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The Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Ambition is a double-edged sword. One rewards the fierce determination needed to complete a daunting task, but is also wary of the greed and arrogance that can result from ambition. Ambition itself is neither a good nor bad trait, but it is a human one. Over time, the word “ambition” has taken on a much more negative connotation as in recent history, greedy imperialists, corrupt elites, and materialistic capitalists have used their ambition to feed their desire for honor, popularity, and power at the expense of the wellbeing of others. It is perhaps because of these human qualities—to desire love, honor, knowledge, and power—and similarities to modern society that the theme of ambition is prevalent in literature. Personal narratives like On Seeing England for the First Time, plays such as Pygmalion, and Rushdie’s Ruby Slippers in East, West highlight the consequences of ambition gone awry. Greed, which makes characters oblivious to human compassion and humility, results in destructive actions and consequences on personal and global levels.
Colonial British literature reflects the broad and pervasive impact of imperialistic greed on British culture. Through ideals such as the “white man’s burden” and proud exclamations that “the sun never sets on the British empire.” On the flip side, the literature of the subjugated cultures, such as Jamaica Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, attempt to show the narrow-minded public to the horror of the imperialist machine as it seizes their economic resources, land, and cultural identity. British superiority over natives forced Kincaid to think that she “was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up” (Kincaid 374) because she was not English. In doing so, she unknowingly played into the imperialist ideology, designed to designate the colonized as “others,” and thus to ignore the reality of the colonized culture and people. Colonists saw Antigua, Kincaid’s hometown, only as economically profitable and a way to gain resources that were unavailable in Europe. Kincaid angrily describes the greed which blinded them to the hegemony and dominance they instilled over her community. The British set up restrictions that prevented the native economies from operating on their own; natives would produce the raw material for British manufacturing, but their competition with British trade was eliminated as natives were forced to only buy British goods. Kincaid’s daily can of cocoa, box of oats, her shoes, socks, and undergarments, the family’s car, and even her satin ribbons were manufactured in England. Her father buys into the Western styles of dress and behavior after being compelled to “wear the wrong hat for hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 366) to appear more English. The brown felt hat, which symbolizes the complete British dominance over Antiguan economy and culture, becomes so associated with the father’s character that it becomes the first thing he puts on and the last thing he takes off. This reinforced brainwashing in her personal life and in her education, in which she is told to draw a map of England one every test, creates an outsider complex where Kincaid is forced to idolize English culture but never partake in it: “England is a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it” (Kincaid 365). Her cultural identity and value is carelessly replaced in colonization. Everything in her life, including herself, is “Made in England” (Kincaid 365), with “the exceptions being the sea, the sky, and the air we breathe” (Kincaid 366). Western greed for raw material and ambition to industrialize their countries imposed culture and identity on colonies, destroying the “reality” of the place and substituting it with an idea.
Similarly, colonial ideology is also seen to have an impact on class relations, where the lower classes are internal foreigners, colonized by upper classes, who employ strategies of imperial and colonial control. By exploring the class, gender, and racial politics that influence societal conventions in Pygmalion, Shaw reveals the complexities of how ambition and power are closely linked to selfishness and material reward. Because he is upper class, wealthy, and male, Higgins displays the inherent power in class status, money, and gender, which gives his ambition to “make [Eliza] a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe” (Shaw 16) a greedy and cold edge. It is a power he yields without conscience, eventually landing Eliza in a position unfit for any role in their society. As he corrects her accent and grammar, dresses her in stunning dresses, and teaches her modern conversational behaviors, he becomes almost obsessed with creating the perfect human being: “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being…It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” (Shaw 43). Higgins’ goal is no longer to win a bet, to train Eliza, or to even test his own skill and intelligence. He believes he can bring together humankind, one person at a time, and in his ambition to attain social status and be a respectable man, Higgins disregard for the power game he had created and abused to strip Eliza of her independence and identity. Eliza herself is not without ambition, as she approaches