Modern Luck

Narratives of fortune in the long twentieth century

Robert S. C. Gordon

ISBN: 9781800083592

Publication: January 17, 2023

Series: Comparative Literature and Culture

What is this?
Beliefs, superstitions and tales about luck are present across all human cultures, according to anthropologists. We are perennially fascinated by luck and by its association with happiness and danger, uncertainty and aspiration. Yet it remains an elusive, ungraspable idea, one that slips and slides over time: all cultures reimagine what luck is and how to tame it at different stages in their history, and the modernity of the ‘long twentieth century’ is no exception to the rule. Apparently overshadowed by more conceptually tight, scientific and characteristically modern notions such as chance, contingency, probability or randomness, luck nevertheless persists in all its messiness and vitality, used in our everyday language and the subject of studies by everyone from philosophers to psychologists, economists to self-help gurus.

Modern Luck sets out to explore the enigma of luck’s presence in modernity, examining the hybrid forms it has taken on in the modern imagination, and in particular in the field of modern stories. Indeed, it argues that modern luck is constituted through narrative, through modern luck stories. Analysing a rich and unusually eclectic range of narrative taken from literature, film, music, television and theatre – from Dostoevsky to Philip K. Dick, from Pinocchio to Cimino, from Curtiz to Kieślowski – it lays out first the usages and meanings of the language of luck, and then the key figures, patterns and motifs that govern the stories told about it, from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

Robert S. C. Gordon teaches in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge.


Part I

1 Something old, something new
2 Word trees and etymologies


3 Lucky numbers
4 Lucky places, lucky lines
5 The luckiest man
6 Moral luck and the survivor
7 Luck and the low life
8 Early style and child’s play


'Gordon’s blazing connections – between film and literature, the US and Europe, moods of optimism and dark historical realities – expose how truly reliant we are on luck in negotiating modern life in all its scales. This wonderful study wanders far from narrow disciplinary moorings to show the kinds of big thinking that the best cultural criticism can still do.'

Christina Lupton, Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick
‘Robert S. C. Gordon’s Modern Luck is an impressive achievement: highly readable and engrossing, while at the same time deeply learned and dazzling in scope. Ranging over Casablanca to Back to the Future, Primo Levi to Philip K. Dick, Gordon takes readers through a variety of modern luck stories to show how figurations of luck are woven into the foundations of Western modernity. How lucky we are to have this book!’  Steven Belletto, Lafayette College

Format: Open Access PDF

186 Pages

Copyright: © 2023

ISBN: 9781800083592

Publication: January 17, 2023

Series: Comparative Literature and Culture

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