review: vanity fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

I have now read Vanity Fair by William M. Thackeray twice.  Four years have passed since my first reading, and I was curious to see if my opinion of the novel would change after reading it a second time and discussing it with my students.  I wanted to know if they would convince me to view the novel in a different, more favorable way.  Alas, the second experience has only reinforced my response to the first reading.  Getting through the novel is certainly an accomplishment, and there is value in reading the story, but Thackeray’s masterpiece doesn’t make my personal list of must-read masterworks.

Like reading the novel, summarizing the narrative is a daunting task, and that task is complicated by the large cast of characters that populate the novel.  Probably the first thing to know is that the novel is a satire, and in terms of literary forms, it is an exemplar of that narrative form.  Although Thackeray’s subtitle claims the work to be “A Novel Without a Hero” there are a few key protagonists, the foremost being Becky Sharp.  The novel begins in the first decade of the 1800s, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, and Becky is the daughter of an artist and a French dancer, which makes her position in the class structure of English society a low one.  This is what Becky seeks to rectify throughout the novel—she aspires to move in the highest, most exclusive echelons of society, and she is willing to do anything at all to get what she wants.  She is frequently paralleled to “that Corsican upstart” (Napoleon) and she is a master of the fine art of deception.  Indeed, she is the stereotypical social climber who will kick you off the ladder if it means climbing up to the next rung.  As much as we are intended to dislike Becky Sharp, her opposite, Amelia Sedley, is equally unlikeable.  Thackeray’s narrator continuously portrays Amelia as weak but gentle, loyal to a fault, unaware of what is going on around her to the point of narcissism, and in constant need of protection and someone to take care of her.  Amelia is intended to be a satire of the sentimental heroine pervasive in 19th century sentimental romances, and her vanity is her indulgence of her son who rules over her like a tyrant and her reverence for a husband who is anything but a gentleman and decidedly unworthy of her love or her idolatry.

One of the targets of Thackeray’s satire is the institution of marriage, and after reading the novel a second time I have to wonder if there can be a happy marriage in the world of Vanity Fair.  The three male protagonists in the novel experience marriage differently, but I wouldn’t say any of them are happy.  Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, and his marriage leads to disinheritance, massive debt, and financial ruin.  The only happiness he ultimately finds in his marriage is his love for his son.  Amelia marries George Osborne, and he, too, is disinherited because of his choice of wives, but the ruin deriving from their mésalliance is ultimately Amelia’s, not George’s.  Finally, William Dobbin, after spending nearly twenty years in love with a woman who doesn’t ever requite his love and is completely undeserving of his affection or loyalty, marries the woman he has desired for years, but even he comes to realize that the woman he marries isn’t worth the years he has spent pining for her.

Much of what drives the satire in Vanity Fair is the importance and value that is placed upon individuals who are morally bankrupt, utterly false, and irredeemable, and the lack of worth that is placed upon individuals who are genuinely good and patient, and possess even the tiniest measure of humility.  Thackeray’s satire takes aim at a bevy of issues he viewed to be the vices and follies within Victorian society—class, greed, gambling, the marriage market, etc., but the thing he derides most is every form of hypocrisy and vanity that causes individuals to place their own interests and desires above those of others, regardless of the cost.  Thackeray’s world of Vanity Fair is also an endless cycle, in which people rise and fall, or fall and rise, and the second generation makes similar kinds of mistakes, and engages in the same kinds of vanity and hypocrisy.  Vanity Fair is a world without end, and it is a world in which heroes can’t exist.

This second reading of Vanity Fair has caused me to look at the novel more objectively.  The first time I read the novel I was in my third semester of a doctoral program, and my reading and work load were so heavy that the tediousness of the novel’s narrator and his penchant for moralizing, along with my strong dislike for most of the protagonists (but especially Amelia) made reading the novel a painful exercise.  It wasn’t as painful this time, but I think I was just as happy to get to the end this time (perhaps even happier) as I was the first time.  The benefit of reading Vanity Fair is that you can see how it affected other novelists and how it was engaged in the same debates as other novels written during the mid-19th century.  As I said above, the satire is sharp and penetrating, and is an excellent example of the use of satire in the novel.  Still, my life will not be incomplete if it does not include a third reading of Vanity Fair.  The novel doesn’t make my list of recommended reads, and I would feel guilty about encouraging anyone to read it.  If you do read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it, or put in your list of five worst classics, or even want to throw your book across the room. My suggestion? Reader beware.

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