Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sutpen and Gatsby: The Tragedy of Self-made Men

This is a comparison of Jay Gatsby, from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Thomas Sutpen from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!.

Sutpen and Gatsby: The Tragedy of Self-made Men

The characters of Thomas Sutpen and Jay Gatsby are both examples of the American myth of the self-made man. Though their stories and their characters differ somewhat, the motif of the determined individual pulling himself up from impoverished obscurity and rising to the highest levels of society is common to both. Both novels suggest that attempting to create one’s own identity according to some kind of plan or design that is based on an idealization can only result in disillusionment and eventual collapse when the designs are corrupted by reality.

In both Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we are introduced to characters who feel compelled to “pass” in a higher level of the social hierarchy than the one in which they were born. Both Gatsby and Sutpen believe that the key to achieving this goal is money, and both are successful in obtaining it. The difference between what drives the two characters is that while Gatsby seeks to fulfill some kind of romantic illusion, Sutpen is motivated by vengeance for being slighted as a child. Gatsby’s motivation is to fulfill some idealized version of social grace by entering Daisy’s world through the back door. Sutpen’s is to defeat those who snubbed him by insuring that his own son will never receive the same slight.

The history of the characters is similar. Both come from poor rural backgrounds from which they escaped at an early age in order to pursue some dream or design. Both possess the ability to focus on their design to the exclusion of any other considerations. This ability is manifested in both characters as a kind of innoncence as to the possibility of failure. However, while Gatsby gives the general impression of being a decent, if not entirely honest fellow, Sutpen exudes an aura of evil. Part of this difference comes from his motivations, and part comes from his methods. While Gatsby seems to be content by doing self-improvement exercises and ingratiating himself to people who can help him like Wolfshiem and Dan Cody, Sutpen uses animal agression against people like the schoolmaster, who told him of the riches of the Indies, and the rebellious slaves in Haiti. Also, Gatsby is portrayed as someone who is desperately attempting to conform to some kind of ideal of social grace--that is, he tries to put on a great show of manners in regards to his reintroduction to Daisy, and in his “legitimate” relationships in general. In contrast, Sutpen makes no attempt to adopt the social amenities of upper class society. He still brawls with the slaves and doesn’t even attempt to conceal his contempt for women and people who have “black blood” in their veins, as evidenced by his treatment of Miss Rosa and his first wife and son.

Both characters started out near the bottom of the social hierarchy. They were about as low as a white person could be in their respective time periods. Both rose to the highest levels, at least financially, before coming to their tragic ends. Sutpen’s trajectory was more obtuse than Gatsby’s. He rose more slowly, achieved more, and then began his descent before being murdered. Gatsby, on the other hand rose quickly, peaked early, and was snuffed out before he had a chance to actually establish himself in society. Much of this difference is a function of the time period covered in the novels, that of Absalom being decades while Gatsby takes place in a matter of years.

In both novels, unforeseen events took place that interrupted the designs of the characters. In Gatsby’s case, it was not so much the car accident that destroyed his plans as it was the simple fact that his image of Daisy was inaccurate. Though she was unhappy with Tom, she had no intention of leaving him for Gatsby. It is also doubtful that she had been waiting for Gatsby as he imagined. Gatsby never had the chance to find this out for sure, but Nick saw it. If he hadn’t been killed, Gatsby would have seen it soon enough. His carefully constructed identity would have crumbled when its purpose for being suddenly ceased to exist. Jay Gatsby’s plan allowed for no such contingencies. Even had he lived, the Jay Gatsby that Jimmy Gatz created would no longer have existed.

An integral part of Gatsby’s design was his pursuit of Daisy. His entire identity was created in order to impress her. Having known Daisy for only a brief period of time followed by an abrupt parting, most of Gatsby’s image of her had to be manufactured. His image of her was that she never loved anyone but him and that she only married Tom because Gatsby never returned. In his self-created scheme of things, Gatsby believed that all he had to do was show up and impress Daisy with the fact that he was wealthy enough to support her, and she would leave Tom. He had invested so much in his constructed reality that it was impossible for him not only to deal with any divergence from his plan, but even to accept that such a divergence was possible.

In Sutpen’s case his design fails because he is unwilling to accept any reality that falls short of the one he has created in his mind. Even though no one would ever have known about his first wife’s ancestry he finds it necessary to renounce her and their son. It is at this point that his plan begins to fall apart. Later on this first mistake becomes compounded with the arrival of Bon on the scene. Still Sutpen is unable to allow for this variation from his design and so refuses to aknowledge Bon’s relation to him, even in such a way that only the two of them would know. It is this rigid adherance to the predetermined course of events as set forward by his design that causes the collapse of his dreams.

Originally, Sutpen’s goal was to somehow defeat the caste system that allowed him to be slighted. The only way he knew how to beat someone was by making the playing field even. Following the rifle analogy, he set out to obtain what his betters had in order to overcome them. What he didn’t understand, and what his design did not account for, was that by obtaining all the wealth and power of his enemies, he also became one of them. Without realizing it, he adopted the very values that had caused him to be insulted in the first place, namely racism and classism. These values were what prevented him from being able to accept Bon and his mother.

Faulkner and Fitzgerald both deal with the concept of identity and how it is constructed. In creating the characters of Sutpen and Gatsby they adhere to the modernist idea that identity is in some way the sum of many different and constantly shifting perspectives. What sets up these two characters as being tragic is their own view of themselves and the selves they try to project on the rest of the world. They are both limited in their view of themselves because they can only see themselves in light of their particular design. These designs are flawed because they attempt to control the characters’ worlds in ways that are beyond human ability. They, like everyone else, are subject to the arbitrariness of life, yet their plans do not allow for such arbitrariness. When something unplanned for comes along, they lack the imagination and the flexibility to incorporate it into their design and consequently the design falls apart. In short, since identity is necessarily and inescapably something more than a single-minded idealization, the dedication to a rigid plan for the creation of one’s own identity is a course that is doomed to failure.

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