From debates about reparations to the rise of the welfare state, the decades following World War I saw a widespread turn across disciplines to questions about the nature and role of gifts: What is a gift? What do gifts mean and do? Which individuals and institutions have the authority to give?
Marshalling wide-ranging interdisciplinary research, Returning the Gift argues that these questions centrally shaped literary modernism. The book begins by revisiting the locus classicus of twentieth-century gift theorythe French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s 1925 essay, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. His title notwithstanding, the gift Mauss envisions is not primitive or pre-capitalist, but rather a distinctively modern phenomenon. Subsequent chapters offer sustained, nuanced readings of novels and nonfiction by Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and H.D. from the 1920s to 1940s, underscoring the ways their writing is illuminated by contemporaneous developments in the social sciences, economics, and politics, while also making a case for their unique contributions to broader debates about gifts. Not only do these writers insist that literature is a special kind of gift, but they also pose challenges to the gift’s feminization in the work of both their Victorian forebears and contemporary male theorists. Each of these writers uses tropes and narratives of givingof hospitality, sympathy, reciprocity, charity, genius, and kinshipto imagine more egalitarian social possibilities under the conditions of the capitalist present. The language of the gift is not, as we might expect, a mark of hostility to the market so much as a means of giving form to the ‘society’ in market society-of representing everyday experiences of exchange that the myth of the free market works, even now, to render unthinkable.