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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sophie Ratcliffe

‘You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself’: the best descriptions of ambition in literature

Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth in the National Theatre’s 2018 production.
Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth in the National Theatre’s 2018 production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

From Iago to Icarus, Gollum to Gru, cautionary tales abound when it comes to ambition. Don’t push too far, as Carol Decker so loudly put it, in her Frankenstein-inspired belter China in Your Hand: “You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself.”

Ambitious women get a particularly bad rap from writers. Lady Macbeth with her bold and bloody hostess plans is the messiest example, but the warnings can set in much earlier in life. Anne of Green Gables and Little Women’s Jo must temper their dreams with hard work, self-denial, and – crucially – a realistic grasp of the free-market economy. Meanwhile, Noel Streatfeild’s Pauline wins her way to Hollywood in Ballet Shoes, not just because she slam-dunks her Shakespeare audition, but because she’s been blessed with a “pretty” face and “a New Frock” from Harrods.

Talent in most stories counts for little without luck and some start-up funds. Which is why Hardy’s deeply unlucky Jude, with his “gigantic” thwarted ambition, has our sympathy, even when he seems less than likable. After all, as Thackeray’s legendary hustler Becky Sharp puts it in Vanity Fair, it “isn’t difficult” to be nice or good if you’re pocketing “£5,000 a year”.

James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley and Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in the 2004 film adaptation of Vanity Fair.
James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley and Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in the 2004 film adaptation of Vanity Fair. Photograph: Focus Features/Sportsphoto/Allstar

For some writers, ambition must be kept hidden. Margo Jefferson records, in her memoir Negroland, how she learned to conform to the strict, unspoken codes of upper-class Black Chicago society: “I was taught to avoid showing off.” And the right to speak of dreams, or even to have time to dream, is something we may easily take for granted, as a novelist such as Flaubert recognises. His fictional satire L’Éducation Sentimentale tells of two privileged college boys, Frédéric and Deslauriers, indulging in plans for “what they would do later”:

they would set out on a long voyage … and, as a relaxation from their labours, they would have love-affairs with princesses in boudoirs lined with satin, or dazzling orgies with famous courtesans.

The Flaubertian strains continue in Patrick Gale’s wonderful coming-of-age tale, Take Nothing With You. Eustace, Gale’s hero, aspires to become a professional cellist, covertly “practising before and after school”. Eventually, Eustace confides in his best friend Vernon – “a superb keeper of secrets” – who harbours “his own ambition to write a magnificent and devastating novel about the state of the nation,” while planning “to die at 32, so as to die younger than either Mozart or Jesus.”

Gale’s novel, as it unfolds, suggests how we might learn to gauge fierce ambition against something softer and smaller. For while we may be struck by memoirs of odds overcome – from Tara Westover to Barack Obama – we are equally drawn to ambition in miniature – the everyday striving, and seemingly ordinary achievements, through which we may glimpse what Larkin terms an “enthralled/ Catching of happiness”.

Such scaled-back ambition is well caught in Metamorphosis, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s memoir about living with MS. “Always,” he writes at his book’s close, “there is the potential for something new to go wrong, or something old to deteriorate,” but, on waking one morning, he decides to risk it and “go for a walk”. There’s a knowing irony to his chosen route march – “the top of a nearby hill, a little over a mile away” looking over the “lead domes” and “thick fingers of honey-coloured stone” of Oxford – for it is a view that conjures up ambition on a big canvas. Here are the dreaming spires, the “city of aquatint” in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It would, Douglas-Fairhurst writes, “be an easy stroll for most people, but for me it will be a little voyage into the unknown. I’m not entirely confident that I’ll make it there and back without my legs buckling underneath me, but there’s only one way to find out.” It’s a fitting end to this beautiful, formally ambitious book. Opening his front door, he steps “into the bright morning sunshine”.

• This article was amended on 7 September 2023. In an earlier version the quote from Ballet Shoes was incorrect.

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