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.