Finance and Money as Represented in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Finance and Money as Represented in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought major economic changes to England. One such change appeared in the source of value. Adam Smith, relating pre-industrial economic theory in The Wealth of Nations (1776), associated the value of goods and money with labor. However, during the Industrial Revolution, people tended to shift value from labor (i.e., the ability to provide goods and services) to money itself (i.e., the ability to buy such goods, services, and labor). Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution created new economic opportunities and quickened the pace of the economy. For many, especially in the lower and middle classes, money became the primary icon of this economic system. Money was something that people dreamed about, something to be acquired, something that could give power to the powerless. On the other hand, money, in the form of paper, could easily be lost. Moreover, troubling questions accompanied economic opportunities and the quest to take advantage of them. At what cost would the desired power come? How much money and power were enough? Could money, morality, and ethics coexist? Thus, money became the focus of concerns that ranged from hope to fear to guilt. For many people, money became an obsession, and it was given a preeminent place in society in the nineteenth century.

Critics note that the subject of money is one of the most common themes in nineteenth-century writing, although ideas about money and finance vary considerably from author to author. This difference is seen most clearly in the writings of two major thinkers of the time: Immanuel Kant in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Jeremy Bentham in Deontology: Or Morality Made Easy (1834). It is interesting to note also that, in England, the development of the novel paralleled society's debate over proper conduct regarding economic issues. Anthony Trollope's fictional writings, for example, present business in a positive light and the quest for economic success as an enjoyable and fulfilling endeavor. For the most part, though, the portrayal in nineteenth-century literature of the world of money and finance and of its effect on society is negative, despite the popular appeal of ragsto-riches stories.

There are several versions of this negative representation in literature of the world of money and finance. In some works, the pursuit of riches is portrayed as dangerous, as a trap that catches willing victims unaware. In others, the attraction that money holds for the individual can lead to obsession and moral decay. Honoré de Balzac equated spending large sums of money with obsessive behavior. Charles Dickens showed that an obsession with money was akin to selling one's soul to the devil, resulting in the loss of humanity. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), Dickens's character Montague Tigg lost all sense of moral or social responsibility in his pursuit of wealth. Gustave Flaubert, in Madame Bovary (1857), described a society that had been poisoned by wealth and that attached a price to each and every item, including people. Furthermore, two stereotypical literary characters that reveal the degeneration that obsession with money can cause appear with great regularity in the literature. The first type, the miser, is a hoarder of wealth and is usually represented as old, friendless, incoherent, and obsessed. The second type, the spendthrift, is a squanderer of wealth and is usually represented as living recklessly in a world of his or her own with little regard for anyone else. Such representations seem to issue the warning to their readers that the cost of gaining a fortune is too high.

The period of the Industrial Revolution was a time of great change for women in regard to finance. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a woman's sphere of operations in regard to finances was, for the most part, confined to household business. Women writers of the time who dealt with financial matters in their fiction created female characters whose experience with money was limited to the economizing activities of the household. One such character was Lady Russell in Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818). In fiction, as in real life, a woman's rights to control sources of power, land, houses, and money were restricted by law. The real business of women, according to many narratives, was courtship and marriage. With few opportunities to earn money on their own, it was crucial that women find suitable mates, that is, those who could provide for them. A good marriage was often the only avenue available to women for improving their standing, not only financially, but also socially. The sometimes desperate need to marry well while young and desirable was articulated by a character in Anthony Trollope's The Three Clerks (1874): "a girl's time is her money … a girl like her must make hay while the sun shines." Although an occasional female character was depicted as having a head for business, it was generally in a field that did not grant equality to women. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, many women writers began to espouse the cause that women should be allowed into the financial world on an equal footing with men.