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Comyn provides an introduction to the figure of homo economicus (economic man) and analyses the historical and contemporary debates surrounding this figure, demonstrating its significance to both literary and economic discourses over a 250-year period. Recognising and exploring the tradition of moral philosophy that political economy emerges from, and the emotional and imaginative insight of economic theory’s origins, Comyn identifies and investigates the category of the “empathic imagination” in the origins of political economy and the novel, and its implications for the development and understanding of homo economicus. Combining the methodologies of new historicism and new economic criticism, Comyn engages with transhistorical and transnational narratives concerning literary value: aesthetic, economic, cultural, and political.


  • Homo Economicus
  • Empathic Imagination
  • Sanditon
  • Charles Great Expectations
  • sympathySympathy

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-94325-1_1
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  1. 1.

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 6th ed. (1759; London: A. Millar, 1790; Library of Economics and Liberty [Online]), I.I. 1,

  2. 2.

    John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money 1936 (London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society, 1974), 162.

  3. 3.

    Economic historian, Joseph Persky, has traced the first use of the term, homo economicus, to John Kells Ingram. Ingram’s book, A History of Political Economy (1888), used the term as a critique of John Stuart Mill’s abstraction of human nature in his account of political economy. Subsequently, Persky argues, “John Neville Keynes (1890) picked up (and singularized) the phrase in his much more extensive methodological treatment. Keynes’s efforts, though considerably less hostile than Ingram’s, still painted ‘an “economic man,” whose activities are determined solely by the desire for wealth,’ and ascribed the origins of this tightly drawn abstraction to John Stuart Mill.” See, Joseph Persky, “Retrospectives: The Ethology of Homo Economicus”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 2 (1995): 222. Despite the “late” coinage of this term, the attributes of homo economicus, such as rationality and self-interest, are as applicable to the beginnings of political economic theory as they are to its mid-Victorian iterations. As we shall soon see, many of the qualities associated with homo economicus are traceable back to Adam Smith and I adhere to this disciplinary tradition. See, for example, David Wilson and William Dixon, A History of Homo Economicus: The Nature of the Moral in Economic Theory (London; New York: Routledge, 2012).

  4. 4.

    Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 (London: Allen Lane, 2001), 424–425.

  5. 5.

    Paul Krugman, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”, New York Times, 6 September 2009,

  6. 6.

    Krugman, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”, 1.

  7. 7.

    See, for example, Paul Krugman, “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled”, New York Review of Books, 6 June 2013,

  8. 8.

    For the connections being made between empathy and the imagination in contemporary psychology and neuroscience, see, for example: Brendan Gaessar, “Constructing Memory, Imagination and Empathy: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective”, Frontiers in Psychology 3 (Jan 2013): 1–6; Fernando Quigua and Joshua Clegg, “Imagine the Feeling: An Aesthetic Science of Psychology”, Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 49, no. 3 (Sep. 2015): 459–477; Diane S. Van Cleave, “Contributions of Neuroscience to a New Empathy Epistemology: Implications for Development Training”, Advances in Social Work 17, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 369–389. Emily Holman uses the term “empathic imagination” in an article discussing Ian McEwan’s Atonement but does not fully theorise her use of the term or trace the relationship between empathy and the imagination in the tradition of moral philosophy as I do, below. See: Emily Holman, “Ian McEwan and the Empathic Imagination: Atonement Fifteen Years On”, Literary Imagination 18, no. 3 (2016): 315–324.

  9. 9.

    Thomas Demand and Susan Van Wyk, Thomas Demand, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2012), 63.

  10. 10.

    Demand and Van Wyk, Thomas Demand, 63.

  11. 11.

    Alexander Dick, Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature and Economic Debate in Britain 1790–1830 (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 3.

  12. 12.

    Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, “Taking Account of the New Economic Criticism: An Historical Introduction”, in The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, ed. Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), 35. For one of the first critical accounts of the literary elements of economic theory from within the contemporary economics profession, see, Deirdre N. McCloskey’s seminal work, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd ed. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

  13. 13.

    James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 3.

  14. 14.

    Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 5.

  15. 15.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 3.

  16. 16.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 3.

  17. 17.

    This simultaneity can be understood in the Marxian terms of base and superstructure, where the economic base “determines” superstructural discourses such as those of literature and economics. I agree with Raymond Williams’ argument, however, that the base needs to be understood as “a process, and not a state”: “We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process.” See, Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”, New Left Review I, no. 82 (1973): 5–6.

  18. 18.

    Regenia Gagnier, The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

  19. 19.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 7.

  20. 20.

    See, for example, Charles Lewis, Coincidence of Wants: The Novel and Neoclassical Economics (London; New York: Garland, 2000).

  21. 21.

    See, for example, Catherine Ingrassia, “The Pleasure of Business and the Business of Pleasure: Gender, Credit, and the South Sea Bubble”, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 24 (1995): 191–210; Peter M. Garber, “Famous First Bubbles”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 4, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 35–54; Richard A. Kleer, “Riding a Wave: The Company’s Role in the South Sea Bubble”, Economic History Review 68, no. 1 (2015): 264–285.

