Money, Money, Money, Money (and Novels)

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.



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6 responses to “Money, Money, Money, Money (and Novels)

  1. Jenny

    When I read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which is about money (and communication, and other things, but largely about money), it occurred to me, too, that we don’t write about money quite as much as we used to. The comparison that happened to my own mind was fairy tales rather than Defoe, but it’s similar: trees with gold and silver branches, girls that have gold and diamonds coming from their mouths, glass slippers, chests full of treasure with great dogs sitting on them. Et cetera. There is a LOT of money in fairy tales, and the lack of it is a serious burden, so much so that you’ve got to abandon your kids in the forest.

    Do you think we’re such an affluent society (unlike every society up to this one) that we’ve sort of sublimated those direct references, and begun writing about our other lacks? When I read books from other cultures, they are quite frequently about money, or the lack of it (or things that can stand in for currency, like women.)

    Or maybe we write about too much money? That’s a whole different thing.

    • The fairy tale example is interesting, since that would obviously predate a lot of the novels we’re talking about. In terms of Defoe, the centrality of money is often talked about in terms of historical context (i.e. the beginnings of a modern capitalist system), but I think you’re probably right that depictions of money become scarcer once a society reaches a certain level of affluence. As for whether I think that’s a good or a bad thing–I’m not sure! I tend towards socially engaged literature, so in that sense, it seems a bit of a shame. And the thought in the back of my mind as I was reading the Slate article was that money has become such an abstract concept for a lot of us (what with credit cards, online banking, etc.) that there might be something healthy about being forced to confront it in a more concrete way. But that could also just be a reflection of personal taste in reading, so who knows!

      • Jenny

        Well, what would that concrete way look like? Rolling around on the bed on hundred dollar bills, what movie was that in? Something with Woody Harrelson, I think. I guess actual money and gold and gems do sometimes show up in films, like heist films, but usually for the very wealthy, in books as in films, you’re right, it’s status symbols: cars, homes, women (as it is in Trollope — a lot of that book is about the marriage market), servants.

        I was recently talking with my partner about how American films always seem to tell the same story: corporations and CEOs and so forth are the bad guys; the little guy is the good guy and therefore always wins. If you’re a corporate manager, you’re a sell-out and you have no heart, and you’ll be changed by the end or else get your comeuppance. It’s the new opiate of the masses, really; that story is what we want to hear. Cui bono?

      • Right–the more I think about it, the more I think that the blanket statement that literature doesn’t engage with money to the same extent that it used to is (besides being apparently untrue) not particularly informative in and of itself. On the one hand, as I think I mentioned in my post, it’s entirely possible for that more symbolic approach to treat money in what I would say is also a healthily uncomfortable way (it’s been years since I read it, but I remember my skin crawling during the scene in Gatsby where he’s throwing shirts on the bed–though one can obviously argue about the extent to which Fitzgerald was caught up in what he’s critiquing). So maybe, as you say, it’s less about the relative abstractness or materiality of the treatment and more about the flattening of the discussion into something pat and feel-good.

  2. West African literature, post-1950, is full of concerns about money, as much money as anyone would want to read about. Try Ousmane Sembène’s novella The Money Order for a strong, concrete dose.

    I have great doubts about Piketty’s thesis.

    • His thesis definitely struck me as Eurocentric. I’m admittedly not as up on non-Western literature as I should be, so I didn’t want to mine it for examples for fear of embarassing myself, but it definitely didn’t jibe with my general recollections of, say, the Arab lit I’ve read. It did kind of reflect my impressions of Western lit, but more because of the way in which money functions rather than the actual number of references to it.

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