Economic Exchange and the Discourse of Contract in the Victorian Novel 1846--1875

Date of Completion

January 2011


Epistemology|Literature, English|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




This dissertation argues that in the middle years of the Victorian era the English novel represented—and indeed, implicitly modeled—the economic domain in a far more complex and coherent way than did the era's two important discourses of economic exchange—contract law and classical political economy. This conceptualization of the economic domain anticipated an idea that would come to be known as the "social embeddedness" of economic activity. Through close readings of Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son (1846-48), Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875), I show that the mid-Victorian novel does not, as is often presumed in literary criticism, represent the economic domain as structured by mechanistic, amoral forces or that culture and morality, such as in representations of the private sphere, act as palliatives for market evils. Instead, I argue that these novels' characters exchange sexual and non-sexual labor, commodities, and investments using competing epistemologies of exchange that are structured by the discourses that shape culture and morality, in particular gender and sexuality. The foundation of this analysis is my argument that in these novels economic activity is defined by different discourses of contractual exchange, including marriage and labor law, the rhetoric of "free" contract, and, to a lesser extent, the discourse of political economy. Indeed, I show that contract law, not political economy, is the most important discursive influence in the Victorian novel's representations of the economic domain.^ Chapter One examines theoretical constructs of exchange produced by different forms of contract and classical political economy's notion of individual liberty. In Chapters Two through Five, I examine how characters employ different epistemological assumptions to negotiate what constitutes an exchange, an exchanging subject, and an exchangeable commodity, and to determine the possible terms of an exchange: this rhetoric determines the structure of markets and the economic outcomes of exchange within each narrative. Thus, in the mid-Victorian novel, the economic domain is not an autonomous system that operates independently of the characters' actions; rather, economic exchange is embedded in the socio-economic conditions of the narrative's world.^