  22. 22.

    Krugman, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”, 1.

  23. 23.

    See, for example, Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality”, in The Novel, ed. Franco Moretti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 356–358; “The Romantics and the Political Economists”, in The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature, ed. James Chandler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 71–100; and Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  24. 24.

    For a recent study of the lessons the humanities disciplines (particularly literary studies) can offer the discipline of economics, see, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).

  25. 25.

    Susan F. Feiner, “A Portrait of Homo Economicus as a Young Man”, in The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, ed. Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen (London: Routledge, 1999), 194.

  26. 26.

    Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, eds., Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

  27. 27.

    Ferber and Nelson, Beyond Economic Man, 4.

  28. 28.

    Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, eds., Feminist Economics Today: Beyond Economic Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

  29. 29.

    See, for example, Elaine Freedgood, “Banishing Panic: Harriet Martineau and the Popularization of Political Economy”, Victorian Studies 39, no. 1 (Autumn 1995): 33–53; Lise Gaston, “Natural Law and Unnatural Families in Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 38, no. 3 (July 2016): 195–207; Claudia C. Klaver, “Imperial Economics: Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy and The Narration of Empire”, Victorian Literature and Culture 35 (2007): 21–40.

  30. 30.

    See, for example, Emma J. Clery. The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Catherine Ingrassia, Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Karen O’Brien, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  31. 31.

    Lana L. Dalley and Jill Rappoport, eds., Economic Women: Essays on Desire and Dispossession in Nineteenth-Century British Culture (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2013), 18.

  32. 32.

    Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 20.

  33. 33.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 6.

  34. 34.

    See, for example, Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986); Josephine Guy and Ian Small, Oscar Wilde’s Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  35. 35.

    Catherine Gallagher, The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 6. See also, Regenia Gagnier, The Insatiability of Human Wants; Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism On Social and Economic Thought, 1795–1865 (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1988); Gail Turley Houston, From Dickens to Dracula: Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

  36. 36.

    Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of British Individualism from 1719–1900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Liz Bellamy, Commerce, Morality and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); James Thompson, Models of Value.

  37. 37.

    Michael Tratner, for instance, examines the Keynesian emphasis on spending and the new theories of sexuality based on consumption that emerges in modernist literature. Paul Crosthwaite, while not focusing on Keynesianism, explores the interplay between anxieties associated with systemic risk and the “modernist imagination”. See, Michael Tratner, Deficits and Desire: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Paul Crosthwaite, “Anticipations of the Accident: Modernist Fiction and Systemic Risk”, Textual Practice 24, no.2 (2010): 331.

  38. 38.

    See, for example, Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 19994); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone Press, 1988); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).

  39. 39.

    Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1983); Patrick Brantlinger, Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694–1994 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). Drawing on the work of diverse thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Charles Baudelaire, Berman traces the evolution of modernity both in terms of its thinkers’ conceptualisation and understanding of it and the industrial, technological, and socio-political forces that inevitably shape it. Brantlinger, in contrast, explores the interrelationship between debt, fiction, and the nation-state (Britain, in particular), beginning with Daniel Defoe and ending with the half-century following WWII.

  40. 40.

    See, for example, Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact; Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think; Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

  41. 41.

    Locke is, of course, due credit for the “creation” of the individual, but the rise and characterisation of the individual comes to the fore in eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

  42. 42.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 12.

  43. 43.

    Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan, 5th ed. (1776; London: Methuen & Co., 1904; Library of Economics and Liberty [Online]), IV.II.4,

  44. 44.

    Smith, Wealth of Nations, IV.II.9.

  45. 45.

    The “invisible hand” refers to the proposition that “[b]y pursuing [one’s] own interest [one] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when [one] really intends to promote it” (IV.II.9). For an examination of the intellectual history of the balancing force commerce and economic activity might perform in society, see Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

  46. 46.

    George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 3.

  47. 47.

    V. S. Ramachandran, “The Neurons that Shaped Civilization”, TEDIndia video, 7:39, November 2009,

  48. 48.

    Guiseppe di Pellegrino, et al, “Understanding Motor Events: A Neurophysiological Study”, Experimental Brain Research 91 (1992), 176–180. See, also, Sandra Blakeslee, “Cells That Read Minds”, The New York Times, 10 January 2006,

  49. 49.

    Ramachandran, “The Neurons that Shaped Civilization”.

  50. 50.

    Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).

  51. 51.

    Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization, 177.

  52. 52.

    Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.I.1.

  53. 53.

    Andrew Skinner, introduction to The Wealth of Nations Books I-III by Adam Smith, ed. Andrew Skinner (London: Penguin, 1999), 15.

  54. 54.

    James Chandler, “The Politics of Sentiment: Notes Toward a New account”, Studies in Romanticism 4 (2010): 553–575; An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); Jonathan Lamb, The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009). See, also, Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001). While Rothschild does not address the novel specifically, she does draw out the correlations between economics, morality, and the imagination, defining the period between the 1770s and 1820s as a time when “[e]conomic thought was intertwined with political, philosophical, and religious reflection. The life of cold and rational calculation was intertwined with the life of sentiment and imagination” (1).

