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

The last word, our series about emotions in books, focuses on those who are determined to succeed this month, from Lady Macbeth to Flaubert’s privileged college boys

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 ****** 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.

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 ****** with famous courtesans.

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