Money metaphors and rhetoric of resource depletion: Creditors and late-nineteenth- Century European economics

Anna Westerståhl Stenport

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In Strindberg's works of the 1880s, money is a persistent concern. The short story collection Getting Married (Giftas I, 1883) outlines a number of domestic conflicts, many of which are centered around personal financial hardship and the allure of often unattainable merchandise consumption. Similar conflicts are brought up in the The Father (Fadren, 1887), Utopias in Reality (Utopier i verkligheten, 1885), and in A Madman's Defense (Le plaidoyer d'un fou, written in 1888; first official publication 1895 in France). The description of marital conflicts centered around money is not unrelated to the author's personal conditions-having left Sweden in 1883, he struggled as a professional writer to support his family while traveling and living internationally, often writing in less than ideal circumstances, always under deadline to produce, and barely satisfying his creditors. Money concerns, especially in a domestic context and with clear gendered implications, are generally prominent in Scandinavian literature during the 1880s. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (Et Dukkehjem, 1879) is, as I have argued elsewhere, fundamentally a play about the cultural and existential implications of money (see Stenport); Victoria Benedictsson's novel Money (Pengar, 1885) and Anne-Charlotte Edgren Leffler's play True Women (Sanna Kvinnor, 1883) are other well-known examples. What demarcates these examples from some of Strindberg's contemporary writing, especially his dramas, however, is that for Ibsen and Leffler, money and other financial instruments are central to the realistic intrigue of their plays. Money-usually a lack thereof, or in terms of complications of obtaining, maintaining, and increasing expendable funds-drives the plot, shapes characterization, and creates a discursive register that influences thematic interpretation. In addition, many of Ibsen's and Leffler's plays are clearly grounded in contemporary social conditions. They appear invested in realistically portraying gendered domestic economic arrangements while explicitly relating these to the public sphere in terms of banking and legal practices, limitations of and opportunities for wageearning outside the home, industrial and capitalist wealth accumulation, and so on. Ibsen's and Leffler's plays seem to mediate value in the fashion suggested by Mary Poovey in her formidable work Genres of the Credit Economy (2008). Poovey argues that from the seventeenth century on, "one of the functions performed by imaginative writing in general was to mediate value-that is, to help people understand the new credit economy and the market model of value it promoted" (1-2). Though rarely studied in this way, Ibsen's and Leffler's drama thereby engage with some of the key changes of European economic theory at the end of the nineteenth century-particularly what has been called the marginal revolution. I will return to address the significance of these changes in a moment. Strindberg's interest in and relevance for an understanding of economic theory throughout the major European economies in the late nineteenth century has been similarly understudied. Yet he uses a large number of economic, financial, and commercial metaphors in his writing during the 1880s. This interest reflects, as Karl-Åke Kärnell argues, the existing "economic conditions of the Gründer-period" (50) of Swedish history in terms of the accelerated industrial expansion of the 1870s and 1880s, and is evident in Strindbergian writing dealing with Swedish history and contemporary politics, including Swedish Destinies and Adventures: Tales from all Times (Svenska öden och äventyr: berättelser från alla tidhvarf, 1882-83), which takes a Marxist position with respect to the historical representation of workers' conditions, or The Red Room (Röda rummet, 1879), which can be understood as outlining an atomization of bourgeois life and the inequities of an increasing division of labor.1 In writing set on the European continent, including Among French Peasants (Bland franska bönder, 1889), Strindberg's disdain shines through for what he saw as a streamlined and inflexible Marx-derived socialism, as sponsored by the prominent Social Democratic politician Hjalmar Branting. Strindberg, like others, called this industrial socialism, which they juxtaposed with a perception of what appeared then as its logical alternative, agrarian socialism. The first strand has subsequently been brought into close association with modernity, social progress, and the welfare state foundation, particularly in northern Europe. Late-nineteenth-century rhetoric over competing socialisms was also gendered-the Swedish independent farming couple was, for Strindberg and many of his contemporaries, construed as representative of a stable, primordial, and natural ideology of domestic distribution of labor (shared responsibility but different tasks). These gendered aspects perhaps made agrarian socialism attractive to Strindberg, but, what is more pertinent and relevant for my argument is that gender for Strindberg is not disassociated from political economy, which it has tended to be in the Marxist tradition. Yet there is a piece of the puzzle in Strindberg's writing from the 1880s that has been overlooked in terms of its connections to European economic history, including its gendered aspects: the play Creditors (Fordringsägare, 1888). Despite the title's obvious reference to credit, a key component of modern financial practice and economic theory, and a number of economic metaphors in the play, little attention has been directed to the significance of this discursive register. Strindberg had initially given the play a French-derived title for its first production, in Danish, at his own shortlived experimental theater in Copenhagen: "Kreditorer."3 The etymology of the terms "credit" (noun and verb) and "creditor," fordringsägare, in Anglo-French and Swedish contexts is significant. Credit has to do with credence, of having bestowed faith in someone-credibility in characterization is of course a factor significant to the development of modern drama at the end of the nineteenth century, as it was in the realist novel as it evolved earlier. In fact, since the middle of the sixteenth century, the attribute of credibility has in Swedish, English, and French been directly tied to money. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, states that "credit" involves "trust or confidence in a buyer's ability and intention to pay at some future time." The term draws on double registers, which, like Strindberg's characters, vacillate between the psychological and economics as a system of exchange.4 An analogy is the Germanic-derived term for skuld/Schuld, which combines the monetary with the ethical; fordrande in Swedish is also connected to having a demanding, fordrande personality. Strindberg's use of the title Creditors or Fordringsägare also reflects the playwright's interest in linguistic innovation at this time, particularly in terms of moving away from romanticism's and idealism's extended and convoluted metaphorical expressions toward a materiality of expression connected to a contemporary social moment (see also Kärnell 15-19). Yet, the title is, in fact, largely metaphorical in Strindberg's use. It describes the tangled sexual and marital relationship between the play's three characters; that is, how they are each indebted to one another. The play's plot and characterization are rudimentary: Adolph is a failed artist who, in the absence of his wife Tekla (a novelist and New Woman figure), is joined at a seaside resort by Gustav, her former husband (this seaside resort is also where Tekla and Gustav went on their honeymoon several years earlier). Adolph, described as weak and appeasing, with character traits of a female hysteric of the late nineteenth century, falls under the apparent spell of Gustav. As a Faustian character, Gustav exerts pressure on Adolph in three ways, first by convincing him to relinquish painting in favor of sculpture, second by inducing in him the belief that his having sexual intercourse with Tekla is making him epileptic-partly because of Gustav's sexual transfusion into Adolph through Tekla- and third by leading Adolph to challenge Tekla's love and commitment to him.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe International Strindberg
Subtitle of host publicationNew Critical Essays
PublisherNorthwestern University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780810166295
ISBN (Print)9780810128507
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


Dive into the research topics of 'Money metaphors and rhetoric of resource depletion: Creditors and late-nineteenth- Century European economics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this