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Criminality and Capitalism in the Anglo-American Novel, 1830-1925

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posted on 29.07.2020 by Alexander C Long

This dissertation argues that the boundaries between capitalism and criminality have become increasingly blurred over the past two centuries, and it traces this development through the Victorian era into American modernity. Operating on the premise that popular literature reflects wide-spread concerns and anxieties of a common audience, each chapter focuses on one primary text as a cite for analysis through which we gain a window of insight into the popular perception of criminals and the role of criminality in developing capitalism. In an attempt to provide relevant context and establish a solid foundation on which to work, the dissertation begins with an introduction that outlines major developments in the British literary field, with a particular eye toward bourgeoning popular mediums, beginning in the eighteenth century and leading into the Victorian era. This foundational work establishes urban compression and rapid industrial development as major concerns for a Victorian audience and figures them as the backdrop on which the discourse of criminality will play itself out.

The first half of the dissertation focuses on the Victorian era, whereas the latter half analyzes works of American literature in the early-twentieth century. Chapter one looks to Oliver Twist as the preeminent example of Victorian criminality, with particular emphasis on middle-class complicity in reinforcing the social structures and environmental determinism that Dickens identified as major causes of Victorian crime. Chapter two progresses to the late-Victorian era and discusses Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. Doing so allows approaching Victorian criminality from the opposite vantage point, seeing the advent of white-collar crime and fraud as now more significant than the formerly dominant concern of petty crimes as seen in Oliver Twist. These early chapters mark a progression of criminality that gradually enmeshes itself in the habits of ambitious capitalists, which I argue is paramount to the construction of the discourse of criminality and capitalism. Rather than isolated incidents, I forward these texts as representative of thematic shifts in the literary field and public consciousness.

Such a progression is carried over into American modernism, which constitutes the focus of chapters three and four. In chapter three, systemic violence inherent in laissez-faire capitalism and cronyism become the focus of the discussion, as presented in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This chapter presents Sinclair’s didacticism as a necessary and significant progression in popular social-critique literature, and it contends that the gradual shift away from the personalized narrative of Jurgis to the heightened awareness of his political awakening marks an important development that figures criminality as not only part of, but indeed integral to, capitalism and its smooth functioning. This is contrasted with chapter four which presents The Great Gatsby as a misinterpretation of the lessons presented in The Jungle and reverts back to individualism as a flawed solution to capitalism’s ills. Whereas The Jungle was critiqued based on socialist didacticism and so-called lack of artistry, The Great Gatsby experienced immense success for its artistry, despite the fact that it falls back into the trap of individualism, romanticizing the criminal and capitalistic success of its protagonist while ultimately slating him for sacrifice to reinforce the status quo.

These four chapters, I argue, constitute four major stages in progression of the discourse on criminality and capitalism, but leave many questions still unanswered, particularly as regards how society should appropriately and adequately engage the issues contained within these texts. An epilogue is included at the end of this project as an attempt to look forward to expansion of this research and continue to trace this progression up to present-day texts of popular culture. In doing so, my research will engage the development of the criminally-capitalist antihero in popular culture and argue that such figures are representative of the crisis of contemporary capitalism that sees no legitimate (nor illegitimate) ways of succeeding in capitalism.

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Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Dino Franco Felluga

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Aparajita Sagar

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Bill Mullen

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Derek Pacheco

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