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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

“The not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Shakespeare

How do today’s underlings become losers? Is it mostly the winners’ fault, with economic well-being a zero-sum game producing as many losers as winners? Or is it mostly the losers’ fault, their own failure to make something of themselves?

Since we’re still struggling to answer that question, we might consider the conflicting answers of two great European writers from 100+ years ago.

First came Gustave Flaubert writing in France in the mid-1800s. He fictionalized the life of a real woman named Delphine Delamare, turning her life and pathetic end into that of his famous Emma Bovary. In his novel Madame Bovary, he made it pretty clear how such a woman could end up becoming such a loser.

Married to a kind, loving, but oblivious young doctor, Emma neglects her child, has two affairs, takes out loans to buy what she can’t afford, drives the family bankrupt, and then commits suicide. So, yes, she’s a loser.

However, Emma lived at a time and in a nation that gave women no role in public life. Women couldn’t vote. If married, they had no property rights. They had no access to higher education or to fulfilling careers.

For their part, men, having arranged the political, economic, and social systems to serve themselves, regularly took advantage of women’s ignorance, boredom, and frustration. Men seduced Emma both sexually and economically. They made her what she was, and then they blamed her for being that way.

But then came Anton Chekhov writing in Russia in 1904. He created a similar loser, but after decades of reform in Russia and across Europe he saw her situation differently. In The Cherry Orchard his Lubya Ranevsky becomes a loser because of the characteristics she shares with her whole class of idle and self-indulgent gentry.

A widow living off her land, Lubya has never worked. But she does spend money as if it will keep coming whether she earns it or not. So she mortgages her family home and the surrounding orchard and then loses both when she can’t pay the mortgage.

Men, however, do not seduce Lubya into any of her actions. In fact, a wealthy and friendly businessman repeatedly advises her how she can keep her land, turn it profitable, and earn enough to live on. She just won’t listen. She makes herself a loser but won’t take the blame. “Fate” is to blame, she claims.

Flaubert’s and Chekhov’s opposite views are still with us.

Is success a zero-sum game? Are today’s welfare generations the victims of marginalization, oppression, and “white male privilege”?

Or are they the victims of their own class-based values, spending money they do not earn, ignoring the advice that economic well-being depends on education and hard work , and blaming their plight on everyone but themselves?

The debate has a long history.

Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in English at Lyon College. He can be reached at