Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Sexual Commerce in Trollope's Phineas Novels

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Sexual Commerce in Trollope's Phineas Novels

Article excerpt


The full realization of a competitive market economy in the wake of the industrial revolution has left its mark on Victorian literature. The nineteenth-century realist novel, with its penchant for social commentary, provides a valuable resource for studying the influence of exchange economy on its attendant exchange society, on what has come to be known as the commodity culture of Victorian Britain. (1) Amid the vast catalogue of nineteenth-century literary moguls who register capitalism's influence on the values and practices of Victorian society, Anthony Trollope has often been overlooked in recent literary and cultural criticism. Yet Trollope's writing, with its explicit interest in politics and social relations, offers insightful critiques of capitalism's deep impact on the organization and structure of free market society.

This essay argues that the narrative construction of feminine identity through marriage and the discourses of marriage becomes a key place in which Trollope explores the congruencies between capitalist economy and society. Specifically, the discussion examines the process of women's commodification in two of Trollope's Palliser novels, Phineas Finn (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874). (2) The social code which governs relations between characters in Trollope's writing subscribes to the laws of the competitive marketplace, to the dynamics of commodity exchange. In both novels, Trollope presents social, sexual, and political relations, centered on the twin concepts of profit and exchange, in terms of economic transactions. Marriage, in turn, assumes the form of a marketplace for the enactment of a sexual commerce. (3) In the binds and byways of the Victorian marriage market, women are relegated in Trollope's writing to the category of commodity. The rituals of wooing and wedding thus support a social economy in which women supply what men demand. As objects of barter and exchange in economic relations between men, women represent both property themselves and the title-deed to other property. Yet, in the Phineas novels, Trollope also substantiates the proposition that a feminine identity as commodity in sexual commerce provides an incomplete formulation of that identity. In the process, he investigates the social consequences of women who either reject or defy economic constructions of identity. For resisting their relegation to the status of commodity, Trollope's women characters face the penalty of either total erasure from the social order or forced subjection to its authority.

Following these thoughts, the discussion divides into two parts. The first aims towards a working definition of "commodity" and its related terms. It outlines how the structure of social order in Trollope, and more specifically the structure of a marriage market, transposes the economic function of the commodity onto women. The second works through the consequences of women's commodification in the Phineas novels. In so doing, it examines discrepancies between social and private constructions of feminine identity, between an identity as commodity and one as woman outside and beyond sexual commerce.


To address the issue of women's commercial status in the Victorian marriage market, it is first necessary to establish a working definition for the term commodity. In Capital, Marx's theorization of capitalist economy provides a useful vocabulary and a conceptual framework with which to describe women's commodification in the Phineas novels. As the foundation of his theory, Marx's analysis of commodities furnishes a model for fixing a commodity's function in economic exchange. He defines a commodity, in the first case, as "a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another." (4) He adds that "the nature of those wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or the fancy ... makes no difference" (45). Secondly, a commodity is something that is produced for the purpose of an exchange for other commodities on the market, so that it is through their presence in the market, that material objects become commodities. …

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