The ideal way with which to engage with critical theory is a question that confronts most working scholars, though of course we rarely admit in public to feeling challenged. The approaches that we resolve upon tend to fit into a broad spectrum, ranging from quietly pretending that theory does not apply to our work (not uncommon in Medieval Studies) to utter, lifelong commitment to a particular theoretical point of view. What is less common is to encounter a genuinely critical approach, where a literary scholar holds up a body of theory against a body of literature, and follows through the various contradictions and paradoxes to suggest a way for both literary studies and critical theory to move forward. Such an approach is particularly necessary in cases where literary studies has borrowed a theoretical paradigm from a field that has continued to develop, such as economic anthropology. Robert Epstein has accomplished just such a task with Chaucer's Gifts, which engages in depth with a variety of theories of the Gift going back to Marcel Mauss, including those of theorists (familiar to literary study) Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida, but also incorporating much more recent thought in anthropology from a variety of sources, especially David Graeber. Along the way, Epstein provides a thoughtful reading of the Canterbury Tales, and a valuable corrective to many economic approaches to Chaucer's work.
The book's balance--as both an intervention into how literary studies uses ideas from economic anthropology and a reading of the Canterbury Tales--represents its greatest strength. Epstein follows a series of exchanges that can be argued to represent gifts, starting with the Franklin's and Plowman's apparent generosity in their "General Prologue" portraits, moving on to the non-commercial exchanges in the "Shipman's Tale," and on to analyses of the fabliaux, the various representations of marriage, and the role of gifts in the clerical satires, before returning to the Franklin for his "Tale." Along the way a key issue remains the extent to which a gift represents an economic transaction; arguing that both Bourdieu and Derrida assume "that there is no fundamental difference between the modes of exchange of gifts and commodities" (6), Epstein navigates through the ideas of a variety of economic anthropologists to argue that while commercial exchanges presumably involve a profit motive, "the ultimate purpose of gift exchange is not to produce profit for the individual transactor but to establish and maintain relationships between transactors, based on obligations of return" (8). This does not mean that he assumes that all gifts are necessarily contributing to relationships that are positive (he includes feuds in his understanding of the gift), but it does set up a key distinction that guides Epstein's readings in the text, and which ultimately reveal significant limitations of Bourdieu's and especially Derrida's understanding of the gift. Indeed, Derrida comes across very poorly in Epstein's discussion of the "Franklin's Tale" in chapter 6; because Derrida's definition of a true gift excludes reciprocity (175), which Epstein in response to economic anthropology argues is the whole point of an actual gift, Derrida's thinking on this particular subject becomes nonsensical, even for Derrida. It is to Epstein's credit that he handles this critique exceedingly graciously, and it does lead to my favorite sentence in the entire book: "I would posit as a rule that when exegetical [Robertsonian] and Derridean readings converge, it may to be time to re-evaluate our hermeneutic assumptions" (175).
The individual readings of portions of the Canterbury Tales then largely make sense, though they are not perhaps all equally convincing. With the Franklin and Plowman portraits in the "General Prologue," Epstein follows the common approach of "General Prologue" scholarship by making much of little. He provides a useful outline of the extent of commercial involvement implied by the pilgrim portraits, a familiar first step to any economic reading, but his focus on the not-directly-economic quality of the gift complicates this economic focus. The ostensible generosity of the Franklin's table does present an important question, but some aspects of it are not resolvable from the "General Prologue" portrait--as Epstein points out, there are no details about who actually eats the food (24). Epstein's suggestion that the anthropological concept of "potlatch" might apply here is both helpful and problematic; it is helpful in that it provides a possible motivation for the Franklin's possibly wasteful generosity, but problematic in that Epstein buries a thoughtful discussion of the limitations of "potlatch" as an interpretive model in note 12 to this chapter (205)--he makes it clear that there is enough doubt about the interpretation of field work featuring "potlatch" to undermine its use in this context. It is useful here, however, in providing an opening to the idea of "agonistic" gifts (of which the anthropological understanding of "potlatch" would be one), as opposed to "non-agonistic" gifts (27-28). This move helps to expand the range of transactions understandable as gifts, and opens up a subtle and thoughtful reading of the "General Prologue" Plowman as using his generosity to reinforce community bonds.
With the "Shipman's Tale," Epstein adapts a 2015 Modern Philology article; this portion of his analysis engages directly with a contrast between commercial and gift transactions, and uses the question of interest on loans to differentiate the hundred pounds circulating between the merchant, wife, and monk and the larger sums tied up in the merchant's business. This contrast allows Epstein to challenge Bourdieu's assumption that gift exchanges are ultimately commercial, in favor of more current thinking by economic anthropologists. Epstein shows great familiarity with the variety of commercial interactions available in Chaucer's culture, and his reading effectively counters those scholars who have seen the "Shipman's Tale" merchant as entirely greedy. The idea that gifts are about relationships fits well into the web of relationships between the three main characters of the tale, and he close-reads the bedroom scene at Tale's end with great subtlety, though readers averse to word play may recoil from his (admittedly well-argued) assertion that "The sex is, in Bourdieu's own terms, 'gratuitous'" (60).
