The Gift – Marcel Mauss and René Girard

Tobriand Island

Trobriand Island

Gifts are universal. Every culture on Earth has and will always exchange gifts. The effect of gifts is to tie people together; to connect them. This is their ultimate meaning and significance. Many features of gifts are immune from changes in cultural context and time. They stay the same in all circumstances. They are traditional everywhere.

Marcel Mauss’ The Gift is an anthropological study of gifts. He hoped to show that gift-giving precedes mere economic transactions in chronology and significance. Successful businesses often combine gifts with the more prosaic monetary exchanges.

The Gift

There are three important constants concerning gifts. One is the obligation to give. The other is the obligation to receive. Lastly, is the obligation to reciprocate.

These three things are filled with meaning. They are also impervious to wishful thinking or a person’s private desires. For instance, some people may only wish to give, being uncomfortable receiving gifts. Others may wish they could be recipients only and need never reciprocate. The truth is that violating any of these three obligations will only sow discord and cause problems between the disagreeable person and other people regardless of time or culture.

This cannot be dismissed as a “theory.” These are empirical observations that anthropologists have made that are true of every culture and a little reflection should reveal their reality in any circumstance.

In giving a gift a debt is created. For good social relationships, gifts and favors must be reciprocated. The debt must be discharged at some point.

That debt sets up a relationship between two people or two groups of people. Many people dislike the feeling of being in debt and wish to avoid being a recipient of a gift. But to refuse a gift, especially a gift that has been specifically chosen for you, is rude and insulting. In rejecting a gift a person is rejecting being connected to the giver. He is signaling that he wants nothing to do with the giver, which can only be offensive.

Hence, there is an obligation to give, and a social obligation to receive.

Often gifts are part of some other social occasion such as a funeral, a birth, a wedding, visiting the sick, a rite of puberty, a christening, etc.. One can see how gifts circulate. Upon marriage, gifts are received, but then reciprocated upon other people’s weddings. In some cultures, the parents of a newborn may end up no richer than they began, but have had the honor of seeing the presents piled up in the name of their offspring.

Mauss points out an old saying that misers hate gifts and they hate gifts because they know they will have to reciprocate. That is one motivation to avoid receiving gifts.


But there are deeper, more significant reasons why someone may want to avoid gifts. In giving a gift a person gives of himself. Some cultures such as New Zealand Maori express this as the gift-giver handing over a portion of his soul. This soul must be returned. To fail to return a person’s soul is a kind of poison for one’s own well-being and both René Girard in The One By Whom Scandal Comes and Mauss point out that the word “gift” and “poison” are the same words in many cultures such as the German “Geschenk.”

The One By Whom

Girard writes that in giving a gift the giver wishes to relieve himself of a burden, a poison. And Mauss notes that there seems to be a universal truth whereby food and goods are meant to be shared. An unshared meal is a poisoned meal. Mauss writes that unshared food has had its essence ruined and food that is not nourishing is surely akin to poison.

Mauss’s anthropological study points out that in many cultures things given as gifts, which include all belongings, such as blankets, land, favors, including women and children, etc., are all part of the giver’s soul. They also have a life of their own. They want to return to whence they came. Either the same item must be returned or an item of similar worth must be given to replace it.

It is bad karma, so to speak, to possess another’s soul. A gift is part of the life of the giver. It is perhaps the result of hard work or it could be inherited property. Whatever its providence, it must be returned.

The person who gives a gift temporarily “owns” the recipient. An inability to repay a debt historically in some cultures has resulted in “debt slavery” for the recipient.

There is a certain discomfort in being owned. Having a piece of another person’s soul can only be a hindrance. This is why a gift is poison. But it is a poison and hardship that must be swallowed in order for connection to be established.

Notions of goods wanting to return, or carrying around another’s soul, are going to seem strange and foreign to a Western reader. If that is the case, then regard them as poetically expressed truths, for the underlying dynamic exists in every culture. These descriptions are powerful and capture some of the emotional and social significance of the gift.

Gifts involve a back and forth as to who owns whom. Each giver becomes a recipient in turn. The poison given comes back. It is anti-social to refuse gifts. It is to wish to be always the giver and never the consumer.

Gift-giving can become intensely competitive. In some cultures a person’s social status is determined by his willingness to engage in gift exchange. Each giver seeks to be more generous than the other. This rivalry can lead to the destruction of all personal belongings and property. Valuable items will even be thrown into the sea, such as rare things made of copper, or houses may be burned. This represents a kind of mass purging of intolerable burdens.

Metaphysically, life is a gift from the gods or fate. It is borrowed only and must be given back. All property comes from the gods or nature and must be returned whence it came. Ownership is temporary and life should not betray a grasping nature.


