Vanessa Smith, “Wasted Gifts: Robert Louis Stevenson in Oceania” (pp. 527–551)

This essay takes some letters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels in the South Seas as a starting point to rethink both Stevenson’s South Seas oeuvre and the Victorian cross-cultural encounter. Reengaging with Marcel Mauss’s classic theorization of gift exchange, the essay suggests that Stevenson’s encounters with Oceanic systems of exchange were experienced in terms not of cultural dominance, but of ontological lack. The practices of gifting to which Stevenson found himself subject in the Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Tahiti rendered both British etiquette and largesse ineffectual. The essay relates Stevenson’s growing sense of the complexities of Oceanic gifting to the tendency of his metropolitan readers to understand his South Seas “exile” as a waste of his own gifts. Focusing in particular on The Wrecker (1892) and “The Bottle Imp” (1891), it proposes that Stevenson deployed his expanded understanding of what Oceanic gifting entailed to replenish his fiction in both structural and figurative terms, even as he was forced to acknowledge those failures of reciprocation that continued to inform its production.

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