Roy Lotz's Reviews > Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
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bookshelves: novels-novellas-short-stories, anglophilia

The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

There seems to be little to say about Vanity Fair that is worth the time in saying it. This is an open book; its appeal is direct, its themes obvious, its interpretation unambiguous. It is an extended satire of Victorian England—what more is there to add?

I was prepared for the nineteenth-century prose; indeed, Thackeray’s unadorned style has aged uncommonly well. I had readied myself for its protracted length and copious cast of characters. I was even prepared for the strong authorial voice and frequent asides; in this, Thackeray follows Henry Fielding quite closely. But I was not quite ready for such a depressing novel. For the secret of Vanity Fair’s lasting success is not, I think, due merely to Thackeray’s execution—brilliant as it is—but owes itself far more to the novel’s triumphant immoralism.

Like many great novelists, Thackeray opens the book by introducing to us a pair of characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, who are to be foils for each other. Amelia is simple and good, while Becky is calculating and wicked. Following the standard conventions, we should expect Amelia to emerge triumphant and Becky to be foiled. And yet Thackeray consistently and persistently flaunts this expectation. Instead, he throws his characters into a world full of cowards, egoists, hypocrites, dullards, drunkards, gluttons, dandies, and every other species of vice—in short, Vanity Fair—and shows us that, in such a world, virtue is a luxury few can afford.

Indeed, the frightening thing about this novel is that Thackeray gradually pulls us into sympathy with Becky Sharp. The daughter of a painter and a dancing master, she hoists herself up from the lowest to the highest ranks of society using only her wit. In the process, it becomes clear that she is a sociopath in the proper sense of the word—seeing others as mere instruments, unable to care for anyone but herself. And yet we feel—we are made to feel—that she is not morally lower than those around her (who also only care for money and status), only cleverer and more determined.

In a word, Thackeray’s thesis is that, in our depraved world—where people care only for vanities, and where unjust accidents such as birth determine the distribution of these goods—the only logical course of action is to be ruthless. Thackeray completes this impression by showing how commonly virtue leads to misery. Amelia’s virtue, though genuine, is consistently made to look foolish. Her dedication to her husband is rendered ridiculous by her husband’s unfaithfulness, her dedication to her son rendered absurd by her son’s unconcern with leaving the house, and so on. For my part I found it very difficult to like her, and more often found myself rooting for Becky.

William Dobbin is the only character who is allowed to appear really admirable. Yet his virtue, too, is for most of the story ignored and unrewarded. And when he finally obtains his goal—by which time he has grown bitter with waiting—this is arguably caused, not by his action, but by Becky Sharp, the only effectively active character in the book.

The final result of this has been to leave me with a feeling of emptiness. Thackeray’s portrayal of Vanity Fair is convincing enough to leave the reader with a numbing sense of cynicism, scarcely pierced by the novel’s few tender moments. Despite this, I must recommend the book highly. Thackeray has, in many ways, aged better than his chief rival, Dickens. His prose is leaner and sharper, his characters more realistic, and his ethos free of Dickens’ dripping sentimentality. This is satire raised to a sweeping view of human life—which does not make it any funnier.
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Reading Progress

September 1, 2013 – Shelved
September 1, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
August 22, 2017 – Shelved as: novels-novellas-short-stories
Started Reading
July 18, 2018 – Shelved as: anglophilia
July 18, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by T.D. (last edited Jul 20, 2018 11:18PM) (new)

T.D. Whittle Excellent review, Roy, but it is disheartening. It reminds me a bit of Scarlett and Melanie in Gone With The Wind. We get to know Scarlett pretty well and can see that she is unapologetically manipulative, selfish, vain, untrustworthy, disloyal, and indifferent to her own child. And yet, she is the character who is brimming with hunger for LIFE, which is very attractive. She is also brave and fierce, not flinching even when she has to threaten enemy soldiers with a rifle, and she rebels against convention, seemingly indifferent to what society thinks of her. These are qualities we admire in people (or most of us do) because most of us are not so bold, fearless, and immune to ridicule as Scarlett.

Melanie, by contrast, seems too saintly for most people to identify with; she is also fragile, preternaturally calm, and never rebels against anything. And yet, Melanie is a kind and good and forgiving person who genuinely loves Scarlett. Scarlett seems to love no one but Scarlett. It feels like a bit of a mean trick that the genuinely kind woman is shown as a sort of one-dimensional character while the bitchy one is fully fleshed-out and therefore much more interesting. As a result, we end up seeing the world from Scarlett's eyes and wanting her to get her way with Rhett, with Tara, with the world. (Though, I will admit, her coldness towards Bonnie Blue did chill my own warmth for her eventually, so that by the time Rhett left her, I was glad.)

I wonder whether it's simply true that, as Tolstoy said, "All happy families are alike ... " so that there is less to say about a genuinely good person than a genuinely manipulative and utterly selfish one. Perhaps, too, we as readers keep holding out hope that the person will change over time and become better than what they start out being. As in life though that is not always the case.

I love Dickens but must admit that his women are ridiculous --- all complete harridans or absolute saints. Then again, all of his characters were caricatures of the types of people one meets in the world, I suppose. None are quite real to life.

message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz T.D. wrote: "Excellent review, Roy, but it is disheartening. It reminds me a bit of Scarlett and Melanie in Gone With The Wind. We get to know Scarlett pretty well and can see that she is unapologetically manip..."

Thanks for the comment! I have yet to read Gone with the Wind, but I'd like to. I agree that it's difficult to make good characters interesting. However, I think George Eliot did an excellent job of this in her Middlemarch. Dorothea is a fascinating character and is also as selfless as any in literature.

message 3: by T.D. (new)

T.D. Whittle Roy wrote: "T.D. wrote: "Excellent review, Roy, but it is disheartening. It reminds me a bit of Scarlett and Melanie in Gone With The Wind. We get to know Scarlett pretty well and can see that she is unapologe..."

Ah, yes, I have never read Middlemarch but thanks for reminding me! Cheers.

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