  55. 55.

    Keen, Empathy and the Novel.

  56. 56.

    Rae Greiner, “Thinking of Me Thinking of You: Sympathy versus Empathy in the Realist Novel”, in “Papers and Responses from the Eighth Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association”, special issue, Victorian Studies 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011), 418. See also, Rae Greiner, Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).

  57. 57.

    Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 4.

  58. 58.

    Greiner, “Thinking of Me Thinking of You”, 418.

  59. 59.

    Henry Fielding, A History of Tom Jones: A Foundling, intro. Martin C. Battestin, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).

  60. 60.

    Poovey, A History of Modern Fact, 80.

  61. 61.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 140.

  62. 62.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 147. Significantly J. G. A. Pocock demonstrates the relationship between virtue and property that begins to be undermined during the eighteenth century with the rise of an exchange and commerce-driven economic system. See Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  63. 63.

    Thompson, Models of Value, 154.

  64. 64.

    Sanditon was written in 1817, but only published in 1925. Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent references are to this edition: Jane Austen, Sanditon, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Later Manuscripts, ed. Janet M. Todd and Linda Bree, (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 137–209.

  65. 65.

    Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (London: Macmillan, 1986), 225.

  66. 66.

    See for instance: Roger Sales, Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England (London; New York: Routledge, 1994); Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); Mary Poovey, “Jane Austen’s Gestural Aesthetic”, in Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 357–372; Clara Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and Literary Canon (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  67. 67.

    David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation 3rd ed. (1817; London: John Murray, 1821; Library of Economics and Liberty [Online]),

  68. 68.

    Elizabeth Jay and Richard Jay, “Introductory Essay”, in Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to “Political Economy”, ed. Elizabeth and Richard Jay (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 8.

  69. 69.

    Hilton, The Age of Atonement, 50.

  70. 70.

    For an account of the relationship between religion and the novel in the nineteenth century, see Norman Vance, “Religion and the Novel”, in The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820–1880, ed. John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 476–491.

  71. 71.

    Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, intro. David Trotter, ed. Charlotte Mitchell (London: Penguin Classics, 1996).

  72. 72.

    Dickens, Great Expectations, 171.

  73. 73.

    Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988).

  74. 74.

    Gagnier, Insatiability of Human Wants, 478.

  75. 75.

    Gagnier, Insatiability of Human Wants, 478.

  76. 76.

    The marginal revolution signals the shift in economics from macroeconomics to microeconomics and in particular the focus on the law of diminishing marginal utility. Donald Winch describes the law as positing “a definite (if subjective) relationship between the quantity of goods purchased and the extra satisfaction to be derived from additional amounts of them”. Donald Winch, “The Emergence of Economics as a Science 1750–1870”, in The Fontana Economic History of Europe (London: Collins 1973), 564. See, also, Regenia Gagnier, Insatiability of Human Wants, 478.

  77. 77.

    John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money 1936 (London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society, 1974). Consumption is crucial to Keynes’ General Theory, with an entire book dedicated to its study. Keynes also stresses the psychological or “subjective factors” influencing consumption patterns (107–112), and the negative impact saving usually has on employment, identifying as “absurd” the “idea that an act of individual saving is just as good for effective demand as an individual act of consumption” (211). As Geoffrey Barraclough argues: a “death blow” was dealt to the “the old ideals of prudence and saving; consumption was the new watchword”. See Geoffrey Barraclough, “The Keynesian Era in Perspective”, in The End of the Keynesian Era: Essays on the Disintegration of the Keynesian Political Economy, ed. Robert Skidelsky (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1977), 106.

  78. 78.

    Michael Tratner, Deficits and Desires: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 3.

  79. 79.

    Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, intro. Carol Ann Duffy and Valentine Cunningham (1925; London: Vintage, 2000).

  80. 80.

    Ian Mcleod, a British parliamentarian, coined the word “stagflation” in 1965. See Ronald McKinnon, “The Return of Stagflation”, Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2011.

  81. 81.

    Paul Treanor, “Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition”, David Harvey uses Treanor’s definition in his discussion of neoliberalism: A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3–4.

  82. 82.

    Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957; London: Penguin Books, 2007); Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944; London: Routledge, 2007). For a close engagement with the relationship between neoliberalism and the contemporary novel, see: Emily Johansen and Alissa G. Karl, “Introduction: Reading and Writing the Economic Present”, in “Neoliberalism and the Novel”, special issue, Textual Practice 29, no. 2 (2015): 201–214.

  83. 83.

    See, for example, Daniel Cohen, Our Modern Times: The New Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009). Cohen argues that “[i]t should not surprise us that the information revolution finds its ‘spontaneous’ ideology in neo-liberalism. The revolution values the part over the whole; it lauds autonomy over hierarchy; it transfers the weight of social construction to individuals who are more and more dissociated from society” (51).

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Comyn, S. (2018). Introduction. In: Political Economy and the Novel. Palgrave Studies in Literature, Culture and Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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