The movie Prometheus was disappointing. However, there was an emotionally powerful moment when it is revealed that an elderly and rich man has effectively been a stowaway on the spaceship which he financed. In searching for the origin of life, he is hoping to find the secret of life and to thus prevent his own fairly imminent death. The grasping, ungrateful, greedy nature of this man is well-portrayed by Guy Pearce smothered in “aging” make up. Ray Kurzweil evinces a similar attitude to life and takes hundreds of pills a day to stave off his own death until the time his consciousness can be downloaded to a machine. Both scenarios seem to show the ugliness of not wanting to reciprocate. To give back the life that is bestowed by another – either by God or by Nature and to give back the goods and property that have come from the same sources.

The notion that life is a gift not to be thrown back in the face of the giver is an argument against suicide. It is also an argument for making the best use of this life as possible before it must be returned, thus expressing gratitude.

Clive Owen’s character Jack in Croupier has a mantra – “hold on tightly, let go lightly” which seems apropos.

Mauss points out that sacrifices to the gods are gifts to the gods which compel their reciprocation and that alms are gifts to the gods where the gods forego what is owed to them for the benefit of the poor and children.

Charity is sometimes refused out of pride because charity does not establish a connection. The charitable giver is effectively saying he wants nothing more to do with the person. It is thus demeaning to the person receiving it. The effect is similar to failing to accept a gift. The recipient of charity is not an equal, but someone from whom reciprocal behavior cannot be expected. This infantilizes the recipient. Little children too receive but cannot return. The debt is discharged when the parents are elderly and the positions are reversed.

Reciprocity can be nice, of course. A dinner invitation requires a return offer which provides another opportunity to socialize.

Sleeping Beauty

The dark side is that not to give or invite can effectively be a declaration of war in some contexts. Many cultures have stories of the offense generated by a failure to invite. Fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty include the wicked fairy godmother not invited to the christening who takes revenge on the child for the insult.

Guests are necessarily the recipient of gifts. It is a universal that they must praise the food and express their gratitude. They can discharge the gift-debt by hosting the giver at some later date. Some people make awful guests because they do not want to be recipients of gifts. This behavior may seem like some kind of modesty or humility, wanting to be “nice.” “I don’t want to be any trouble.” But, not wanting to be any trouble is troubling! The person is doing nothing but making a pest of himself and creating social difficulties. As difficult as it is to be in gift-debt, as onerous as that is, it is necessary for healthy social interaction.

I know a person who “doesn’t want to be any bother.” She visits reluctantly, perched on the edge of her chair, not wanting to receive. This creates nothing but distress for the hosts and is actually a refusal of connection. It is rude and effectively hostile. This bad guest says she needs to go down town. A car ride is offered. The guest refuses and insists on taking a bus. However, more than one bus ride is necessary, requiring one leg of the trip being timed so the next leg can take place. Locating the connecting bus will be an ordeal in an unfamiliar bus system, with complicated embarkation and disembarking requiring detailed knowledge of the town which is lacking. Bus timetables are produced and pored over. Incomprehension sets in. A ten minute car ride is replaced by over an hour of instructions and timetable gathering and explaining. This is the behavior of someone who intensely wants to be a bother and it is completely counterproductive. Lord save us from such “selfless” guests.

However, refusing gifts has at least the occasional rationale. A woman who wants nothing to do with a man at a bar must reject his offer of a drink, otherwise she sets up a gift debt which must be repaid with, for instance, her company, keeping the hopes of the male alive for something more.

René Girard points out that when a gift is given the debt must not be discharged too quickly. If person A buys person B a drink and B immediately reciprocates, no connection is established and person A’s gift is effectively thrown back in his face. A friendly gesture becomes an occasion for ill-feeling.

Reciprocity must be disguised by letting a suitable period of time pass. Otherwise mimetic rivalry is engaged instead of the gift being a connecting force.

Again, the poison of a gift must be swallowed so future interactions are ensured.

Girard mentions that the best gift practices occur among the Tobriand Islanders. There, exactly the same gifts are exchanged. Items regarded as sacred are given by one group to another. As sacred objects they are mysterious and valuable. The recipients can look upon and caress the objects. After months have passed, the gifts can be passed on to the next group. Eventually, they will return. This is an excellent solution to the problems that gifts almost inevitably produce.

Girard gives the example of giving a fountain pen to someone. If exactly the same pen is given to the giver, this is unacceptable because it resembles too closely a refusal to receive. If the hypothetical pen that is given in return is actually better with a special kind of ink, this too is unacceptable. It would be as though two people were playing poker – I see your pen and raise you two scales of excellence. The fancier pen would be interpreted as one-upping the original giver and casting him in a poor light. It turns gift-giving into open competition.

Fountain pen

Gifts are supposed to be somehow spontaneous. I saw this thing and thought of you. But the value of the gifts exchanged must be similar. So the gift must be similar in some respects (price), but not too similar. If the gift is extravagant then it risks humiliating the recipient who may not be able or willing to return a similar gift. In that case, the gift offends and asserts a hierarchy. I am better than you. The situation would not be helped were the giver to say, “Of course, I expect no similar gift in return.” That is simply an expression of disdain, not friendship.

