Merry Christmas! In honor of the brazen (if unusually honest) Western Union commercial proclaiming money “king” this holiday season, let’s talk about money.
If someone asked me to name a novel that’s largely about money, my first thought would probably be Our Mutual Friend. According to Thomas Piketty—economist and author of the wildly popular Capital in the Twenty-First Century—that’s not just because I’ve read too much Victorian fiction. As a recent Slate article helpfully notes for those of us who just can’t stomach 700 pages of economics, even for a good cause, Piketty argues that in the early 20th century, novels became increasingly less interested in money as money itself ceased to be a “stable reference point” following massive inflation and a temporary reduction in wealth inequality. If I might risk paraphrasing Slate’s paraphrase (always a dangerous proposition): Earlier references to money in literature were a way of ordering the world in knowable ways, so when money itself became a slipperier signifier, it ceased to have the same value (har har) for authors.
Or so the argument goes. According to Slate, Piketty actually has his facts wrong; if you crunch the numbers on literary references to money, you’ll actually find that they did nothing but increase between 1750 and 1950. Still, Slate says, Piketty has a point, and it’s instructive that so many of us feel that money is no longer as central to novels as it once was. The authors of the Slate piece (Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long, and Richard Jean So) are particularly interested in the amount of money novels mention; we feel money is less important, they suggest, because it’s mentioned in smaller amounts (partly, they argue, in order to appeal to a broader reading public). Another possible explanation for our gut sense is the Modernist shift from money as a “literal object” to money as a “symbol of emotion or desire.”
Underwood et al seem less interested in this possibility, which they see largely as a result of faulty sampling (i.e. taking the Modernist crème de la crème as representative of all 20th-century fiction). That’s unfortunate for me and my post, though, because I actually find it a potentially more interesting trend—and one that, again, jibes with my (totally unscientific) sense of the evolution of money in literature over time. (In my defense, I’m curious about the writers’ own sampling process; it strikes me that if they’re using largely “canonical” pre-20th century literature, that’s also faulty sampling, in that it says more about what later generations found worthwhile than what was considered significant literature at the time.)
In any case, assuming that the trend isn’t simply a perceived one, it seems to me that that shift from a focus on money’s materiality to its symbolism also says something about, as the article states, the sort of “picture” that “appeal[s] to a particular set of viewers.” Take Daniel Defoe. I will be the first to admit that it is hellishly tedious whenever Defoe’s characters start tallying up all the gold in their coffers, but it is interesting that once upon a time, readers apparently found that interesting. No book today would include so many scenes like that—or rather, if it did, the emphasis would be on something other than the money itself. It would say something about the character other than the fact that he’s good at domestic economy.
Or take my earlier example of Our Mutual Friend. Admittedly, physical money isn’t as visible in Dickens as it is in Defoe, but it’s absolutely central thematically, and in Our Mutual Friend, it becomes weirdly materialized in the dust mounds. Two things about this: 1) if you know anything about Victorian dust mounds, you know that their contents were about as physical as you can get, and 2) if you know anything about Victorian dust mounds, you know that this is a pretty cynical comparison to make.
To be fair, nothing I’m saying here is especially groundbreaking, so I’m sure it has all been researched and debated extensively. Still, my initial thought while reading the Slate piece was that, if there has indeed been a slide away from depicting the materiality of money, that might be a little unfortunate. Don’t get me wrong: I love the sound of sentences like, “Her voice was full of money,” and that more symbolic approach can obviously yield some trenchant commentary as well. But since money is by definition part of a symbolic system, there’s something interestingly denaturalizing about emphasizing its status as a physical thing.