The politics of generosity: Circulating gifts and cultural capital in the Victorian novel
This dissertation examines how Victorian fiction accommodated and abetted generosity's shift from a public to a private virtue in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chapter One contextualizes the mid-nineteenth-century ideology of giving within gender and class relationships shaped by debates leading to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Joseph Townsend's Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786) and the report of two assistant poor law commissioners (1833) frame the public debate concerning government giving and signal a cultural movement that was transforming generosity into a modern, apolitical, private, feminine ideal. I draw on Jacques Derrida and anthropology to define the ideology of the free gift, whose main tenet is an insistence that true gifts exist only outside economies of time and reciprocity. Literary texts, inevitably bound to time and reciprocity, disclose tenuous but persistent maintenance of this ideology. Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848) condemned laissez-faire economic doctrines while validating the social divisions that characterized the New Poor Law era.
Chapter Two focuses on Dickens's Little Dorrit (1855–57), in which Amy, a middle-class heroine in prison rags, a model of feminine self-sacrifice who expects no reward, occupies the problematic space of perfect giver, receiver, and gift. Structured as a romance of giving, the novel reveals both the gendered terms of the free gift and the contradictory nature of a middle-class construction of itself as generous benefactor of the poor.
Chapters Three and Four consider novels that do not directly focus on issues of poverty but are nonetheless shaped by this ideological shift. In George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871–72), the narrator mediates through rational dissection and generous hermeneutics a bond between the reader and Dorothea intended to, on the one hand, elide the degree to which private acts of kindness have political import, and, on the other, suggest that such acts can lead to a radical way of knowing. In contrast to Dickens and Eliot, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) explicitly fixates on the problems of reception and reveals the violence not only of uncivilized passion but of civilized giving itself.
British and Irish literature
0593: British and Irish literature