The politics of generosity: Circulating gifts and cultural capital in the Victorian novel

2001 2001

Other formats: Order a copy

Abstract (summary)

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.

Indexing (details)

Labor economics;
British and Irish literature
0510: Labor economics
0501: Economics
0593: British and Irish literature
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; Language, literature and linguistics; Bronte, Emily; Charles Dickens; Cultural capital; Dickens, Charles; Eliot, George; Emily Bronte; Generosity; George Eliot; Gifts; Novel; Victorian
The politics of generosity: Circulating gifts and cultural capital in the Victorian novel
Grogan, Michael Patrick
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 62/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780493392189, 0493392181
Doyle, Laura
University of Massachusetts Amherst
University location
United States -- Massachusetts
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
Access the complete full text

You can get the full text of this document if it is part of your institution's ProQuest subscription.

Try one of the following:

  • Connect to ProQuest through your library network and search for the document from there.
  • Request the document from your library.
  • Go to the ProQuest login page and enter a ProQuest or My Research username / password.