Failure: The Humble Narrative of Unsuccessfulness in Late Modernist Fiction

British, Irish and Postcolonial Novels and Stories

by Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz (Author)
©2020 Monographs 212 Pages


Failure as a pervasive occurrence in life has rarely been investigated by sociology, even though the collapse of plans, unattainability of goals and breakdown of vital relationships are ordinary experiences. The study of early-21st-century fiction reveals that imaginative literature at present explores the lacunae of failure, disillusionment and collapse as central narrative themes. About fifty years after Samuel Beckett, in whose works the failing of expression became a major concern, postmillennial narratives expose disruption or defeat as subject matter and literary trope. Unheroic failure as a motif makes its variegated appearance in diverse areas of human life such as love, religion, art, and social community. The narratives explore it as the individual’s participation in common humanity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The Cultural Context of the Failure Theme in Fiction, and the Purpose of this Study
  • I. Human Failure
  • Failure in the Novel: A Small Tale, Generally of Love
  • The Trivial, and the Novel as ‘a Small Tale’
  • Personal Failure and the Political (I): Irish Fictions
  • Failure and the Observance of the Ordinary
  • Personal Failure and the Political (II): Postcolonial
  • Results: Failure, Identity, and the Ordinary
  • Transitional Section: Failing Aspirations of Humanism
  • II. Failure and the Artist
  • The Fictional Artist and His Failing in the Novel
  • Intermediate Results
  • Partial Failure: Divergence of Art and Life
  • Failure and Triumph of the Fictional Artist: A Paradox
  • Irony and Black Humour: Artistic Failure vs. Celebrity
  • Success and Failure in 21st-Century Biofictions
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Subject index
  • Index of names
  • Series index

←8 | 9→

Introduction: The Cultural Context of the Failure Theme in Fiction, and the Purpose of this Study

In the wake of the great narrative, the end of which seems to be unanimously acknowledged, the question was raised by international discussion if after the ensuing “myth gap” the narrative will emerge in an altered form, or whether it ceases to be humanity’s instrument to conceive of the universe, society, and the individual.1 The major problem caused by an assumed paradigm change would be the search for available modes of world appropriation other than the narrative. To specify a means of conceptualising the world, which satisfies human needs as perfectly as the oral, written, or visual narrative, remains a matter of speculation.

Critics who doubt the lasting relevance of the narrative in mapping our relation to ourselves and the world are contradicted by those who, like Evans, maintain its importance and consider the research on storytelling an interdisciplinary challenge. In her 2019 exposition on the awareness that the early 21st century is an age which reaches beyond the ‘post’ of modernism (23), the Spanish scholar Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda transpires as a contemporary philosopher and sociologist who states a basic contrast among the current descriptions of reality. She maintains that “[n];owadays, in the same period, we find narratives of the celebration and narratives of the limit” side by side, but that “[t]he task of philosophy, of narrative, of art, is to show these internal contradictions within what is considered to be a given Weltanschauung. To foreground the points of rupture, to perceive the anguish of their misalignments …” presents the most urgent challenge now, according to her. Whereas the type of the celebratory narrative reiterates generally accepted topics, the “second type struggles to think what has ←9 | 10→not been conceptualized yet, to say what still has no name” (21, emphasis in original). I contend that it may be called the narrative of failure. For the purposes of Rodriguez Magda’s essay, her use of the term ‘narrative’ includes fiction as well as nonfiction. In order to construct a future, which means to transcend our limitations in the face of a globalised world, she claims that “[w]e must delve deeper into the narrative of fracture, into the narrative of the limit, because the perverse process of totalization employs both evident and subtle mechanisms of exclusion” which are applied in the Western world (26, emphasis in original). The tendency to exclude does not only affect certain groups whom the mainstream society prefers to ignore (26), but, I wish to argue, also pertains to individual experiences in given situations and man-made conditions, which ‘we’ feel uncomfortable about and try to shun. I refer to one genus of “what still has no name” as ‘Failure’, and to speak about it as the essence of most stories about personal or collective experience in the fictions at hand.2 To initially clarify the subject matter I quote a sociological definition of Failure regardless of the lack of attention sociology has paid to research on the phenomenon:

Failure can be defined as a grave unsuccessfulness, and central aims or values must have been missed. If failure has been stated by self-diagnosis the individual has obviously not reached the self-defined goals – and definitely not reached them. It is true that the diagnosis can also be uttered by somebody else. That will make failure an interpretative challenge (Junge/Lechner 49, my translation).

Rodriguez Magda explains how the socio-political and scientific convictions of a modern Western society – she calls them “Grand Narratives that have shaped Modernity” (22) – become controversial or insufficient in proving their validity for the 21st century. The cultural challenge, which she describes, can also express itself through the present in-between stage of narrative literature at a point where the contours of a prospective tool of grasping and communicating world and self are still impenetrable, while the old means, including Great Literature, seem to lose their fundamental position. After the era of deconstruction, Rodriguez Magda maintains in her exhortation: “we must be lucid and strong enough to create new hopeful fictions” (29) defining and exposing new values. “Narratives, thus, of the limit, of resistance, that might reconstruct those regulative ideals in which to recognize ourselves, might preserve that fragile life that we are as a planet and as individuals” (28, emphasis in original). Narrative fictions of fracture, failure and limitedness would thus appropriately emerge at the crossroads of an era beyond (Post)Modernism.

