“Fictions of the Gift: Generosity and Obligation
in Eighteenth-Century English Literature”

Cynthia Klekar
West Virginia University



This course examines the relationship between generosity and obligation in eighteenth-century English literature by having students read and write about the role of the “gift" in a masculinist and often exploitative economy. The central inquiry of the course investigates the paradoxical nature of the gift and the ways in which the politics of a gift economy informed both practical and symbolic relations of domination in the period. By analyzing representations of gift economies in social and literary texts, this course demonstrates how the fiction of the disinterested gift underwrites a number of the period’s social and economic concerns, such as authority, gender, labor, property, and marriage. The course asks students to interrogate the assumption that gift-exchange cultivates disinterested personal relations, and to develop an understanding of how seemingly disinterested gestures bolster state, paternal, and filial authority in the eighteenth century. The course concern’s include also identifying the justifications for gifts in the period and the strategies used to valorize gift exchange. While an emphasis is placed on understanding the role of gift economy within the individual texts, the course challenges students to evaluate the texts as ideological documents that present the gift as a collective fantasy of equal exchange designed to foster a “misrecognition” of the values associated with the gift. The periods’ concern with charitable giving, its preoccupation with regulating responsible charity for the protection of the state, and the exchange of women in marriage point to an upper and middle class benevolence as the primary agent of a seemingly disinterested spirit. Although the writers of the period named theirs’ an “Age of Benevolence,” this course suggests an essentially hegemonic upper class and paternal authority over charity and generosity that recasts the period not as the age of benevolence, but as the age of obligation.


This course intersects with the contemporary debate carried on by such theorists as Derrida, Bourdieu, and Irigaray that questions the nature and work of the gift; a debate that demands a reexamination of eighteenth-century England’s relationship to generosity. Novels, diaries, poetry, drama, and political tracts point to the prevalence of gift relations in eighteenth-century England, repeatedly demonstrating their implication with wider disparities of power in English society. However, analyses of instrumental gift relations in industrial societies such as England have focused on charitable donations rather than on economic and social exchange more broadly, suggesting that gift-related behaviors were rendered marginal to the modern market. Because gift economies historically are viewed as alternatives to the self-interest and calculation of capitalism, the gift maintains an idealized status and its obligatory nature is hidden by seemingly reciprocal and equal exchanges. This course, therefore, reads eighteenth-century texts for the ways they represent the social work of the gift, social and individual expectations of reciprocity, the motivations for giving, and the relations that are maintained and fractured within gift economies. The social and literary texts of this period present the rise, complication, and confusion of affective relationships in a market-based culture. On both a public and private level, the gift promises to resolve these conflicts. In the literary texts that comprise this course, such as Duck’s “The Thresher’s Labour,” Defoe’s tracts on generosity, and Burney’s Cecilia, gifts assume a fundamental importance as a marker for a range of values–reciprocity, benevolence, generosity, friendship, diplomacy, love, and sacrifice–that either implicitly or explicitly are seen to stand outside of capitalist calculation. By examining the vast variety of eighteenth-century representations of gift exchange, students are asked to recognize how the gift in this period entails both symbolic and practical forms of obligation that serve in a capitalist culture to support
both a symbolic paternal authority and an unequal distribution of property.

The multiple definitions of the gift we explore in this course are summed up by Samuel Johnson's definition in the Dictionary. According to Johnson, a gift could take the form of a “bequest, endowment, or alms given to the poor;” an inheritance, or anything “bestowed without price; an oblation, offering, bribe.” Eighteenth-century texts consistently conflate the terms “gift,” “loan,” “favor,” “duty,” and “debt,” thus complicating the ostensible simplicity and selflessness of the gift. Many of the texts we read in the course, from Locke, Filmer, and Fell to Richardson’s Pamela, emphasize that dowries, contracts, and the marriage market continue the tradition of identifying women and the female body as gifts. All of the course texts, including Mandeville’s essays on charity, women’s writing, and Smith’s economic writings, demonstrate the extent to which the politics of generosity permeated both social and private life: the period’s concern with giving and receiving inform political tracts, utopian narratives, poetry, drama, and the early novel. Moreover, the narrative of the gift takes the form of a variety of voices, from upper-class educated men, to the laboring lower class, to women. Therefore, in the process of investigating a crucial aspect of the period, the course provides a comprehensive survey of major aspects of eighteenth-century literature and culture.

