Think how terrible the fascination of money is! … I have money always in my thoughts and my desires; and the whole life I place before myself is money, money, money, and what money can make of life!
(Bella Wilfer, in Our Mutual Friend)
THIS BOOK begins with the fears entertained in and beyond the Victorian novel about the powers of the commodity as they are embodied in four representative works written during the quarter-century Eric Hobsbawm calls the age of capital: 1Little Dorrit (1855), Dombey and Son (1848), Daniel Deronda (1876), and Silas Marner (1861). As Bella Wilfer knows, the terrible fascination of money is inseparable from the fascination of its conquests. Plots such as those I will survey here to restrict the grasp of the commodity are plots to limit the expansiveness that is the most common source of anxiety about it. 2 For capitalism's discontents, the scandal of an economy characterized by the comprehensive grasp of the commodity form is the well-known story of its further spread, what Hobsbawm calls “the major theme” (xi–xii) of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a theme whose modern and postmodern variations have resonated no less consequentially in the years since.
Such expansion has never been thought to confine itself to conquests at home or abroad of new outposts for trade or new sources of labor; more intimate infiltrations have always been noticed at work alongside capitalism's grander annexations; generations of its critics have traced its marks in the innermost recesses and resources of the cultures whose economy it comprehends; generations of capitalism's critics have witnessed it colonize all sorts of values defined by their difference from what can be bought and sold, transforming, Midas-like, everything it touches into tools or mirrors of its own image.
Ever renovated, this crisis of capital is nothing new: if the middle of the nineteenth century crowns the age that historians of capitalism iden-