UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Gospels and grit : subtitle work and labour from Thomas Carlyle to George Orwell Breton, Rob


This thesis examines a group of writers from Thomas Carlyle to Joseph Conrad to George Orwell. Though Orwell receives the majority of coverage, my argument has to do with the group: its character, or the attitudes these figures share that can justify the grouping. Carlyle, Conrad, and Orwell mostly, but also many other Victorians and post-Victorians (though, importantly, not the 'high' Modernists), preach the Gospel of Work. In turn, they vilify work rationalization, implicitly condemn the theory of disutility, and rage against economism. They extol the intrinsic value of work and imagine a moral economy. But these same thinkers deal pragmatically with the specific, concrete, historical conditions of modern work: with such practical issues as wages. 'Inside the Whale' of rationalism they struggle, but they also concede to the reality and size of the beast. The expression of that pragmatism, however, is kept far away from the Gospel of Work. The latter is treated as a point of transcendence, a refuge to withdraw into and thus bypass the real properties of society. In the texts I examine, the contradictions between a pragmatic concession to modern economic modes or relations and sermons on Work remain non-dialectical: neither of the two discourses is qualified or challenged by its opposite. They exist side by side, on paths set for a collision, but they do not encounter each other. Orwell epitomizes the split because he swings harder, faster, and farther than those before him between claiming the unqualified abstract and negotiating the problematic concrete, between representing work as subjectively good and objectively perverted. I make three major but interconnected arguments: one, about the anti-rationalist or anti-utilitarian tradition; two, about the relationship between economic theory and culture; and three, the most important, about the rifts, impasses, or glitches between moral and pragmatic work. I argue that those spaces primarily signify attitudes toward class, praxis, and moralism.

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