Date of Degree
Matthew K. Gold
Digital Humanities | Literature in English, British Isles
rise of the novel, upward mobility, digital humanities, GIS mapping, Daniel Defoe, Maria Edgeworth
This dissertation traces the literary history of a particular plotline in eighteenth-century British Literature—that of a poor individual who climbs the economic ladder through hard work (as opposed to marriage or inheritance). This plot features prominently in the earliest novels (written by Daniel Defoe) but quickly fades from that genre, only to reappear in others such as children’s literature and life-writing. This dissertation collects for the first time the wide variety of eighteenth-century texts that contain this economic mobility through work plot and analyzes them using a variety of methodologies, including single author studies, genre studies, multi-genre studies, engagement with current social science data and research, GIS software, data visualization, and quantitative calculations. This analysis focuses on two questions. First, how do these characters actually increase their income? Second, do these texts make this path to upward mobility seem likely or possible? In other words, would the path to greater economic fortune described be replicable for a reader, offering self-help, or did these stories merely entertain? This dissertation argues that literary, socio-historical, and quantitative data suggest that intra-generational economic mobility through work was rare and difficult for a poor individual to achieve both in literature and in the world outside the text; few individuals successfully moved from poverty to the “middle class” and those who did were not likely to earn enough to afford to purchase novels. This argument unsettles the seminal critical narrative of “the rise of the novel” in the eighteenth-century, first advanced by Ian Watt, which maintains that the novel emerged primarily as a result of the growth of a “middle class” whose members bought, read, and saw their socio-economic experiences reflected in this new literary product. (Spreadsheets in Appendices A-E offer quantitative support for this assertion).
Because the characters who achieved the greatest economic success often worked abroad, this dissertation takes on a third, related question: What is the relationship between economic mobility and geographic mobility? This question is tackled using two different approaches: traditional close reading and the use of GIS software; the latter produced interactive digital maps of the places each upwardly mobile character travels in her/his economic journey. These maps are part of a digital project which develops and supports the argument that the more miles a character travels in her/his story, the more money s/he earns by its conclusion. This digital project (which is part of this dissertation), also discusses some fascinating questions generated by the process of using this digital tool in a humanities context, which forced into conversation the opposing epistemologies of the humanities and social sciences. Together, the literary map of the upward mobility through work plot, the social science data that illuminates its socio-historical context, and the digital maps of the travels of upwardly mobile characters comprise an initial “mapping” of the literary discourse around economic mobility through work in the eighteenth century.
Zuber, Heather, "How and Where to Make a Fortune: Mapping the Fictions of Economic Mobility through Work in British Literature, 1719–1809" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.