Northeast Modern Language Association
April 7-11, 2010
To Give or Not To Give: The Ethics of Nineteenth-Century Charity
In Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Tony Weller, the disgruntled spouse of a charity woman, complains, “[W]ot aggrawates me, Samivel, is to see ‘em a wastin’ all their time and labour in making clothes for copper-coloured peoples as don’t want ‘em, and taking no notice of the flesh-coloured Christians as do.” While we may be tempted to dismiss Weller’s position as xenophobic isolationism, his argument highlights the ways in which foreign and domestic charity may be understood as in competition. To do good for one is to not do good for another, a position only furthered by perhaps Dickens’ most well-known do-gooder, Mrs. Jellyby, whose ambitious African projects come at the expense of at least one English family.
This panel will address the ethical considerations of nineteenth-century charity work to show where doing good is perhaps to do harm. In Weller’s complaint, we can see that acts of charity often leave the charitable giver at a loss, trapped between wanting to do good in the world and the knowledge that any good act likely has unintended negative consequences. While I am particularly interested in papers which address the relationships between the giving of “things” such as clothing, reading materials or even homes and the giving of immaterial instruction such as spiritual guidance and moral improvement, I am broadly interested in work which asks how the Victorian devotion to charity engages citizens’ allegiance to local and global political, ethnic and religious communities and how charity projects have been or might be constructed to benefit both the giver and receiver. Please submit 250-word abstracts to Leslie Graff at firstname.lastname@example.org by September 30, 2009.