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In Economic Woman: Demand, Gender, and Narrative Closure in Eliot and Hardy, Deanna Kreisel contributes to recent scholarship concerned with the relations between political economy and Victorian novels from a fresh angle. Kreisel returns to a mid-century moment we have generally characterized as confident in the wisdom and efficacy of laissez-faire policy. There, she recovers the influence of major economic theorists from Thomas Malthus to John Ruskin, as well as popular essayists and novelists, possessed by a “mistrust of the self-adjusting properties of the young capitalist economy,” and argues that this mistrust was the “corollary and impetus” of the demand theory of value that we have tended to date later in the century (4). Setting aside the labor theory of value to trace early manifestations of demand theory within classical political economy, Kreisel describes the fear that the economy was doomed to stagnate or self-destruct when excessive supply would ultimately flood a market of insufficient demand. Kreisel argues that the “discarded, supplemental, disturbing, and radical discourse of consumer demand” (12) that can be seen in full flower in marginal utility theory and the new ‘historical school’ post-1870 is precisely the discourse that can help us make new sense of problems of closure in Hardy and Eliot’s novels. These problems of closure and breakdowns of internal novelistic logic hinge, Kreisel argues, on instances of transgressive female sexuality, themselves inseparable from ‘improper’ economic activities and attitudes dramatized in the novels.
As this description indicates, Kreisel’s study is a complex and ambitious one, dealing with three major nodes: political economy, ideas of gender, and matters of closure. Kreisel establishes the links among these categories mainly via metaphor, beginning, for example, and frequently returning to Ruskin’s description of the hoarder as a “‘money-chest with a slit in it, not only receptional but suctional, set in the public thoroughfare’” (4). Fair enough to say that this evokes the prostitute. For Kreisel, this passage becomes one important basis for considering the relationship between perverse economic management and femininity, as well as closure (since Ruskin’s quotation turns to matters of Chance and Death). The alternative to the hoarding prostitute is the nurturant and maternal female body, with a natural and “free-flowing supply of fluid sustenance” (10). Hoarding versus circulation, the end of capitalism embodied in female monstrosity versus a healthful balance of supply and demand, are embodied by the opposition between prostitute and wife and mother. “Economic woman,” suggests Kreisel, may be described as an idealized model of feminine sexual restraint and wise domestic management, shadowed by the degraded prostitute whose sexual excesses and economic mismanagement threaten nothing less than the stability of the capitalist economy.
While Kreisel provides a very long (fifty page-plus) introductory chapter on contemporary economic thought, she is at her best in the thick of the study’s novels: George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Kreisel positions Hetty and Maggie, the sacrificed figures of Eliot’s mid-career novels, as emblems of problematic consumption and desire, convincingly reading Adam Bede’s hierarchical agrarian society, one organized around principles of even correspondence and barter, as an economic prehistory to the world of The Mill on the Floss, which is characterized by usury, credit, interest, surplus capital, surfeit, and excess.
Adam Bede, Kreisel argues, is a novel in search of balance and stability, in retreat from excess or its inevitable consequence, waste. Hetty’s immoderate desires are the signs of a profligate and degenerate aristocracy (which stands in for the modern credit economy), whereas Dinah’s moderate desires are figures for a utopian precredit barter economy in which production and consumption balance each other harmoniously (92). Yet, Kreisel moves beyond that simple opposition to note that the novel’s moral discourse of reparation and amends undoes its utopian vision of economic balance: “Eliot attempts to portray a contained, stable economic system and at the same time condemn the simplistic morality that envisions consequences of actions as containable, which moral delusion is figured as a problem of misreading or misinterpretation” (84).
