How do the stories we tell about money shape our economies?
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, as constant growth became the economic norm throughout Europe, fictional stories involving money were overwhelmingly about loss. Novel after novel tells the tale of bankruptcy and financial failure, of people losing everything and ending up in debtor's prison, of inheritances lost and daughters left orphaned and poor. In Downward Mobility, Katherine Binhammer argues that these stories of ruin are not simple tales about the losers of capitalism but narratives that help manage speculation of capital's inevitable collapse.
Bringing together contemporary critical finance studies with eighteenth-century literary history, Binhammer demonstrates the centrality of the myth of downward mobility to the cultural history of capitalism—and to the emergence of the novel in Britain. Deftly weaving economic history and formal analysis, Binhammer reveals how capitalism requires the novel's complex techniques to render infinite economic growth imaginable. She also explains why the novel's signature formal developments owe their narrative dynamics to the contradictions within capital's form.
Combining new archival research on the history of debt with original readings of sentimental novels, including Frances Burney's Cecilia and Camilla, Sarah Fielding's David Simple, and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Downward Mobility registers the value of literary narrative in interpreting the complex sequences behind financial capitalism, especially the belief in infinite growth that has led to current environmental crises. An audacious epilogue arms humanists with the argument that, in order to save the planet from unsustainable growth, we need to read more novels.
About the author
Katherine Binhammer is a professor of English at the University of Alberta. She is the author of The Seduction Narrative in Britain, 1747–1800.