are good (if, of course, dated) … and anyone who studied American Studies, history, or literature in the 1960’s and 70’s might enjoy rediscovering some of the old ideas and interpretations – for all that later scholarship has passed them by. The thesis a fairly quick, easy read for anyone interested, but it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.

An American Dream – The Fatal Gambit for Sutpen and Gatsby (Strohmaier MA thesis 1977)  (118 [typescript] pages)

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