Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Whenever I know that I am going to really love a book, I become strangely unexcited about reading it (that’s why I still haven’t read The City And The City). And I’ve always known that I was going to like Vanity Fair, which is why it’s taken me years to get around to reading it.

            I’ve already mentioned my love for Gone With The Wind. There’s something about ruthless female characters, particularly in a period setting, that I am unashamedly down with. I mean, cmon, they’re oppressed, they have a right to screw around with the patriarchy to get what they want.

            Anyway, I was right…I really liked Vanity Fair. In some ways, though, the character of Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair’s ruthless protagonist) is somewhat less well-defined, and perhaps even less admirable, than that of Scarlett O’Hara (who does what she does for either love or for money…the former of which is, to be fair, the ultimate in totally impenetrable motivations for characters in stories).

            Both are women distinguished for their charm, and for their willingness to harm others, particularly their husbands, to get what they want. But it’s never very clear what it is that Becky Sharp actually wants. All she seems to want is to belong to society and host dinner parties and hobnob with Lords and Ladies. I suppose the point of the book is that she’s no different from any of the other people around her, she’s simply more capable. All that any of them want is to be seen as important people. If Becky Sharp was a man, then she would be a Gatsby.

            But somehow…I don’t know if that works for me. It’s strange that Vanity Fair can be so marvelously observant of peoples’ behavior, but pay so little attention to their motivations. I suppose that’s partly a mid-19th century thing. Psychology was still a Greek word when Thackeray wrote this novel.

            Given the extent to which characters in this novel are driven by a desire for dinner-table camaraderie, frivolity, witty chatter, and all the other accoutrements of high society, it is striking that the 300,000 words novel spends so little time showing them enjoying these vanities. Most of the dinners and the parties are described in interpolated exposition between the dramas and the tragedies. At least in the Great Gatsby we got to see Gatsby’s party. We could allow ourselves to be seduced by the spectacle before its hollowness was revealed to us. There’s never any such seduction in Vanity Fair, and yet I don’t think the novel can work unless you provide it for yourself, at least not for a modern reader.

            Unless you imagine the appeal that high society has for a poor orphaned girl, then there’s something utterly monstrous about the novel. Not monstrous in the sense of morally evil, but monstrous as in misshapen: the familiar elements recombined and altered to make something unfamiliar. Vanity Fair doesn’t work as a novel unless its central premise is true. If you don’t feel the appeal of vanity in your own life, then there is no way to understand how most of the characters in the novel behave. Fortunately, that was not a problem for me.

            Oh, also….digressions. This novel has the greatest digressions ever. You know how Moby Dick is filled with tons of long digressions, but they’re all about skinning or killing whales and are hence incredibly boring? Vanity Fair is filled with long digressions about things that are intensely relevant not only to modern life, but to the reader of Victorian literature. Like a chapter entitled “How to Live on Nothing Per Year”, which is all about how all those gentleman rakes manage to live the high life even though they have no income. And it’s studded through with references to various (hopefully) fictional readers of the book, like:

All which details, I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words “foolish, twaddling,” &c., and adding to them his own remark of “QUITE TRUE.” Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere.

            Every character, even some very minor ones, get their own long digression. Places get digressions. Houses get digressions. Schools come in for a digression. Little anecdotes from the past spring forth and take over the rest of the character. It is great fun. I love me some digressions.

7 Comments on “Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

  1. You’re making me want to read some good old fashioned honest literary fiction. I haven’t read anything non-fantastical since “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The unreal is now becoming my reality. But you made a good case for War & Peace, also, and your erudition makes me curse myself for my flippant romps through magical romps.

    Well, one of these days, I’ll get back to Earth…

    • Oh man, I read Confederacy of Dunces earlier this year. It was one of those of the weirdest reading experiences I’ve had in awhile. One-fifth of the way through I was all like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m going to read an entire novel about this totally unredeemable idiot.” But by the time I got to the end, I was really rooting for it, even though absolutely nothing in his character had changed, nor had he been in any way redeemed. It was pretty amazing.

  2. “The Confederacy of Dunces” is by far my favorite American novel besides “Huckleberry Finn”. I like picaresque.

    “Vanity Fair”, on the other hand, is great because it chronicles a group of people motivated almost entirely by getting the means by which to conspicuously consume. Except perhaps Dobbins. (It’s kinda like “Wall Street” &or “Mad Men”)

    As you say, the digressions sell it. For obvious reasons, I like to read “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” right afterwards while I’m in the right mindset.

    • Yeah, they want the means to consume, but all they can think about is inheriting that means. I mean, Jos got some pretty good means by working for it, but Pitt Crawley doesn’t work for shit. I enjoyed that aspect. This novel is like the secret subtext or explanation to every single Victorian novel I’ve ever read where people partied down and got married and chased inheritances and made me wonder how they funded all their lifestyles. Like…every Jane Austen hero is basically a millionaire (in modern-day terms), if you do a calculations about the size of their capital.

      I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as well, although I don’t remember it so well. I read it years ago, and it was one of my first Victorian-type novels, so I found the writing style to be somewhat slow going.

        • I’ve always thought that there must be many more people in modern days who live primarily off inherited wealth, and I wonder why there are not so very many novels about them. I mean, there are plenty of novels about very rich people: about stock brokers and lawyers and doctors, but all those people are “professionals”. Where are the novels about the million or so idle rich that, logically speaking, must be somewhere amongst us (for instance, William Burroughs was one of them…I guess he kind of did write novels about that class…they just used their money to become junkies in Tangiers). Actually, maybe
          they’re not amongst us nowadays. I’ve known alot of scions of extremely wealthy families, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met a person who didn’t expect to, at least for a little while, pursue some kind of profession. At the very least they go to law school, or business school or something.

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