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What Can Economists Learn From Literature?

Sara Thornton, professor of English at the Université Paris Diderot and a specialist in 19th century literature, discusses how works of fiction are more than simply instruction or entertainment. They are windows into the economic lives of human beings and provide useful illustrations of “economic theory in action.” As she explains, literature provides a way for audiences to connect emotionally to the experiences of people relating to commodities, markets, and class divisions, and also to their roles as consumers, workers, and producers.

Thornton takes us inside the world of Victorian fiction where writers like Zola, Gaskell, and Dickens challenged industrialization and dramatized theories of supply and demand, base and superstructure, and the alienation of labor. For students of economic history, such works show how large, complex, and unseen forces can suddenly erupt into the daily lives of ordinary people. The form of novel itself, Thornton notes, evolved as a challenge to inequality, distributing information cheaply to people with few economic resources and a lack of formal education who could digest bite-sized chunks of text through serialization in ways similar to what today’s readers experience on the Internet.

Economic lessons from literature come not just from books by “dead white males,” emphasizes Thornton, but from inheritors of the novel such as contemporary television series and film. Both popular and canonical works offer places where counter-narratives to mainstream economic thinking are born and survive. If we are to understand economic realities, says Thornton, technical knowledge is not enough. Storytelling and narrative give people the insight and power to change the world.

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