Literature and Inequality

By Branko Milanovic - 29 May 2020
Literature and Inequality

Branko Milanovic on the search for useful historical data.

When I wrote “The haves and the have-nots” which is a book of inequality vignettes linked with three essays (on global inequality, inequality between countries, and inequality within countries), I stumbled upon the idea of representing inequalities in different countries and eras by using the data and stories provided by works of fiction.
The idea arose out of several dinner conversations with my wife who is a great admirer of Jane Austen. I barely knew Jane Austen’s name until 20 years ago. But at my wife’s insistence I started reading her and was thoroughly impressed by her wit, use of irony, and sharp and critical eye for social status and conventions. I read “Pride and Prejudice” first, followed by “Emma” and then “Mansfield Park” (have not read the other two).   
Then, one evening as my wife and I were discussing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, I was struck when my wife reeled off the amounts in pounds that Darcy received annually compared to Elizabeth’s parents. Continuing the conversation, I hit upon the idea to include the data from “Pride and Prejudice” in a vignette. This was helped by the fact that a few years earlier I wrote with Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson a paper that used English social tables, including Patrick Colquhoun social table from 1801-3. The table almost exactly coincided with the years when the plot in “Pride and Prejudice” is supposed to happen. I was thus able to very nicely locate Darcy, Elizabeth (in her unmarried status) and Elizabeth if she decides not to marry Darcy but to depend on the inheritance of less than 50 pounds per year—a prospect menacingly dangled by the tactless Reverend Collins as he proposes to her—in the English income distribution at the time.
As the table below shows, the range of options for Elizabeth goes  from being in the top 0.1% of England’s income distribution to being at the median. The income gap between these two options is 100 to 1. (When she marries Darcy, their household per capita income becomes 5,000 pounds; hence: 5,000/50=100.) As I wrote, “the incentive to fall in love with Mr. Darcy seems irresistible”.  The last column shows how much has the gap shrunk today compared to what it was two hundred years ago: being at the equivalent positions in 2004 (which were the most recent data that I had around 2009 when I was writing the book) yields an advantage of 17 to 1 only.
I decided also to include the story of Anna Karenina in the second vignette of “The haves and the have nots”. Her social trajectory is fairly similar to Elizabeth’s. We learn from just one Tolstoy’s sentence that her family was around the middling income status. With her marriage to Alexei Aleksandrovich Karenin, with whom she lives in a palatial home, she moved up to the top 1%. But with Count Vronsky, not unlike Elizabeth with Darcy, Anna moves to the rarefied circle of the extremely wealthy, belonging to the top 0.1% of Russia’s income distribution around 1875. Her lifetime gain was 150 to 1, that is, even more impressive than Elizabeth’s.
I then considered adding Balzac’s “Le Pere Goriot” which I liked a lot and which was much admired by Marx (see “Karl Marx and World Literature” by S. S, Prawer)  precisely for his impitoyable  depiction of financial capitalism in France. I collected lots of data, but then decided that adding a third very similar vignette may  be a bit of an overkill. So I left it out. (A few years later, Thomas Piketty employed a similar technique in his “Capital in the 21st century” and drew heavily on Balzac.)
Now, Daniel Shaviro in his new and exciting book “Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age”  has expanded this approach to three epochs and nine books. In the first part of the book  (England and France during the Age of Revolution), Shaviro discusses with the same objective of retrieving the facets of social and economic inequality, but in much greater detail than I, Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”), Balzac (“Le pere Goriot” and "La maison Nucingen") and Stendhal (“Le rouge et le noir”). In the second part (England from the 1840s to the start of the First World War)  Shaviro looks at Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and E M Forster. Finally, in the third part, he trains his gaze on the US Gilded age (Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser). I will review Shaviro’s book in my next post. I have to say that unlike the first part, I am not familiar with the authors from the second and third parts (with the exception of E M Forster), and I would thus have much less to say about these books. My regret is that Shaviro did not include Francis Scott Fitzgerald in the third part. Scott Fitzgerald is, I think, a perfect writer for the Gilded Age: perhaps even better in “Tender is the Night” than in “The Great Gatsby”. But either would do.
I would like to finish this post with an observation. After publishing “The haves and the have-nots” I became somewhat interested in finding similar sociologically rich but also empirically substantiated (i.e. full of details and amounts of actual incomes) books in other literatures. I looked around myself and asked several of my students from different countries for their suggestions. Interestingly, we came with almost nothing. There are of course books with sociological and anthropological details, but alas no numbers that would allow empirical economists to weave their story and place these individuals in contemporaneous income distributions (assuming, of course, that such distributions for the relevant countries do exist). The writers seemed much less interested in doing this than for example Balzac in his entire “La comedie humaine”.
This is not the result of some dedicated search of various literatures and it could be that I am wrong. But it is an interesting hypothesis: was the European 19th century literature exceptionally interested in social status, wealth and income? Was it exceptionally well documented? It seemed to me that the 20th century literature provides many fewer empirical details. For example, Proust’s “A la recherche…” is very similar in its study of social conflict and mutual accommodation between the parvenus, bourgeoisie and the aristocratic elite to Balzac. But unlike Balzac, Proust gives no numbers at all. So for an empirical economist (and for this specific purpose) Proust is not of much use. This was my impression with other writers I know, but I hope that there are out there works of fiction in many literatures that one could use as I have used “Pride and Prejudice” and Piketty and Shaviro “Le pere Goriot”. One of the objectives of this post is to stimulate people to look around among the authors they know and to use works of fiction to tease out and trace the contours of inequality in various societies.

Correction: Reverend Collins estimates Elizabeth's income, if she does not marry, at 4% of 1000 pounds = 40 pounds rather than 50  as I wrote here. 

This first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted with permission.
Photo by neil kelly from Pexels
Disqus comments