- The Invisible Hand: Supernatural Agency in Political Economy and the Gothic Novel
Few passages have been quoted as often as the following from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), in which he represents the self-regulating capacity of the market as “an invisible hand” inevitably plotting the economic process towards a final state of equilibrium:
He [the merchant] generally indeed neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends . . . only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. 1
Although this figure of “an invisible hand” reconciling private and social interest has generated prolific citation and interpretation, it has never been subjected to a literal reading by linking it to the contemporary literary genre of the gothic novel, where it plays a prominent role as well. 2 In the founding text of this literary tradition, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the reader also encounters “an invisible hand” causing a disjunction between an action’s intention and its result. After the villain Manfred has declared to Isabella his “impious intentions” of “marrying” her, his attempt to assault her sexually is thwarted by an animated portrait that leads him to a chamber, whose door is then violently shut by an invisible hand:
Isabella . . . who dreaded nothing so much as Manfred’s pursuit of his declaration, cried, . . . see heaven itself declares against your impious intentions! - Heaven nor hell shall impede my designs, said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather . . . uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast. . . . Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella . . . and his inability to keep his eyes from the picture, which began to move, had however advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he [End Page 739] saw it quit its pannel, and descend on the floor. . . . [T]he vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him. Lead on! cried Manfred . . . The spectre marched . . . to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand. Manfred accompanied him at a little distance, full of anxiety and horror, but resolved. As he would have entered the chamber, the door was clapped-to with violence by an invisible hand. The prince, collecting courage from this delay, would have forcibly burst the door with his foot, but found that it resisted his utmost efforts. 3
In Walpole’s text, as in Smith’s, the original intentions of actions are superseded by the intervention of an “invisible hand,” but Smith represents the economic reconciliation of individual and social interest as the natural, ordinary course of events, whereas the frustration of Manfred’s “impious intentions” is effected by supernatural rather than natural agency. This difference may seem to render the proposed linkage between political economy and the gothic novel implausible or negligible—as if their interrelation were one of mutual rejection rather than exchange. Yet exactly this type of supernatural agency is conjured by Adam Smith’s first use of the phrase “invisible hand,” which does not, as one might expect, occur in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) but even earlier in an essay on “The History of Astronomy.” 4 Smith describes here the origin of polytheism among “savages,” locating it in irregular natural events like “comets, eclipses, thunder, [and] lightning . . . which exasperate his [the savage’s] sentiment into terror and consternation.” 5 This “terror,” which is treated by Edmund Burke—citing the same examples—as the source of the sublime, induces the “savage” to ascribe these events to “some invisible and designing power”:
Hence the origin of Polytheism...