Higgins to follow up on his offer to better her position in society. However, Higgins training bestows upon Eliza the power she needed to support herself, to adapt, and to find an independence without the aid of Higgins. “I don’t want no gold and no diamonds” (Shaw 19) Eliza declares, demonstrating how her ambition to retain her dignity and make a better life for herself gives her the strength to reject Higgins and firmly carve a place for herself in the new corners of society she can now explore. Eliza’s father, on the other hand, whose desire is to be indolent forces him to be just the opposite, acts as a foil to Eliza. A man content with poverty and life as a garbage collector, Alfred Doolittle extorts only enough money for a drunken spree, refusing more when it is offered because he does not want to be tempted to save and thus trap himself in middle-class responsibilities. Higgins sends a joking letter to a millionaire, who subsequently bestows Doolittle a stipend to lecture on the morality he abhors. Doolittle feels compelled to accept the remuneration, and his life is no longer impoverished, but neither is it as free and simple as it once was. Forced to become middle class, he must now embrace restrictive middle-class morality and marry his wife. Alfred Doolittle’s ironic ambition to be unambitious binds him to societal structures and conventions on how to behave, stripping him of his very beliefs and identity. Eliza is able to reshape her own identity despite remaining quite penniless while her father gains great wealth but feels as if he has destroyed his individual spirit. Shaw’s concepts of ambition and fame reflects the consequences of both too little and too much ambition: the damage of laziness and greed is an almost dystopian-like society divided not just by wealth, but by accents, mannerisms, and material goods.
Concentration on material success, while ignoring how striving for a variety of rewards beyond mere fame, like professional success and world peace can be largely beneficial, is captured in Salman Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers in East, West. The narrator describes an extremely capitalist society, very similar to today’s Western society, where one bids at auctions for everything and anything, from edible underwear to the Eiffel Tower, in an ambitious reach for power, namesake, and legacy. The narrator describes a community where people “bid, the Auctioneers knock down a lot down, we pass on” (Rushdie 99), displaying how life and success has become measured by objects that are bought at the auction. He also mentions, with complete indifference, acts of total disregard for human life, such as the astronaut trapped in space due to lack of funds to return him to Earth, as if leaving a human being to die was something ordinary. This distancing from compassion and treatment of people and objects as the same is Rushdie’s harsh criticism of the culmination of European imperialism and class division and how such greed has driven society insane. The red ruby slippers, most commonly associated with the Wizard of Oz, is symbolic of home and freedom, from fiction to reality, but such freedom must be paid for in this materialistic society. This cult of apparently miraculous slippers represents how people seem to have become subordinate and susceptible to what the auctioneers, the hegemonic class, claim to be important, which is goods and their marketing values. Like in Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time and Shaw’s Pygmalion, imperialistic supremacy and distinct class conventions tears the identities of the bidders away. The auction hall is a place where everyone can arrive and be accepted, but only by the auctioneer’s approval. They have all been homogenized by the auctioneers, all visiting the same place as “Political refugees… conspirators, deposed monarchs, defeated factions, poets, [and] bandit chieftains” (Rushdie 91). A human is considered nothing more nor less than his or her money: “anyone’s cash is as good as anyone else’s” (Rushdie 93). In today’s society, human identity is no longer defined by moral action, but by what one owns. The narrator grimly accentuates this point, saying “In fiction’s grip, we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to have whatever it is we crave” (Rushdie 102). Monetary ambition has created a society in which something is deemed worthwhile if there is the acquisition of large amounts of money, rendering human emotion, identity, and worth virtually useless.
Ultimately, it is up to individuals, whether through literature, politics, or daily life, to determine how they will use their ambition. Modern society struggles to understand how ambition can—and should—be acted upon in a world that has new means of waging warfare, merging cultures, free-market economies, and evolving forms of communication. Shaw’s Pygmalion, Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, and Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers demonstrate the dangers of unchecked ambition and how greed for power and glory can lead to ability to ruin individuals and countries. Such desires to go through extremes to achieve goals can easily produce negative effects because ambition values the individual and the elite over everyone else, spiraling into catastrophic and damaging consequences for identities, society, and human values.