Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although Stead’s narrative provides some information about the personal lives and backgrounds of virtually all of more than one hundred major and minor characters, these individual stories are fragmented, and their details are delayed and discontinuous. Marginalizing these characters’ personal histories reinforces concern with the Banque Mercure, the central preoccupation of their— and the reader’s—consciousnesses. Stead constructs a mercilessly cutting social satire exposing the inherent corruption of a system in which the sole ethic is a drive to accumulate and maintain wealth. Ironically, while each character suffers from the disease of conspicuous consumption thriving under capitalism, the collective nature of their fate carries specifically Marxist political implications.

The overall ironic gesture of Stead’s project in House of All Nations is, nevertheless, more skillfully carried out than that called for by a purely political agenda. Stead’s discourse on finance seems to assume that the reader’s knowledge of the inner mechanisms of high finance is as sophisticated as her own. Still, a frequent sense of mystification is deliberately introduced: The reader is enjoined to comprehend the powerful structures of global economics by deciphering the jargon of the people who manipulate those structures. Knowing them in their own language is the first step toward subverting them.