←10 | 11→

To consider the novel, since the 18th century the pivotal form of fictional narrative, as enabling readers to imaginatively grasp the world and especially the relation of individual to society, has become controversial at the time of the digital revolution. A current hypothesis maintains that computer games must nowadays be regarded as the most successful narrative structure. If we are aware that it took a long time until the reputation of the English novel’s cultural and literary status was firmly established, it is conceivable that novelistic narration as we know it could cease to flourish. Since the current debate is not restricted to the relative importance of fictional genres the controversy about the significance of storytelling is worth considering before the analysis focuses on themes and motifs in postmillennial literary narratives. The Myth Gap by Alex Evans reaffirms the essential role of narratives in general, fictional as well as non-fictional, as expressions of world appropriation. Evans still regards the narrative as a powerful means in capturing and uniting individuals for a common cause in a globalised society. His judgment is confirmed, for instance, by the educational and communicologist study Perspectives on Science and Culture (2018) by Rutten, Blancke and Soetaert. They refer to the statements of American narratological publications, relevant to communication science and literary theory (74). In the introduction to their interdisciplinary collection of essays Rutten et al. explain the place of the literary narrative among the concepts of non-literary, non-fictional narratives, and the different theoretical approaches to explore them (xiii-xvi). Other cultural and literary studies claim that in the quest for a revitalisation of the narrative mode, in which to describe and evaluate the world, Fantasy can be identified as the possible successor of myth (Sedlmayr 181–87; see also Evans 81, 91–95). Evans especially contends that the verbal narrative in general – as the pre-eminent method of interpreting reality – will once more have to increase its significance in the face of global issues.

When the importance of narrative and storytelling is variously reconfirmed the question about the currently significant kind of topics of narrativisation must be asked. Rodriguez Magda has already pointed at the ubiquity of celebratory stories. At present, sociological and socio-political theories emphasise the extraordinary value of success and singularity for late modern communities. In his 2017 monograph, the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz denotes the enormous expectations which the glorification of singularity proposes for the individual. With the significance of ‘authenticity’, late modernist society celebrates the unique – and certainly not the widespread, average, or commonplace (Singularitäten 7–9).3 What can be regarded as exceptional and ←11 | 12→therefore noteworthy is identified by the sociocultural community. Any memorable experience ought to be a phenomenal matter, not something every-day. Lifestyle, if it deserves the epithet ‘fashionable’ or ‘worth noticing’, must be individualised and present highlights or a breath-taking performance. On the other hand (and consequentially), any biographical failure is socially delegated to personal responsibility (348). “Frequently, psychological offers only recommend increased self-transformation, (‘to learn from failure’). Basically,” Reckwitz argues, “late modernism is a culture of positive affects, which hardly grants any space to the negative or merely ambivalent experiences” (348, my translation). Similarly, a rare collection of essays of 2004 on failure as a sociocultural phenomenon, edited by sociologists Junge and Lechner, emphasises that “despite its omnipresence, failure was absent from the sociological discourse and has remained absent until today” (8, my translation). Unlike loss of status, exclusion or disintegration, failure is not even an acknowledged sociological term (49). Reckwitz claims more than a decade later that strategies for the toleration or expression of disappointing biographical failure are missing in contemporary culture.

Evans (47–53) discusses the notion signified by the term ‘singularity’ from a socio-political and temporal viewpoint. One definition by him explains our ‘technological singularity’ with the observation that the powers of our human-created revolutionary technology are at present expanding at an exponential pace (49). In the current debate about humanity’s future, which for Evans includes the analytical as well as an extrapolating approach, the next decades are defined as the point in time when IT and AI will encompass all human knowledge and capacities, including moral judgment and emotional intelligence. To this statement, which may appear as an over-estimation of AI, Evans bluntly adds that “there are plenty of other innovations about to turn the world upside down that will make recent history look positively sedate by comparison” (49).4 His remark is ←12 | 13→followed by a sizable list of world-changing phenomena perceptible yet. Despite the agreement that technological and connected developments seem to accelerate more rapidly than ever, so that a singular state of the Earth and humanity is close and certain experts already speak of “technological determinism” (50), the discourse on our future also contains severe criticism of such a politically subversive position. Evans reinforces the humanist counterargument against these fatalistic beliefs, which see our species dominated by a machine-centric evolution. He reassesses “the idea of people as the prime actors, or the sense that we have agency and choice over how the future unfolds, at what speed, and for whose benefit” (50). If Evans compares this elevation of human knowledge and agency to the hubris and destiny of Icarus he emphasises none the less that it presents a “recognition not only of the awesome creative power of our free will and technological ingenuity, but also of the need for profound humility and wisdom as their necessary counterparts” (50–51). Irrespective of the obvious discrepancies that he ascribes to the current ‘futures discourse’ of think-tanks, these positions underscore the singularly precarious global stage we have reached.

