Themes in Literature

Literary Success


What does it mean to be successful in life? Many people would equate success with wealth, but some wealthy people are profoundly unhappy. Others would equate success with power or fame, which are equally problematic. If we assume that being successful is about attaining goals, few would pursue goals that were geared toward making them unhappy. It seems, then, that success might best be equated with, or at least linked to, happiness. Indeed, when we look at differing accounts of the “successful” over time, we see that one thing they have in common, whether we are discussing a simple, yeoman farmer from the 18th century, or the 20thcentury steel baron Andrew Carnegie, is that they were pursuing their dreams in order that they might achieve excellence and be fulfilled. In other words, they were tying success to personal happiness, not to wealth, power, or fame. Those things might come as accessories to success, but they are not the primary motivators. Literature is full of characters for whom those empty dreams are the driving forces, and those characters usually meet bad ends. In order to see the truly “successful” among the pantheon of literary characters, we must first explore exactly what we mean by success. Although thoughts on success and its nature are quite common in literature, often the characters who embody it or seek it are deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. The philosopher Tom Morris might argue that this is because these characters are confusing true success with something else, something destructive in its emptiness. In his 1994 book True Success, Morris argues that we misconceive the meaning of success, confusing it with fame or with power or, most often, with wealth. But, he says, we can all think of wealthy people who are unhappy or who did nothing on their own to attain their wealth. Both of these qualifications seem to go against the basic definition of success: obtaining the object of one’s desire. In Silas Marner, by George Eliot, Silas hoards the gold he earns, becoming very wealthy but very unhappy. It is not until he has a fulfilling purpose in life, raising Eppie, that he can truly be called successful. The extreme unhappiness and dissatisfaction of the wealthy Sutpen family from William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! demonstrates how inherited wealth does not automatically bring success. Thomas Sutpen is a self-made man whose outward appearance might be the picture of success. But although he is wealthy and powerful, he not only guarantees his own unhappiness by denouncing his part-black son but also passes that unhappiness on to his children. He ends his life an alcoholic, murdered by the grandfather of his 15-year-old mistress and largely forgotten by his community. Like wealth, fame and power do not guarantee success either. Both can be fleeting, and if our only end is to achieve them, not to find fulfillment in the pursuits that led to the fame and the power, then we are doomed to fail. In our tabloid rich society, it is not difficult to think of people whom power and fame had seemingly put on top of the world, but who quickly descended to the depths of failure. In lieu of the dubious pursuits of wealth, fame, and power, Morris posits a new conception of success, one requiring that we incorporate certain conditions into our daily lives. He says, “Our idea of success should be more closely related to our ideas of excellence and fulfillment. And to our idea of happiness” (32).

He claims that to truly be successful, we must have a clear idea of what we are seeking; we must be confident and consistent, committed to the pursuit and the concentration it takes; and finally, and perhaps most interestingly in light of literature, we must have character of “high quality” and the capacity to enjoy our success. Morris contends here that if “success” is pursued for immoral means or if the spoils of success are the only motivator, then that is not “true success.” Morris is (understandably) working against the popular 20th-century concept of success. Interestingly, definitions of success prior to this period were more in line with Morris’s thinking. Rex Burns, in Success in America, explores older ideas of success, focusing on the yeoman farmer, the epitome of success in the 18th century. He explains that under this conception, there were three major elements in order to claim success: competence, independence, and morality. This farmer needed not wealth, and certainly not fame or power, to be considered successful. In fact, Jeffrey Decker explains in Made in America that in the 18th and 19th centuries, success was “character based.” There was an explicit link between productive enterprise and religious faith that came to be known as the “Protestant work ethic,” which informs the stories of Horatio Alger, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These stories, sometimes called “rags to riches” or “luck and pluck” stories, usually involve a poor adolescent boy who manages to rise to prosperity on the strength of his character and determination. Decker believes that these stories allowed turn of the century readers “an outlet for reinforcing their belief in the residual concept of character based success” (2). American literature from this period and into the 20th century is full of examples of characters who, because they lack character, cannot be truly successful. Besides the aforementioned Thomas Sutpen, there is Jay Gatsby, the title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby earns his wealth through questionable associations with unscrupulous people, all so that he may win the love of Daisy Buchanan. Even were he to achieve this goal, he would not be truly successful. He would be unable to enjoy his achievement, because he showed poor character in its pursuit, and because he is denying his true identity in the entire enterprise. Like Sutpen, Gatsby ends up a victim of murder. Willy Loman, from Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, is an excellent example of a character who strives his whole life for success, but because he does not really understand what success is, he is doomed to never achieve it.

