Benevolent failures : the economics of philanthropy in Victorian literature

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2010-12

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Kilgore, Jessica Renae

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Abstract

This dissertation critically examines why mid-Victorian fiction often dismisses or complicates monetary transactions and monetary charity, even as it negatively portrays differences in social status and wealth. I argue that the novel uses representations of failed charity to reconstruct, however briefly, a non- monetary and non-economic source of value. Further, I examine how the novel uses techniques of both genre and style to predict, form, and critique alternate, non-economic, social models. While tension surrounding the practice of charity arises in the late eighteenth century, the increasing dominance of political economy in public discourse forced Victorian literature to take a strong stance, for reasons of both ethics and genre. This stance is complicated by the eighteenth-century legacy that sees charity as a kind of luxury. If giving to the poor makes us feel good, this logic suggests, surely it isn’t moral. Thus, while much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature remains dedicated to the ethics of charity, the practice becomes immensely complex. By discussing the works of Tobias Smollett, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot, this project exposes a wide variety of responses to this deep cultural anxiety. These authors are, ultimately, strongly invested in redefining the meaning of benevolence as a valid form of social action by moving that benevolence away from monetary gifts and toward abstractly correct moral feelings, though their individual solutions vary widely.

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