This 16 week course is designed for advanced undergraduates and majors. The assigned readings and class discussions examine the ways in which the notions of generosity and obligation shaped the eighteenth-century’s self-identification and legacy while offering an introduction to gift economy theory. The course readings and discussions are divided into five units. Each unit examines primary texts concerning an aspect of eighteenth-century life and culture. Paired with each set of primary texts is a selection of broader theoretical discussions about gift economy. These readings will form the basis for student discussions by introducing a variety of historical, cultural, and anthropological perspectives on the relationship between gift economies and capitalism. The units allow students the opportunity to read critically important primary texts of the eighteenth century, critique and challenge the complex values associated with gift economy, and contribute to the reevaluation of the eighteenth century in the context of generosity and obligation.


Unit One: Introduction
This course assumes that students are familiar with eighteenth-century British literature through lower-division level survey courses and that they have experience in writing literary analysis. However, it does not assume that each student has had equal exposure to eighteenth-century literature or that they have a strong background in economic theory. Therefore, the first three weeks of class are devoted to an introduction to the eighteenth century and to the economic terms and concepts that comprise the vocabulary of gift exchange. Students are asked to demonstrate a basic understanding of both economic theory and the eighteenth century with two short assignments. The first assignment asks each student to define and explain an assigned economic term in a four page definition paper. After the definitions are evaluated and revised, I compile them into a notebook that is available to each student on the course web site as their personal economic dictionary for the class. The second assignment engages their familiarity with the eighteenth century by asking them to give brief presentations on one aspect of eighteenth-century life. Students are allowed to choose their topic. For example, a student may choose to discuss fashion, court proceedings, eating habits and diet, architecture, or travel, to name just a few. This allows each student to discuss an aspect that is interesting to them and allows the class as a whole to begin to conceptualize eighteenth-century life.

Unit Two: Obligation and Authority

Unit two introduces the question of the gift and the intersections between authority and gift economies. The primary texts demonstrate the complex conceptions of the origins of nature and authority in key texts of the later seventeenth century. These selections create a dialogue with one another to establish the debates concerning state, paternal, and aristocratic power. Aligning these texts with those of Shrift and Mauss asks the students to examine the ways in which the nature of society perpetuates obligation and the ways in which the paradoxical role of the gift supports modes of authority rather than throwing into relief relations of domination. This unit also establishes a foundation for discussion throughout the course. Eighteenth-century conceptions of authority underwrite political, social, and economic definitions of gender, class, and property. The readings in this unit provide students with the historical context with which to investigate literary representations. The selections from Mauss perform the same task: contemporary debate derives, in most part, from Mauss’ The Gift and the secondary readings respond either implicitly or explicitly to Mauss.

Unit Three: Labor, Capital, and the “Gift”
Unit three investigates the affiliation between gifts and commodities, the ways in which the commodity masquerades as a gift, and the social justifications for misrecognizing commodities as gifts. The texts in this unit narrate the confusion between capitalism and gift economy as well as between things and people. In Derrida’s terms the gift is “impossible” in that it annuls itself: once a gift is recognized as a gift it cancels its status, becoming an interested and unequal capital exchange. Students are asked to investigate the means by which the gift becomes a manipulative gesture to exploit the laboring class and disguise capitalist accumulation.

