The American Dream is about becoming your own person – struggling against impossible odds to meet a goal and thrive amongst your peers. Whether it is standing up to your father, or striving to succeed in professional baseball, the American Dream is the chance for a new life, one free of the shackles of the past. Both August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ and William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’ feature protagonists who follow the American Dream, but in vastly different ways – Troy Maxon distinctly fails in his pursuit, while Sartorius Snopes is well on his way to accomplishing it. Both journeys feature a separation from the old, to an extent, though Troy does this by dying, and Sartoris does this by beginning a new life.
In August Wilson’s Fences, we follow Troy Maxon, a disillusioned, bitter middle-aged man who used to play baseball in his prime – however, since he played before the color barrier was broken in major league baseball, there was no chance for him to shine. This has left him a broken shell of a man who clings to what mild successes he had in the past and participates in an extramarital affair which tears his family apart. Troy’s journey is the most transparently indicative of the American Dream – his dream occupation was baseball, a quintessentially American sport (Koprice, 2006). However, due to the times in which he lived, he could not break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, and therefore had no money saved up. Combined with his increasing age and his low job prospects, he has turned into a bitter alcoholic, doing menial work and maintaining a stressful relationship with his family.
In light of the failure of his baseball career, Troy lashes out at the world, thinking it cruel and unfair. He resorts to drinking and has an incredible bitterness towards his status as a black man, thinking it the reason behind his lack of success at life. At the same time, he is prone to exaggeration; he often upscales his own feats, preferring to participate in his own particular version of his life, in which he had a good run before age caught up with him. In addition to that, he actively discourages those he knows from pursuing their own American Dreams – Cory wants to play football when he goes to college, but Troy scolds him, reminding him of his own baseball days. When Lyons wants to be a musician, Troy discourages that as well, not wanting any of his children to take chances as he had. In his eyes, it only invites failure; his view of the American Dream was soured and made cynical by his experiences.
In ‘Barn Burning,’ Faulkner follows young Colonel Sartoris Snopes as a child, who is forced to defend his father Abner from counts of arson, which turn out to be true. Sartoris comes of age over the course of the short story, learning the true nature of his father and discovering how to stand up for himself. The primary conflict of the short story is between Sartoris and his father, an emotionally abusive and violent arsonist. Mr. Snopes is almost a metaphysical presence in the boy’s life, Faulkner presenting him as a cold, calculating, unemotional monster. With this in mind, Sartoris has to choose between the greater good and loyalty to his family, especially as he begins to learn about his father’s arson and other terrible deeds.
When this fateful event happens, Major de Spain, the person whose barn Abner plans to burn, chases after Abner. In the melee, Sarty hears two shots, but does not see who was shot. However, he assumes it is his father; in a fit of pleading sadness, Sarty cries out “He was brave! He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” This was meant to be a testament to his father’s goodness, though Faulkner reveals to us that the man “had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform….going to war…for booty” (Faulkner, 2003). In his heart, Sartoris knew that his father was a bad man, and that it had likely led him to his death. As a result, he makes the choice to just keep walking, and “he did not look back.” This indicates a sense of leaving the past behind – of Abner and his terrible ways – and seeking out a new identity as a new man, free of those shameful connections.
Over the course of the story, Sarty realizes that, in order to stand out on his own, he must turn Abner in and separate himself from his family. From the beginning scene, in which he introduces himself as “Colonel Sartoris Snopes” to the court, the reader can tell that he aims high, holding himself to a higher standard than his father. In order to achieve the kind of success he wants, he cannot follow in his father’s footsteps, Abner wanting to resort to arson to ‘get back’ at the society that has wronged him. Abner’s correlation of family with success is what eventually prompts Sartoris to abandon him at the end – “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you” (Faulkner, 1993). The act of Sartoris going out on his own, minus his family, to make the best of his life is analogous to the American Dream; individuals leaving their father (country) without much to declare, but possessing a strong will, and a knowledge of the mistakes of the past. With that in mind, it is implied that Sartoris will have a better chance at success without Abner (Ford, 1998).
Troy and Sarty have a lot in common – they were both idealistic and hardworking in their youth, and they made dramatic choices in order to pursue their dreams. Their fathers were also both sharecroppers, giving them a lower-class background that they have to desperately struggle to overcome. After substantial abuse from their fathers, both left them to become men on their own, equating separation from the father figure to becoming an individual, able to stand on their own – the American Dream personified. They both longed for responsibility and the chance to prove themselves.
The difference primarily between them is that, while Troy has already fought and lost by the time the story begins, Sarty ends the story with this first taste of freedom and opportunity. It remains to be seen whether or not his future leads to anything substantial (Both Fences and “Barn Burning” tell tales of transition. Sarty starts his life anew, shucking his old life of being the son of a sharecropper with a bad reputation. In the end of Fences, Troy finally faces death, the force of nature he has been avoiding all this time. By releasing himself from this world, he checks out of his own failure of the American Dream, leaving his old life behind and letting go.
In conclusion, what both Troy and Sarty learn about the American Dream is that it takes courage and gumption to attain, but luck is a strong component as well. While Sarty feels the need to betray his father in order to achieve this dream and get out from under that control, Troy cannot manage to overcome the shackles of his own character flaws – womanizing, drinking, etc. As a result, he becomes a bitter old man who failed to achieve the success he felt was entitled to him by the promise of America. Of course, race plays a particularly strong part in this – had Troy been white, he would have most certainly been given a better chance at reaching the Major Leagues.
In both this play and the short story, the chance at the American Dream becomes apparent through striking out on one’s own, without any help or support from a parent figure, particularly a father. The key, however, is to make sure to make the most of what chance you are given – Troy squanders his chance on a failed baseball career, infidelity, and drinking, leaving him a broken shell of a man by the end of his life, ending up just like his father. However, with Sartoris, his journey is just beginning at the end of “Barn Burning” – what he does along the way to fulfill the American Dream is completely ahead of him.
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: The Modern Library, 1993. 1-25. 1962.
Ford, Marilyn Claire. "Narrative legerdemain: Evoking Sarty's future in 'Barn Burning'." Mississippi Quarterly 51.3 (1998): 527. Print.
Koprice, Susan. "Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson's Fences." African American Review 40.2 (2006): 349-358. Print.