Secondhand Economies: Recycling, Reuse, and Exchange in the Victorian Novel
Womack, Elizabeth Coggin
Michie, Helena; Patten, Robert L.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines patterns of secondhand exchange in the Victorian novel as a critical counterpoint to the more frequently discussed literary representations of industrial production and consumption. Analyzing representations and transfers of well-used, secondhand, and even discarded objects as they change hands in the work of writers including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry Mayhew together with archival material, I argue that the secondhand economy reveals a cultural ambivalence toward the devaluation of material objects accompanying new modes of production, strongly tinged with a nostalgia for supposed precapitalist affective ties between persons and things. The significance of my exploration of the secondhand economy in literature is not limited to representations of material objects, however; it also facilitates a more nuanced understanding of Victorian class and especially class mobility as it relates to moments of exchange in the novel. While redirecting our attention to economically marginalized characters and the often neglected patterns of circulation that govern their social roles, it also problematizes rigid notions of class by tracing the mobility of both objects and persons as sellers and purchasers of all classes negotiate social position with the exchange of objects. Following an introduction that situates my project at the nexus of economic criticism and material culture studies, I argue that Victorian writers including Carlyle, Dickens, and Mayhew used the circulation of secondhand clothing to signify a rupture from the past and from sartorial social ties. The second chapter examines literary representations of the pawnshop in the work of Dickens and George Eliot; while the pawned object symbolizes the uncertain fate of fallen or endangered women, the site of the pawnshop itself stores forgotten history and facilitates the redemption of both persons and pledges. The third chapter examines auction narratives in the work of Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot, identifying in these texts the narrators' efforts to guide readers toward a more acute perception of irony and proper feelings of sympathy in response to these spectacles of dispossession. The concluding chapter revisits Mayhew, Carlyle, and Dickens to examine profitable second lives of persons and things.