Being Good with Money: Economic Bearings in George Eliot's Ethical and Social Thought
Date: 1 June 2011
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in English
In a world of material needs and wants, economics and ethics are inextricably linked. George Eliot recognised this seminal inter-relationship and sought to unravel its intricacies and complexities through her writing. My thesis explores this contention by reference to two principal questions: how did Eliot conceptualise economic value ...
In a world of material needs and wants, economics and ethics are inextricably linked. George Eliot recognised this seminal inter-relationship and sought to unravel its intricacies and complexities through her writing. My thesis explores this contention by reference to two principal questions: how did Eliot conceptualise economic value within her broader individual and social ethics? And how was the integration of economic and wider concepts of the “good” explored and tested within the novels? I frame these questions against the great changes in how economics was theorised over her writing career and, by tracing intellectual connections with Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and later writers attempting to define and secure the moral underpinnings of political economy, I argue that Eliot was better informed and engaged with that process than most criticism has acknowledged. I also re-examine the equally remarkable developments in Eliot’s life and material circumstances, particularly after the success of her first novels. Her wealth and management of financial capital brought a particular focus to all questions of valuation, not least in relation to her own work and intellectual property. I contend that an inability fully to reconcile the moral and aesthetic core of her art and the high financial rewards it was generating gave the economic ethics she tested in the novels an extraordinary urgency and complexity. In my readings of, in particular, the later novels, I argue that the crucial motivations and actions by which her characters attempt to manage economic choice simultaneously parallel and are contained within competing contemporary moral philosophical systems. I conclude that her dissatisfaction with any rule-based system, whether of outcome or duty, led her to consider an essentially Aristotelian ethics of virtue in relation to economic ethics. My final chapters look out beyond individual ethical choice to consider how Eliot’s social and political vision accommodated the economic and its attendant institutions and to suggest a connection with the new liberalism which was starting to emerge in the final years of her life.
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