In a related fashion, relatively rich and high status men may show up to a bar and buy rounds of drinks for everyone. Often there are two, so they are really trying to impress each other with their generosity, vying to be the most ostentatious. If the recipient of the gift is merely grateful and happy to receive a free drink, it is only because the recipient is blind to the implications and to the need to reciprocate. The givers do not really want or expect reciprocity, which only reveals their lack of interest in real connection. As such, this behavior is really an offense and is unlikely to generate warm feelings on the part of the receivers of the largess.

If the owner of the bar buys certain customers free drinks this will not create a similar situation. The bar’s customers are returning the favor with their patronage. It is only the regulars who receive the largess. By giving gifts the bar owner transforms mere economic exchange into emotional attachment, tying the patrons to the place with the requirement of returning the favor by their continued support. All good businesses should follow this example. Restaurants that serve bread for free, or chips and salsa, are doing so. It is Mauss’ wish that modern economics utilize and deepen interactions between people by employing the gift giving, receiving and reciprocation dynamic. It costs money to behave in this way, but it is a good investment by encouraging and rewarding the loyalty of customers.

Unfortunately, though the Tobriand Islanders developed an ideal gift culture, it seems unlikely that we will ever emulate them. In some ways, gift culture found its apogee there. The rest of us are doomed to give “spontaneous” gifts that are neither too miserly, nor extravagant, while exquisitely thoughtful; similar, but not too similar, with all the attendant thought and angst that goes into their production. Gift cards are a step in the Tobriand direction, though in some ways they merely amount to “Here, buy your own gift!”


7 thoughts on “The Gift – Marcel Mauss and René Girard

  1. Pingback: The Gift – Marcel Mauss and René Girard | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Gift – Marcel Mauss and René Girard | Reaction Times

  3. Excellent, including the timing. I have, however, one possible correction, or better put, expansion.

    In some cases of unequal gift-giving, it does not set up a rivalry. These cases are where both parties agree as to the relative superior/inferior dynamic between them.

    The simplest example is the one you used above: parent and child. When a child is young, parents do not expect (and would be shocked to find) correspondent gifts from the child. When a child is slightly older, they do get reciprocal gifts, but of little value other than that conveyed by the act of giving – refrigerator doodles and other artifacts of early childhood which the child does gladly render to his parents.

    However, later on – when the children are now adults – the parents still expect to give greater gifts to their children than they receive. This shows their largesse, and their honoured status as elders. It is only in the twilight of life, where the progressive failure of their faculties can no longer be politely ignored, that parents do not and do not take joy in being more lavish to their offspring than vice versa.

    The same or similar gift-giving dynamic can happen outside the parental or nuclear-familial bond as well, where the mistress of a house may give her servants a guinea or a new smock for the Holidays (or other occasions of high import), whereas she receives a bouquet, or an arrangement, or carefully thought-over meal instead of something of equal value.

    We even see this today, where the ‘boss’ (usually of a small business) gives his employees a ‘holiday bonus’ whereas they reciprocate with small chocolates and greeting cards.

  4. Dear Dr Cocks,

    Your article hit home in so many ways. Many wonderful insights into the nature of gift giving and the triangular nature of what is involved in allowing the experience of gift giving to be ultimately connecting and real and meaningful.

    There was a part of your article that provoked a strong association to a poem I read a while back from Jack Gilbert titled ’The Lost Hotels of Paris.

    You wrote:

    ‘Metaphysically, life is a gift from the gods or fate. It is borrowed only and must be given back. All property comes from the gods or nature and must be returned whence it came. Ownership is temporary and life should not betray a grasping nature.’

    It is so true and so grounded in humility.

    I wish to share the poem, which if you haven’t read, I hope will provoke your thinking and resonate with you.

    The Lost Hotels of Paris

    The Lord gives everything and charges
    by taking it back. What a bargain.
    Like being young for a while. We are
    allowed to visit hearts of women,
    to go into their bodies so we feel
    no longer alone. We are permitted
    romantic love with its bounty and half-life
    of two years. It is right to mourn
    for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
    when we used to be. My mansard looking
    down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
    and me listening to the bell at night.
    Venice is no more. The best Greek Islands
    have drowned in acceleration. But it’s the having
    not the keeping that is the treasure.
    Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
    and said he was giving up poetry
    because it told lies, that language distorts.
    I agreed, but asked what we have
    that gets it right even that much.
    We look up at the stars and they are
    not there. We see the memory
    of when they were, once upon a time.
    And that too is more than enough.

    Many thanks for your wonderful insights,


    • @Nicolas Liberman – I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Many of my students rebel at the ideas in it. I tell them that I’m not making up the rules. The cross-cultural nature of the rules, both social and psychological, indicate their universality.

      Thank you for the poem. I think you’re right that it captures an important aspect of the gift.


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