If the novel imagines appropriate closure as perfect balance—it strives to enshrine an ideal of excellent management, as figured, for example, in Lisbeth Bede’s desire to end her life having saved just enough to secure a decent burial—such closure is finally impossible because women’s management is too threatening to prevail. Thus the closure we get is forced, sacrificial, an unevenness of its own sort. The novel can resolve its contradiction between a utopian vision of pastoral barter and the moral of ethical consequence (the impossibility of even exchange or the containment of harm to those who deserve it) only by excising Hetty. Surplus wins out in the form of undeserved suffering, in the devolution of effective managing women to assets or objects of trade (Dinah), and in the matching of effectively managing women with neutralizing forces (Bartle Massey vs. Mrs. Poyser) (101).
When it comes to The Mill on the Floss, Kreisel confirms Maggie as a figure of excessive desire, as critics have long agreed, but argues innovatively that what condemns Maggie is her equally excessive desire not to desire. Maggie thus underscores the conflict between vital economic demand and the novel’s ethic of self-restraint and denial. Insofar as Maggie’s passion extends to renunciation, Kreisel argues that Maggie “mounts a Malthusian challenge” to the faith in accumulation and effective economic demand upon which Tom’s narrative depends (126). In a novel struggling between optimistic and pessimistic visions of the future of capitalism, a heroine who immoderately seeks to renounce her own desires will certainly force the question of “ends.” If death again is envisioned (by the Dodsons and the Tullivers) as a great, final “summing-up, a logical extension of a measured, prudent, and frugal life,” in which the endings of all things converge appropriately, Maggie’s propensity for irrational, sudden ends of desire bring about her untimely, tragic death, in which the superfluity of the river and the heavy debris of industrial modernity carry her away in their wake (141).
Whereas Kreisel sees Maggie and Hetty responding to their status as tokens of exchange with transgressive forms of desire that close out their own stories, Hardy’s character Elizabeth-Jane shifts the landscape by eschewing desire altogether. Kreisel offers a narratological analysis of The Mayor of Casterbridge that sees Elizabeth-Jane and Henchard change places over the course of the novel, as Henchard is punished and feminized for his transgressive sexual economics while Elizabeth-Jane’s economic discipline grants her the patriarchal privileged center of knowledge in the novel. Yet the novel ends at this point because this “evacuation of the narratable goes hand in hand with the narratological ascension of a character without (economic) desire” (171). As Kreisel argues, a figure without desire is oddly impossible to identify with, no less than to narrate.
In her final, wonderful chapter on Tess, Kreisel describes the processes of internalization whereby collective social and economic forces that originate outside the individual come to be relocated inside the body, with the result that the “sacrificial impulse” (182) in Tess becomes the self-sacrificial impulse in Tess. Kreisel links this interest in inside/outside with marginal utility economics of William Stanley Jevons, who sought to reconcile a mechanistic, mathematical model of the social sciences with an emphasis on individual desires and decisions; she argues that the novel heralds the era of the new economic agent, the desiring consumer. Tracing the cultural metaphorics of maternal milk and paternal bones through the novel and in contemporary scientific-agricultural discourse (milk is produced by consumer demand but builds the internal “bones” of societies, its skeletons), Kreisel clarifies two models of causation in Tess, suggesting that the novel is riven between the natural, bodily, and individualistic, linked to appetite and economic demand; and the socio-historical, linked to inexorability and the death drive.
Economic Woman is a rich study. Sometimes, its broad ambitions ask of the reader significant organizational effort that might have been eased with more streamlining of the chapters. This review does not even address some major subjects the study treats along the way, for example, the gold standard, correspondences and representations of value, or problems of reading and mis-reading, subjects which are themselves complex enough to motivate full studies. While Kreisel employs a generally new historicist approach to insightful ends, for this reader, the interpretive strategy of basing the central argument on “metaphorical usages that resonate across disciplinary boundaries” (15) raised some questions of causality and authorial intention that could have been more satisfyingly addressed, given that the study treats the manageable sum of two writers. Leaving us with a desire for more, Economic Woman will be meaningful reading for scholars as we continue to work out relations between economics and the Victorian novel.
Ilana Blumberg is Associate Professor of Humanities at James Madison College, Michigan State University. She is author of Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels (Ohio State UP, 2013) and Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books (U Nebraska P, 2007), winner of the Sami Rohr Choice Award.