Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

By Wolfram Schmidgen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Commodity fetishism in heterogeneous spaces

My discussion so far has, I trust, begun to indicate the extent to which novels as different as Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones depend on an intermixture of persons and things in their construction of community. The violent instability of boundaries in Defoe's novel and their invisibility in Fielding's show that the communal forms these texts figure by drawing on natural and common law meet their limit in an entanglement between persons and things. True, Robinson Crusoe strives to create a causal relationship between narrative and description (thereby placingthe material under human control), and Tom Jones seeks a relationship of equivalence (thereby stressingthe unity of human and material spheres). But these different strategies nonetheless reveal that essential — though ideologically opposed — cultural resources of the first half of the eighteenth century do not lend themselves to assemblingmore differentiated communities of persons and things. Considering Robinson Crusoe's difficulties in stabilizing boundaries and the depth with which Fieldingimagines a possessive world of preestablished and natural-seeming continuities, one is, in fact, inclined to say that even at mid-century, British legal and political ways were still more susceptible to literary appropriations that integrated time, space, and practice than to ones that pulled apart this trinity. The Gestalt of the manor outlined by Edward Coke a hundred years earlier still provides the most helpful map in locatingthe limits of the communal in early eighteenth-century British fiction.

But while this shared trait of two such different novels presents striking evidence for the importance of landed property in eighteenth-century constructions of community, one is bound to wonder at this point how this tallies with the increasing mobility of persons and things that Fielding's An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) recognized as the main challenge to the manor's embedded communal forms. My readingof Robinson Crusoe as a text that revolves around the question of landed property may, in fact, strike some as exceptional — if not perverse.

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