Willy wants only to be “well-liked” and takes no joy from the job he thinks will help him to achieve this end. He interacts with his family only in the context of how successful he is, and since this existence is a lie, his relationships with them are empty. Like Willy, Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run desperately bemoans the life he sees as mundane and stagnant, thinking that his only successes in life are behind him, with the glory of his high school basketball career. Because he puts no focus, concentration, or passion into his current life, he cannot feel, even to mourn the death of his baby daughter. On the other hand, a character such as Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, despite a distinct lack of wealth, power, and social status, ends the narrative very happy and, because she achieves her aims, successful. Jo wants to be an intellectually independent woman, and in 19th-century New England, this was not a common or easily attained goal. She rejects the love of Laurie because, despite her affection for him, she knows he will want a traditional marriage. She moves to New York to pursue her love of writing and gain independence, and there she meets her true mate, Professor Bhaer, who understands and respects her forthright, determined nature. She opens a school, marries Bhaer, and ends the novel the epitome of success. While success as a theme is common in all American literature, it is perhaps most common in African-American literature. This is perhaps because, as Audrey Edwards and Craig K. Polite argue, for black Americans, success is “a relative” phenomenon, “measured as much by what has been overcome as by what has been achieved” (3). Often systematically denied a level playing field, such as equal educations, equal access to certain careers, and equal opportunities to live and work in desirable places, African Americans have been forced to define success differently than whites. In addition, the specter of failure has been so internalized among African Americans that many may feel that they are inferior and cannot truly compete in the white world. Thus, success and its pursuit are frequently explored in texts by African-American writers. Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery presents one view of African-African success, albeit a controversial one. Washington believed blacks’ road to success was to be found in learning to work hard, have good manners, and participate in the rank and file of the working class. At the Tuskegee Institute, a school he founded, all students had to participate in menial chores as well as their studies.

Although many students rebelled, Washington was resolute in his view that blacks had to build a modest foundation before they could reach for the heights of success. Ralph Kabnis, in Jean Toomer’s Cane, represents the rebellious students who did not agree with Washington’s plan. Educated in the North, he does not anticipate that despite his credentials and social standing, he will be forced to act deferential around all whites, even those who are less educated than he and who hold a less prestigious place in society. Like many African Americans both before him and after him, he finds that he must begin in a metaphorical hole and dig his way out just to get the respect any human being deserves.

Characters like Ralph chafe against Washington’s idea that blacks should prove their worth to whites. Instead, they want that worth to be assumed from the beginning.Feeling worthy of success in this way is, perhaps, a criterion for achieving it. The underlying reason why many literary characters who are focused on wealth, power, and fame fail spectacularly in these pursuits is because there is no intrinsic value in their quest. When we strive for wealth just for wealth’s sake, and not because what we are doing to achieve it fulfills us, we are doomed to fail.

See also Angelou, Maya: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Dos Passos, John: U.S.A. trilogy; Franklin, Benjamin: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The; Morrison, Toni: Tar Baby; Mukherjee, Bharati: Middleman and Other Stories, The; Naipaul, V. S.: House for Mr. Biswas, A; Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row; Wilde, Oscar: Importance of Being Ernest; The.

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