Modernism'S Gifts

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This dissertation argues that the work of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Stevie Smith exemplifies the reappearance of "themes of the gift" hailed by anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his 1924 essay, The Gift. Their stylistically diverse treatments of themes such as hospitality, friendship, reciprocity, sympathy, sacrifice, and charity reflect on the contemporary fate of the ethics of generosity under the conditions of capitalism and invite us to reconsider what counts, or should count, as generous in the modern age. In so doing, their work manifests conceptual affinities with anthropological, psychoanalytic, and philosophical discourses on the gift, exchange, and subjective and symbolic "economies," while also making distinctively literary and feminist contributions to this interdisciplinary corpus. I argue that by conjugating the challenges of formal innovation and social transformation, their novels make not only recuperative but also speculative gestures. On the one hand, they work to salvage those material and immaterial "gifts" that defy normative notions of economic necessity, from the "favors" that Stein's heroine grants her friends in Ida: A Novel (1941) to the many "offerings" made in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), from the masochistic letters that circulate in Rhys's After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930) to the human knack for suffering in Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper (1936). On the other hand, they codify the conditions and conventions propitious for gifts with the potential to disrupt the social and sexual status quo. Insofar as the new forms of engagement and community toward which they look are furthermore figured as critical responses to money, the predominant ground of exchange, their texts enable us to reevaluate the ethical and political stakes of modernism, as well as its notoriously troubled relationship to the market. Thus, I argue finally that the texts of Stein, Woolf, Rhys, and Smith, in revealing so many gifts to be universally constitutive of and yet unique to the subject, work to resolve a tension between a desire for social equality and a radical suspicion of abstract ideals of equivalence, while nevertheless conceding that the possibility of resolving this tension may be confined to the world of fiction.

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