Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Idea of A Gentleman: Vanity Fair II

Towards the end of his novel, Vanity Fair (1847-48), Thackeray says something that to all appearances he well and truly believes; it may be the only thing he believes. He  tells us what it means to be a gentleman: "Perhaps these are rarer personages than some of us think for. Which of us can point out many such in his circle—men whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and small." (p. 740 of the Signet edition)  Such personages are rare indeed in Vanity Fair; in fact, as you might expect in a novel with such a title, there is only one, just as there is only one Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress: the good soldier (or horse?) William Dobbin. But Dobbin is not a hero like Bunyan's Christian, fighting the enemies of the Christian way of life.

Thackeray says his novel has no hero and that is true, if by the word 'hero' we mean a single person whose point of view the reader more or less shares and whose moral consciousness through good fortunes or bad is central to what the book is 'about'. Dobbin is not a hero in that way for the simple reason that he is not subject to the temptations of Vanity Fair and, in any case, is off-stage and conveniently out of the way, in India, for most of the novel. He is reference point, a still point in a corrupt and chaotic world.

The woman, Becky Sharp, who could have been the hero or heroine of the novel, as Emma, say is the heroine of Jane Austen's novel of that name, is Dobbin's enemy—and Thackeray's, who hates her, with her green eyes, her sharp intelligence and her beauty, and never gives her a chance. He calls her a "siren," a "delilah," and even at one point describes her, extravagantly, as a witch in terms reminiscent of Spenser's description of Duessa. I quote at length here so that you can hear and judge for yourself the disingenuous sound of  Thackeray's voice as he with self-righteous 'irony' and mock-modesty completes his demolition of Becky's character:

"We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley's biography with that lightness and delicacy which world demands—the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name. . . . I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner. In describing this Siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the waterline, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the Siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labor lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough  when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it, these mermaids are about no good,  and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of sight, be sure she is not particularly well-employed, and the less said about her doings is in fact the better." (p.759f)

But in fact, Thackery has more to say and continues to say it. 

How should we account for such foolishness in a  novel that has a reputation at least as an important work of art in the modern tradition of literary realism? The material that I have just quoted may be over-the-top, as we say, but its moral and intellectual incoherence like its tonal inconsistency, is typical of the novel as a whole. So, for example, Thackeray can't make up his mind how seriously to take the fact, which was undeniable, that the allegorical place that Bunyan had called Vanity, with its eternal fair, had become a real city named London—or Europe, the modern world: he persists in trying to treat this fact comically, though he doesn't have the comic genius of Dickens, or satirically though he can't even begin to write like Swift. Tragedy too is out of his range, though he knows that life in this modern vanity fair is hell for just about everyone but the very rich, and especially for children.

The only bright spot is the faithful and stoic horse (or Houyhnhnm), William Dobbin.


  1. Vanity Fair is Vanity Foul and Vanity Foul is Vanity Fair. Thackeray wrote a great novel because it is about life, which is good, whether or not the author thought so. Bunyan's Christian seeks death, which he eventually finds. Nowadays, Christianity is no longer a religion that rejects life, whether or not its theology says so. Pilgrim's Progress is a book nobody reads today, with good reason.

  2. Well written, it explains greatly and does justice to Thackeray. Thank you for sharing.