Unit Four: Generosity and Gender
Unit four draws on the discussions of authority and capitalism to examine gender in the eighteenth century and the difference between feminine and masculine economies. The primary and theoretical texts reveal a contrast between feminine and masculine uses of narrative form and language to describe the gift, and thus demonstrates how the gift informs gender roles. The texts delineate also the authority implicit in masculine interpretations of giving and the fantasy of authority explored in feminine narratives. This unit asks students to interrogate the values of the gift that align generosity with the feminine, the power relations involved in giving and receiving, and to question how notions of feminine agency are complicated by acts of giving, even within a gift economy.

Unit Five: Property and Marriage
Unit five draws on class discussions of authority, gender, and economy to examine affective relations. Class discussion asks students to interrogate the ways in which the gift deflects interested practices of courtship and marriage. The gift in the two primary texts enacts a number of complications, including the question of female agency, the validity of patrilineal succession, the maintenance of class distinctions, and the female body as property. The central concerns are the written and spoken contracts that define morally and ideologically the man as capitalist agent and the woman as gift: symbolically the man always is the giver and the woman always the gift, even in instances when a woman is presented as “giving”. The debate of ownership and property in the period informs the students’ understanding of the significance of the gift as property and the implication of “giving” property away. This unit asks students to draw on their conclusions from the previous four units to debate how even in marriage and kinship relations the gift can function as a manipulative gesture. The conclusions of the course overall will ask the students to consider gift exchange in both the public and private spheres and poses, in a number of ways, the question of whether the gift truly is a disinterested gesture that fosters affective relations, or rather a misrecognized form of obligation.

Students in this class are required to:
• Participate in class discussion.

• Write a 4 page definition paper that will be included in a notebook of relevant economic and social definitions (Paper #1).
• Give an informal presentation on an aspect of eighteenth-century life or culture.

• Write a 7 page paper that analyzes in one of the primary texts the staging of a gift exchange. The analysis will be supported by close reading; no outside critical sources are allowed (Paper #2).
• Write a 10 page final research paper analyzing gift economy in an eighteenth-century text (Paper #3).


Theoretical texts:
Shrift, Alan, ed. The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. New York:
Routledge, 1997.
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. (Xeroxed excerpts provided)

Eighteenth-Century texts:
Demaria, Robert Jr., ed. British Literature: 1640-1789. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Defoe, Daniel. Roxana; or The Fortunate Mistress.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela.
Burney, Frances. Cecilia; or Memoirs of an Heiress.

Source Materials (provided as xeroxed packet):
Defoe, Daniel. Giving Alms, no Charity.
Mandeville, Bernards. An Essay on Charity


Unit One: Introduction

Week 1: Introduction to Course; Shrift essay: “Why Gift?”

Week 2: Congreve: The Way of the World

Week 3: Selections from Mauss: The Gift; Selections from Derrida: “The Time of the King”; Paper #1 Due

Unit Two: Obligation and Authority

Week 4: Selections from Hobbes: Levithan; Selections from Locke: Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government; Selections from Filmer: Patriarcha

Week 5: Haywood: Fantomina; Or, Love in a Maze; Presentations

Unit Three: Labor, Capital, and the “Gift”

Week 6: Selections from Bourdieu: The Logic of Practice; Defoe: Roxana

Week 7: Defoe: Roxana

Week 8: Selections from Smith: The Wealth of Nations; Pope: “The Rape of the Lock;” Duck: “The Thresher’s Labour;” Mary Collier: “The Woman’s Labour”

Unit Four: Generosity and Gender

Week 9: Selections from Defoe: Giving Alms, No Charity; Selections from Mandeville: An Essay on Charity; Behn: “The Golden Age”; Astell: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies; Paper #2 Due

Week 10: Selections from Cixous: “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”; Scott: Millenium Hall

Unit Five: Marriage and Property

Week 11: Selections from Irigaray “Women on the Market”; Richardson: Pamela

Week 12: Richardson: Pamela

Week 13: Burney: Cecilia

Week 14: Burney: Cecilia

Week 15: Burney: Cecilia; Conclusions

Week 16: Paper #3 Due