Risky Business: The Economy of Self-Management in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction

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This study argues that in the eighteenth century a discourse of risk management emerged that fundamentally reshaped the relation of man to the world by imagining that the individual was capable of controlling aspects of life that had hitherto been left to God or fate. This shift, moreover, established one of the defining characteristics of modernity, linking individual autonomy to the process of managing risk in a manner that not only remains with us today, but has been so thoroughly naturalized that we are no longer aware of how it shapes everyday life. When eighteenth-century fiction and philosophy first began to link selfhood to the ability to manage risk, the dangers an individual faced were all potentially lethal threats to the body: shipwreck, cannibalism, plague, kidnapping, rape. As the notion of individuality as a reflexive defense against the dangers of the world came to be better established, the nature of these threats changed. Rather than dangers to the body, social risks became the focus of authors I call risk theorists. Individual autonomy now meant policing the boundaries of a particular representation of oneself in society. This new formation of selfhood at first depended on a powerful anxiety about avoiding the emotional influence of others, but as this risk too came to seem manageable external threats melted away. What was left were the psychological operations of an individual forced to read social cues, knowing that failure to do so meant inviting the condemnation of others. The greatest risk to an individual now came from their own mind when they failed to discover and perform the right social procedures.

The study begins by focusing on the intermixed physical and economic risks that shape the works of Daniel Defoe, who established the need for a modern individual to circulate in a dangerous world in order to secure for himself better standing in society. In Robinson Crusoe (1719) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) Defoe explicitly rejects the notion that one should take the safest path in life, forcing his protagonists to move through a world they know to be dangerous even when that choice seems superficially unreasonable. Samuel Richardson then translated these intermingled risks into sexual terms in Clarissa (1748), telling the story of a woman who knows that defending herself against a rapist means risking financial destitution. Rather than choose her virtue or her livelihood she charts a third course, valuing her sense of self over the safety of her body and dying in order to ensure that she controls how her story is told.

In the first two decades of the eighteenth century, periodical writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began the process of rendering risk in social terms by establishing a discourse of taste which Adam Smith takes up in both his moral philosophy and economic writings. Smith sees the logic of good taste through to its natural conclusion in A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) when he defines the modern individual through his ability to seal himself off from the poor judgment and excessive emotions of others. Smith then brings the moderation and reserve of the individual to an economic and thus global scale in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Finally, Jane Austen completes the internalization of risk management in Emma (1815), where the ability to confront the dangers of the world is rendered in fully psychological terms. Emma’s evolution as a risk manager depends not on her capacity to seal herself from the outside world, but on her ability to correctly read the intentions and desires of others and judge whether and how they can be compatible with her own.






Carozza, Davide Guido (2020). Risky Business: The Economy of Self-Management in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21012.


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