Novel Gifts: The Form and Function of Gift Exchange in Nineteenth-century England
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This dissertation draws on studies of gift exchange by cultural anthropologists and social theorists to examine representations of gifts and gift giving in nineteenth-century British novels. While most studies of the economic imagination of nineteenth-century literature rely on and respond to a framework formulated by classical political economy and consequently overlook nonmarket forms of social exchange, I draw on gift theory in order to make visible the alternate, everyday exchanges shaping social relations and identity within the English novel. By analyzing formal and thematic representations of gifting over the course of the nineteenth century, in novels by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, I consider the way that gift exchange relates and responds to the emergence of capitalism and consumer culture. I trace two distinct developments in nineteenth-century gift culture: the first, the emergence of an idealized view of the gift as purely disinterested, spontaneous, and free, and the second, the emergence of a view of charity as demoralizing to the poor. These developments, I contend, were distinct ideological formations of liberal economic society and reveal a desire to make the gift conform to individualism. However, I suggest further that these transformations of the gift proceeded unevenly, for in their attention to the logic and practice of giving, nineteenth-century writers both give voice to and subvert these cultural formations. Alongside the figure of the benevolent philanthropist, the demoralized pauper, and the quintessential image of altruism, the selflessly giving domestic woman, nineteenth-century novels present another view of gift exchange, one that sees the gift as a mix of interest and disinterest, freedom and obligation, and persons and things. Ultimately, by reading the gift relations animating nineteenth-century novels, I draw attention to the competing conceptions of selfhood underlying gift and market forms of exchange in order to offer a broader history of exchange and personhood. In its recognition of expansive conceptions of the self and obligatory gifts, this dissertation recovers a history of the gift that calls into question the ascendency of the autonomous individual and the view of exchange as an anonymous, self-interested transaction.