Epstein's reading of the role of gifts in the other fabliaux, and his argument that "quiting" and other aggressive elements of the fabliaux "bespeak the logic of gift exchange" (70) helps bring some clarity to the various conflicts in those tales. That said, seeing violent exchanges and feuds (74) as gift-like will strike some readers as counter-intuitive, though Epstein makes a good case here. His reading of the "Reeve's Tale" brings in scholastic understandings of exchange, appropriate given the Cambridge origin of the two clerks in the tale, and he suggests a connection to the discourse on simony through Symkyn's name. This chapter represents another area where Epstein buries an important thought in an endnote, though--in his note 39, he addresses the problem that the sexual interactions in the tale, which he has tied into his larger gift structure, are increasingly viewed as rapes (214-15). This is a thorny issue, and for a reader aware of this turn in "Reeve's Tale" scholarship, his discussion of "female pleasure" (89) needs more than an endnote to address this problem (this is also a limitation of the production choice of putting endnotes after the whole book). If nothing else, the medieval association of rape with theft has potential significantly to complicate the exchange model at play in this part of the analysis.
Such an understanding might also further have complicated chapter 4, in its analysis of gender and marriage throughout the Canterbury Tales. This chapter covers a lot of ground, and it was important for Epstein to engage with feminist anthropology on the "exchange of women," but the anthropological theory here seems less productive to his reading than in other parts of the book. Certainly Epstein retains a less narrow focus here, covering elements of half a dozen Tales in the space he previously dedicates to two or three. He raises a number of issues from his anthropological sources that are helpful, and which effectively address incest motifs in Chaucer, but he also gets somewhat distracted here by a comparison to Gower. Admittedly Gower studies relating to incest are often more developed than Chaucer studies on that topic, so perhaps the digression was necessary. Still, it can come across either as a digression or a lost opportunity (one cannot help but wonder whether this project could effectively have been a comparative study). Despite some limitations to this portion of the book, however, it does feature one of Epstein's more delightful rhetorical moves, when he articulates his analysis of the value of virginity in the "Second Nun's Tale" using the television show Antiques Roadshow (114-115) to bring out the paradox of assigning value to an item (in his analogy either a chair or the virginity of a celibate woman) which is explicitly withheld from exchange.
When Epstein addresses the clerical satires, especially the "Summoner's Tale," he again adapts previously published work (in this case a 2010 book chapter); while there is a great deal of clear thinking about the ramifications of economic language in theological discourse, and an effective explanation how Franciscan thinking on money was quite sophisticated in Chaucer's time, the centrality of gift theory to this reading is less obvious. Epstein does good work here, but it seems less connected to the central ideas of the book than the other chapters do. His point that the flautus in the Tale shares the incorporeality of a complex understanding of money (especially moneys of account) is a significant observation for economic understandings of Chaucer's thinking, but not necessarily a major point in his exploration of gift theory. As Epstein moves on here to the "Pardoner's Tale," he similarly makes important contributions to scholarship on this tale, especially his take on the economic model of religious donation being manipulated by the Pardoner.
In his return to the Franklin with the "Franklin's Tale," Epstein presents his devastating critique of Derrida's understanding of the gift, and delivers a solid reading of the tale, as well. This chapter most effectively argues for Epstein's understanding of the social function of the gift as building relationships, and it provides an effective setup for the theoretical turn in his Conclusion. There he directly addresses the extent to which the various underlying theories in his work have ultimately political origins, from Marcel Mauss onward. His critique that the assumptions of social theorists like Bourdieu and Derrida "can have the effect, presumably unintentionally, of naturalizing market relations and of representing neo-liberal economic forces as universal and inevitable, when they are neither of these things" (197) significantly raises the stakes of the book's central argument, though not all readers may appreciate this particular move.
In the end, this book is at its strongest when engaging with the literary text (and it seems not to be an accident that Epstein dives into a close reading of Chaucer's Host right after explaining how postmodern theory can reify neo-liberal economic theories). Some of the chapters seem more tightly tied to the central theme than others, for example, and it is not always clear that the motivations of profit and building community always stay separate (and Epstein does not insist upon it). In Epstein's discussions of trade vs. gifts, and especially in his observation in chapter 2 that the "Shipman's Tale" merchant "need never have anything to do with [his lenders] again" (55) once he has cleared his debts, he understates the extent to which trade relationships were distinct from the sorts of relationships that would have been cemented by gifts – many aspects of trade, including credit, required developed personal relationships. This is a minor point, but individual readers may find other quibbles along the way. Any worthwhile academic argument will have such possibilities for debate, and that should not take away from Epstein's achievement here--he has both made a powerful statement about the role of critical theory in literary studies and also made a real contribution to our understanding of the Canterbury Tales.