Due to his engagement in development policy Evans aims at awakening the insight that new myths, called “stories of real power” (74), are necessary to cope with this extraordinary situation. In other words, he claims that a narrative which unifies humanity and appeals to the emotions will be more effective than the publication of statistical figures and arguments, which give evidence of global problems. His energising summons to array visions of a global retrieval in the form of 21st-century ‘salvation stories’ may meet with ambivalence if we recall the danger powerful narratives can harbour. Against this scepticism, Evans utters his demand for “the right kind of myths” (104, emphasis in original) and urgently appeals to our moral judgment of “choosing wisely in the stories we tell each other” (129). The admonitory tone applies itself to every kind of story we can think of, factual or fictional. Undeniably, if surprising, the enormous popularity of Fantasy literature demonstrates today’s audience’s interest in secularised mythological tales where good defeats evil (94–95). When the universal approval of Fantasy serves as an indicator of the strength and attraction this type of fictional narrative possesses, its appeal is encouraging with respect to the future of mimetic imaginative literature as well.

Against the backdrop of this multi-faceted debate on uniqueness and celebrity as hallmarks of 21st-century culture in its diverse aspects, manifest in exceptional individual experience or extraordinary collective situations of progress and an exposed condition, the working hypothesis for this study can emerge. It implicates that early-21st-century literature has the capacity and pluck to fill the gap of representing the ordinariness of everyday failure as equally (and ←13 | 14→overwhelmingly) present in human life. Even though admiration of the grand is very popular, narrative fictions can materialise the recognition of the commonplace. Thereby they become able to contribute to creating that “profound sense of belonging and, above all, purpose” in humans (Evans 75), which is deemed indispensable to avert disastrous global developments. Rodriguez Magda is one of the scholars who make the demand to produce narratives of fracture, marginalisation and humbleness. These lacunae have been accommodated by current literary narrativisation, which also raises the awareness of recipients to usually disregarded areas of reality.

My argument further implies that the texts to be analysed here distinguish themselves from another kind of narrative that has already received critical attention. The recently published research on stories of trauma and vulnerability is also committed to raising our awareness to what was neglected and hardly ever narrated. Psychological and literary scholarship has proved that the disinterring of suppressed or silenced experiences with a humiliating, disconcerting result for those affected by them can be achieved “through the singularising power of fiction” (Ganteau and Onega, “Introduction” 13). The following explorations in this study, however, concern narratives where the ordinariness and humbleness of experiences that convene in unsuccessfulness take centre stage. Modernism has already unveiled the narrativity of the formerly ignored average quotidian life, as Virginia Woolf famously declared: “if a writer were a free man and not a slave [of tradition etc.], there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style” (“Modern Fiction” 212). Accustomed literary conventions and practice, she states, acted contrary to attracting attention to the commonplace. Woolf asserted the representational quality of fiction for the innovation of the modernist novel: “ ‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain or spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss” (218). That no style or narrative method is forbidden in writing them is Woolf’s other claim.

Postmodernist literature betrayed the precarious representability of pointless existence or unsuccessful endeavour by its own experimental narrativisation. In the present time, described with the epithet “transmodern” (Rodriguez Magda), futility and failure eventually show a remarkable productivity in revealing a literariness which I propose to explore here. That fiction possesses the power to make the unseen and socially ignored visible and de-limit customary spatiotemporal borders has lately again been the subject of literary theory and criticism, while social invisibility has begun to conquer sociological research as well. My argument starts from the premise that “to experience an ethical and political sense of the common” (Ganteau and Onega, “Introduction” 13, emphasis in original) can ←14 | 15→be realised through the process of reading fiction. The conceivability of “a larger us” (Evans 41) and “a longer now” (47) demanded by the socio-political debate hints at the core of what the imaginativeness of fiction can accomplish, even though this achievement is not exclusively the domain of literature. The idea that fiction does not only respond to topical themes and conditions but plays a part in shaping them is shared by writers and readers.

Regarding the diversification of contemporary fictions addressing themes that often appear contradictory, certain kinds of protagonists may be assigned to different types of narratives. Whereas (auto)biography still often celebrates the singular profile of the central target person, and Fantasy predominantly extols the heroic subject, mainstream fiction pays noticeable attention to the ordinary character, the experiences of disappointment as part of the quotidian, to details of everyday life, and to material objects. Recent narrative texts of British or Irish literature, my working hypothesis claims, thereby strikingly distinguish themselves from the defaults of late modernist society, where biographical failure of individual aspirations remains unperceived or which even adjudges that a life is worthless that does not accomplish something important.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz (Author)

Professor Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz taught English and American literature and cultural studies as a senior lecturer in the English Department at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, until 2011. Her research interests are mainly in the fields of early modern literature, especially Shakespeare, and contemporary fiction.


Title: Failure: The Humble Narrative of Unsuccessfulness in Late Modernist Fiction
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
214 pages