Archive for the ‘William M. Thackeray’ Category

Our luck may fail; our powers forsake us; our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes — the chance of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded. Then men will walk across the road when they meet you — or, worse still, hold you out a couple of fingers and patronize you in a pitying way — then you will know, as soon as your back is turned, that your friend begins with a ‘Poor Devil, what imprudences he has committed, what chances that chap has thrown away!’ Well, well — a carriage and three thousand a year is not the summit of the reward nor the end of God’s judgment of men. If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall — if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and vice versa, sharing ill-luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest amongst us — I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account.

"Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace ThackerayThis quote has always seemed to me to be the heart of Vanity Fair, although it quivers with a sympathy — a sense of gentleness and mercy — that the sour Thackeray can’t quite summon for the characters he creates.

They are, for the most part, zanies and knaves or men and women of substance corrupted by their vanities. There is only one character Thackeray would likely describe as “ablest and most honest” — William Dobbin — and even Dobbin Thackeray mocks for pursuing and finally marrying a woman who Dobbin knows is not equal to and does not deserve his love.

The phrase “our place on the boards … taken by better and younger mimes” nods at one of Thackeray’s principal conceits in Vanity Fair: that his characters are “puppets” and he is the “Manager of the Performance”. But I also think the phrase gestures at something more profound, that Thackeray thinks we are all puppets, too, hack players in a foolish play.

“Well, well,” as Thackeray said. Maybe. But the vitality Thackeray invests in this nearly 800-page novel argues differently. And his opinion that “the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account” perhaps suggests there are other gifts that are of “great account”. What these gifts might be, however, Thackeray doesn’t say.

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William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is (I think) one of the best works of literature in the English language.

Lots of people will say: “Get serious.”

But I am serious. I know the consensus on Thackeray. He’s a “middle of the pack” novelist, better than Trollope, not as good as Dickens, whose best work still has significant problems.

Such as … Vanity Fair’s plot is flabby and rambling. Thackeray’s constant moralizing exhausts the patience of the reader long before the book comes to an end. And its cast of characters lack vivid life (except perhaps for the famous Becky Sharp) and are flattened by the novel’s satirical tone.

On the flabby and rambling plot charge, I think Thackeray is clearly guilty. No defense.

On the moralizing, I find that the range of emotional colors Thackeray brings to his comments enriches the novel rather than making it poorer. He is often satiric, scolding, caustic, angry, even cruel. But there are times when his voice is humorous, generous, almost warm – tolerant even forgiving of human weakness.

Thackeray’s approach to his characters is also complicated. They are, on first encounter, similar to Dickens’ people, who were inspired by popular stage melodramas: strongly drawn, not particularly well shaded.

But as Vanity Fair progresses, many of the characters start slipping sideways out of their defined roles. For example, the book’s two leading female characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley.

Becky Sharp is a classic “bad girl” – bohemian parents, no money, no connections – who is perfectly willing to use intelligence, wit, charm, and sex to find wealth and climb in society.

But there is something deeply persuasive about a character who simply refuses to accept the place and prospects that “respectable” people demand she take, and who has few illusions about herself even while she is manipulating everyone else’s picture of her.  And yet, Becky remains for all her persuasion, essential selfish and amoral.

Becky is paired in Vanity Fair with her girlhood friend, the sweet and virtuous Amelia Sedley, who possesses the money, family, and social standing (and naivety) Becky lacks.

Amelia looks all ready to play the “Victorian woman of admirable virtue” role – and she does play it – right into the ground.

Amelia, a perfectly lovely girl, marries a philandering scoundrel who gets her pregnant before dying at the battle of Waterloo.

For the next twenty years, she blights her life with a stubborn idiot celebration of his memory and her single-minded devotion to their son, until her youth and almost all chances of happiness, for both herself and the family friend who has patiently loved her, are gone.

Amelia does all this in the name of “virtue” but Thackeray doesn’t make this virtue look very appealing, just as he fails to make Becky’s “villainy” all that unappealing.  What he succeeds at doing — and deliberately, I think — is make characters who look simple, and easy to judge, become complicated and hard to judge.  Or, if you like, turn them into constructions that feel a lot like people.

The final quality that makes Vanity Fair great is Thackeray’s constant reminders of the novel’s artifice. Throughout the book, he continuously points out that it is a book, that he is an author controlling events, and that his characters aren’t real. (The last line of Vanity Fair is “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”)

This is particular because our emotional engagement with art is dependent on our ability to ignore the fact it is art – the famous “willing suspension of disbelief” — and success for most authors depends on this engagement.

That Thackeray refuses to make this engagement easy — building it up and tearing it down, again and again — is one last tasty, tangled, problematic gift he gives to his readers.

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