Book Review: “Vanity Fair” by W.M. Thackeray

November 1, 2014

This satirical novel is widely considered the peak of Thackeray’s career. Probably in its favor is the fact that it is hard to pigeon-hole. Said to be the second greatest novel of the Napoleonic wars after War and Peace, it has no scenes of battle, instead depicting Waterloo from the viewpoint of the frightened civilians hunkering in nearby Brussels. In its most memorable character, the manipulative social climber Becky Sharp, Thackeray set out to portray an irredeemably wicked person in brusque retort to popular entertainments that he saw as glorifying villainy; somehow, though, she grew to be a charming rogue at the center of a droll picaresque. The more sympathetic characters of Amelia Sedley and William Dobbin seem fated at first to play the role of virtuous lovers; but by the time they finally come together, the realization that they are both fools has taken the love out of their love story and the happiness out of their happily ever after. Meanwhile, the satire cuts at every layer of society without mercy, its tone of smirking wit barely concealing the author’s disgust with human nature and British manners. Concluding with the ambiguous possibility that Becky gets away with murder, it leaves a dark, bitter aftertaste.

Thackeray teases us with a feint away from the usual pattern of ending the romance with the lovers finding each other and getting married. Amelia gets her George Osborne, and Rebecca gets her Rawdon Crawley, surprisingly early in the book. They have plenty of time with their husbands to grow unhappy with their triumph, and lose their husbands one way or another, and move on again. And when the true hero couple finally does tie the knot, right on schedule at the end of the book, they do it in a way that once again lets the air out of that convention. Meanwhile Becky schemes to get into high society, schemes for the favors of rich men, schemes to promote her husband’s interests in the cutthroat game of inheriting money, and above all schemes to live in style on nothing a year, always showing the perfect antiheroine’s love of self above all. As Thackeray depicts her repeated rise and fall with a frankness only lightly censored by consideration for the reader’s delicate sensibilities, the rising and falling fates of good, sweet Miss Sedley, later Mrs. Osborne, become harder and harder to care about. The only really interesting thing about Amelia’s story is the dawning realization, which finally comes to Dobbin, that she isn’t worthy of the torch he has carried for her all his life. And even then it is Becky who both destroys their chances of happiness and who finally, by a unique act of self-denial, brings them back together for better or worse.

What else Becky destroys, and how thoroughly she destroys it, and how far she goes in destroying herself along the way, is what makes this an immortal book. If it weren’t for the humor and self-deprecating touches, if it weren’t for Thackeray’s way of reminding us that it’s only a novel after all, the feelings you would take away from this book would be a mixture of horror, sadness, and righteous anger. Its running conceit about society being a vanity fair crosses over into the realm of prophecy, as in “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” – and that goes for British imperialism, and the military life, and capitalism, and the institution of marriage, and the fashions and taste of the rich, and family ties that have money interests tangled in them, and so much else.

I listened to an unabridged audio edition of this book narrated by Wanda McCaddon. I was thoroughly entertained from one end to the other, though I had to finish reading the book on Kindle because the last CD in the set was a multimedia disk, which meant my car’s audio-only CD player couldn’t play it. I wish audio book publishers would get over the temptation to combine part of the audio with a folder of data files. It takes some of the zest out of my project of becoming well-read while I commute.

Thackeray was a good satirist, to judge by this book. He made the evils of society not merely repulsive, but ridiculous. He made generous use of his gift for inventing silly names for silly people, such as the social parasite Tapeworm, the vulgar nobleman Sir Pitt Crawley, the snobbish Lady Bareacres, the mild Lady Jane Sheepshanks, and the vile Marquess of Steyne (pronounced like “stain”). No one is spared: neither unfaithful husbands nor their faithful wives; neither the genteel British practice of ostracizing people of lower social or moral standing, nor continental European society’s willingness to take adventurers under its wing; neither the mother who makes an idol of her son, nor the one who hates and neglects hers; neither the unwise businessman who goes bankrupt nor the rich miser who takes his fortune to the grave; neither the gold-digging relatives nor the rich relation whose fickle favor makes and breaks their fortunes; neither the calculating vixen who claws herself nearly to the top of the social heap nor the chumps who allow her to bring them down with her into ruin again.

You may well ask what it is that Thackeray really wanted to attack. The answer might be: everything and everybody. The nobility, the rich, the servant class, the deserving and undeserving poor. The only constant in life, as he depicts it, is the ridiculous. People don’t change much, either. They aren’t ennobled by suffering. They take all their character traits with them, good and bad, wherever life leads them; hardship and reward only make their key characteristics stand out, perhaps in grotesque relief. And the story never really has an ending because the problems in life have no neat solution. At some given point the puppeteer must simply declare the puppet play to be at an end, as Thackeray does in a final sentence that wakes the reader like a dash of cold water in the face. And before that final sentence is a penultimate statement of the moral of it all: “Which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?”

Thackeray is best remembered today for his most bitingly satirical, early novels, of which Vanity Fair was his greatest success. Some of his other notable titles include The Luck of Barry Lyndon, The History of Pendennis, and The Book of Snobs.

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William Makepeace Thackeray at Wikipedia
Films based on this book
Recommended Ages: 13+