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Abstract

This dissertation reads British novels published from 1714 to 1820, arguing that the pressures of ongoing economic transformations can be registered in their treatment of human desire. It argues that both economic thinkers and novelists began, during the period, to posit insatiable accumulation and consumption as fundamental to human life. This structure of feeling is reflected, in my account, in the innovations in narrative form championed by novelists of the period, and very particularly in the narrative role of a relatively neglected class of characters: villains. I draw on actantial narratological models, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and economic history to argue that eighteenth-century villains register the pressures of a new conception of human wants proper to capitalist production., My four chapters are organized around four archetypal villains: the criminal, the rake, the oriental despot, and the gothic villain. In each, I follow the rise and fall of a narrative form I call the “persecutory plot,” as well as its economic ramifications. Chapter 1 argues that Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is a key transitional text that absorbs the early-modern picaresque tradition and transforms it into the persecutory plot. Reading the novel’s celebrated theft scenes, I show how Moll Flanders offers an account of economic subjectivity as fundamentally compulsive and pathological. Chapter 2, on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, argues for Richardson’s central place in the development of the persecutory plot. It also enlists Max Weber to read the novel’s villain, Lovelace, as the novel’s representative of capitalist modernity, not aristocratic decadence. , Chapter 3 situates William Beckford’s Vathek within the eighteenth century’s burgeoning culture of consumerism. Beckford, I argue, adopts the infamous Enlightenment trope of “oriental despotism” to depict the subjective paradoxes of an occidental phenomenon: the spread and acceleration of luxury consumption. Chapter 4, finally, considers the gothic villain, ranging over many examples in the genre but focusing on Matthew Lewis’ contributions. I argue for the crucial importance to the gothic novel of a trope I call “gothic faciality.” In Lewis’ work, this trope migrates from gothic fiction to economic and colonial writings, thus situating the gothic vision of social dysfunction in its historical contexts.

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