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Demons into Dandies: Comic Villains and Urban Economics in Victorian Literature




Clavin, Keith

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This dissertation traces the evolution of comic villains through their antagonistic rapport with the most serious of Victorian enterprises: the economy. In particular, the development of villains is situated as a metaphoric shift from working-class “demons” into affluent, genteel “dandies” with purchasing power and minimal liability. Culturally, the development charts a transition from the laboring criminal to the idle investor. The first chapter examines Fagin from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-9) as a villain whose construction joins Victorian anxieties about counterfeiting and economic deceptiveness with Jewish stereotypes. Dickens situates Fagin’s identity between cultural fears about secondary markets and an increased distance between purchaser and seller in an expanding credit economy. Throughout the novel, Fagin is associated with the imitative, fictional, and Jewish. In contrast, honesty and truth are aligned with the middle-class, normative characters. This establishes a moral structure marked by comic incidence wherein marginalized figures are fodder for humor and irony, while the conventional heroes are sincere. Chapter 2 investigates the anonymously published The String of Pearls (1846-7), which marks the first appearance of Sweeney Todd. It is a study in the economic anxieties provoked by a commercial figure who embodies conflicting class identities. Again, lines of demarcation are drawn between genuine and deceitful characters through a comic mechanism: in this instance, laughter. The construction of Sweeney Todd, I argue, grapples with a Victorian instinct to eliminate the notion of physical presence from the economy’s formal processes despite a traditional reliance upon physical class indicators. The third chapter takes up the figure of the late-Victorian dandy through Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Conventional utilitarian economic thinking would hold that work and leisure, pleasure and pain, private and public, are distinct realms, but they often overlap and even replace each other. Wilde’s dandies employ comic wit as a tool to disorient notions about the nature of truth. They function as economic villains in the sense that they are anti-productive (in several senses), but also because they disrupt the orderly binaries of private/public, good/bad, truth/lies through seemingly irrational substitutions. The final chapter considers a comic opera by W.S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan titled Utopia, Limited (1893). The general premise is that the difficulty of navigating a course for truth becomes nearly impossible after the enactment of limited-liability statutes. The new villain is the corporation, and its members are able to shield themselves as a group, leaving individuals to flounder. In a pointed critique, Gilbert conflates performed, corporate identity with genuine, private selves until life and language begin to reflect the same fragmented (and absurd) doctrine as property.