Self-Fashioning: Finding Success in Failure

Self-fashioning is the belief that an individual as the capacity to completely transform themselves in order to achieve a goal. Self-fashioning is a common theme found throughout many works of American literature. It is the method to which countless an individuals mold themselves into perfect beings, fit to achieve whatever goals they desire. The concept of self-fashioning is often criticized for being unrealistic and having few examples of success. However, three works of literature that convey self-fashioning protagonists have helped to keep the idea of self-fashioning at the heart of American culture since the nation’s founding. Those examples are The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ragged Dick, Or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks by Horatio Alger, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. None of the protagonist in those works achieve their ultimate goal, but they do greatly change their lives while striving for those goals.


 Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was published in 1791. Benjamin Franklin is considered to be one of the greatest examples of self-fashioning. His autobiography describes is diligent work ethic and how it helped him to achieve his goals. He also articulates his course of action towards what he calls “moral perfection” (Franklin 300). In order to achieve this good, Franklin attempts to mold himself into the embodiment of his thirteen virtues. By setting thirteen virtues, Franklin creates the mold in which to shape himself in. For example, his first virtue states, “Temperance. Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation” (Franklin 301). In order to achieve this, Franklin tracks his diet over the course of a month and attempts to rule out his gluttony.  He goes on to make attempts for all thirteen of his virtues. Franklin fails to achieve moral perfection but utilizes his more productive state to create many innovations such as bifocals and the modern library.

            Serialized in 1867 and published as a full length novel in 1868, Ragged Dick, Or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks tells the story of a young shoe-shine who pursues wealth through self-fashioning. Like Franklin, Ragged Dick also attempts to greatly change himself in order to achieve his goal of wealth. In order for Franklin to alter himself he created his own guide. However, Mr. Whitney presented Ragged Dick’s ideal template to him. Mr. Whitney informs Ragged Dick that a prerequisite to his success was acquiring “a taste for reading and study” which he pursued during his “leisure hours” in addition to working low-wage jobs (Alger 4). At the end of Alger’s story, Ragged Dick is not a wealthy man. However, he has opened a savings account and made great steps toward improving his work ethic.

            The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, conveys the life of James Gatz, a man who through self-fashioning transforms himself into the wealthy aristocrat, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is ultimately a tragic figure that sacrifices everything in a failed attempt to relive his past love affair with Daisy. Although he fails to accomplish his goal his relentless pursuit of it is perhaps the most compelling example of self-fashioning. James Gatz was raised as a poor farm boy in the Mid-West. Through a regiment that he creates for himself, he is able to overcome his poverty and join the wealthy New York City aristocracy. His regiment included “ris[ing] from bed [at] 6. A.M.” and improving his mind and body through exercise and study (Fitzgerald 173). This was all done on top of working 9 hours each day. Gatsby’s regiment was similar to Franklin’s in that it was self-imposed. It also bared resemblance to Ragged Dick’s because it did not allow for any action that does not lead to self-improvement.  Gatsby ultimately fails to woo Daisy, but achieves great wealth in popularity while striving towards that goal.

            All three works act as powerful examples for the effects that following a life self-fashioning entail. Although Ragged Dick, Franklin, nor Gatsby achieve their goals in their entirety, all three individuals greatly change their lives through self-fashioning. Ragged Dick begins to save up funds in a bank account, Franklin invents a multitude of items that are still used in the modern world, and Gatsby achieves great wealth and popularity for a short time.


2 thoughts on “Self-Fashioning: Finding Success in Failure

  1. I find it interesting that you and I wrote on a very similar topic without each other’s knowledge of doing so. I think it speaks to the topic we wrote on: the notion of self-fashioning is so prominent in Franklin and “The Great Gatsby” it’s almost begging to be written about. Although you chose “Ragged Dick” third text and I chose “Glengarry Glen Ross”– and that is where our analysis diverges: “Although Ragged Dick, Franklin, nor Gatsby achieve their goals in their entirety, all three individuals greatly change their lives through self-fashioning” This statement is on par with the conclusion I drew, however I had not thought about the significance of the individuals’ lives and how self-fashioning affected that.

  2. It’s interesting to consider what is lost when one changes oneself in order to achieve a goal. You don’t address this specifically, but it’s what I thought of as I read about these men working so hard towards these goals that, as you say, they don’t ultimately achieve. They do achieve other things, but is the self they lose, and the punishing effort they go through, worth it? I think Franklin, and even Alger, would say yes, but I often wonder if James Gatz could have been happier if he didn’t try to become Gatsby.

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