Romance of Contract
All things by war are in a Chaos hurl'd
But love alone first made,
And still preserves the world.
In histories of early modern political thought, the rise of theories of contractual obligation has always played an important role; and yet the usual histories construe contract in an overly narrow way, focusing on the canonical works of writers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in which contract is imagined as a social and political agreement between equal parties to set up a sovereign. In these modern histories, contract theorists offer a simple theory of motivation, according to which the parties to the contract are moved by rational self-interest; the consent of the governed is defined in opposition to coercion; and erotic passion is irrelevant to the production of “calculating and calculable” citizens.1 And, while some historians and feminist critics have challenged these fictions of contract theory2—in some cases by directing us to the widespread use of the marriage contract as a metaphor for the hierarchical, inequitable political relations of sovereign and subject—they have for the most part been content to offer a reinterpretation of the canonical texts of political theory. As a result of this narrowly focused discussion, much of what is interesting and complicated in this history has been lost sight of—not least of all the role of narrative and of the passions in motivating contractual obligation.
In the following pages I suggest that we can enrich our understanding of seventeenth-century debates about contractual obligation if we turn to some of the neglected literary texts of the period: specifically, contemporary prose romance dramatizes the paradoxical coexistence
From Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997), 526-66. Reprinted with permission. The version
printed here has been shortened and amended by the author for this collection.