June 18, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "Vanity Fair," by William Makepeace Thackeray

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair (1848)
By William Makepeace Thackeray
Book #43 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Subtitled "A novel without a hero," and named after an infamous chapter in John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress in which our narrators stumble across a permanent country fair dedicated to human greed and sloth, it's clear from the outset that William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 Vanity Fair (first published serially in 1846 and '47) is not going to be the rosiest look at humanity ever penned; and in fact, it uses almost a thousand pages and a cast of dozens to get across in a blackly comic way just how worthless humanity ultimately is. Set largely in the Napoleonic Era thirty years previous, it's primarily a look at the changing fates of two old school chums, the rich but gullible Amelia Sedley and the poor but scheming Becky Sharp, who begin the book in really not that bad a situation; they have just graduated and both moved to London, where Amelia has been long engaged to card-playing military man George Osborne (even while being pined after by cuckolded good-guy best friend William Dobbin), while Becky forms a flirtatious relationship with Amelia's brother Joseph (or Jos), even while getting settled into her post-school job as governess for the dysfunctional family headed by the stern Sir Pitt Crawley, whose rakish son Rawdon eventually becomes Sharp's husband.

Befitting its serial nature, then, the actual plot of this massive book relates the epic up-and-down adventures of the two women in the three decades following, with details too numerous and convoluted to try to cover here (see Wikipedia for a good detailed recap), as first one of them thrives and the other suffers, then the other thrives while the first suffers, with deaths and children and bankruptcies and balls and famous battles thrown in liberally. The main point of this soap-operaish story, however, is for Thackeray to devastatingly prove that literally every character seen is guilty in one way or another of being a bad person, even in cases where those people at first seem traditionally virtuous -- even kindly Amelia, for example, ends up desperately grasping onto the false saintliness of her war-dead husband so tightly as to cause legitimate pain to others, while the near-angelic Dobbin (who many consider a stand-in for Thackeray himself) suffers more than almost everyone else, as his wimpy, lovelorn nature prevents him from ever standing up for himself or claiming the rewards in life that he rightly deserves. As our story ends, then, with the surviving characters all essentially now middle-aged wrecks, our most definitely opinionated narrator (who in good Victorian fashion is constantly interjecting his personal thoughts into the scenes we're witnessing) seems to imply that this is all any of us can hope for, as we slowly age and society slowly continues decaying, finishing the novel on the same humorously cynical note in which he began.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, say its fans, this book should be afforded 'classic' status merely to acknowledge the influence Thackeray had over literature in general; because although it's been largely forgotten by now, Thackeray was so popular during his own times, he was one of only a handful of writers to have an entire color associated with his works, so that when a person for example was walking by their neighborhood newsstand and saw a light-blue manuscript on the shelves, they knew immediately that the newest chapter of Thackeray's latest serial project was now available. Barring pure popularity, though, fans argue that this is still worth classic status for being a nearly perfect example of the Victorian Novel, otherwise known as the Romantic Novel, a huge hit from the first decades of these movements that profoundly helped shape all the books that came after it -- after all, it deals masterfully with such period topics as the aristocracy, social justice, the fate of young single women in 19th-century Britain, young soldiers shipped off to far-flung exotic colonies, and a lot more, all while shedding much of the linguistic finery and pat moral lessons that were required of literature in the Enlightenment Age just previous. (In fact, Thackeray always considered himself one of the first of the literary "Realists," although his definition was quite different than the one coined by Henry James and others half a century later; as mentioned, for example, his books feature an actual physical narrator, one who is constantly adding his own asides and opinions as if you were literally listening to him sit around a parlor telling you the story, while Realism novels these days are largely expected to feature an invisible narrator who is more like a ghost, silently hovering over the shoulders of the book's characters and impartially listening to what they have to say, known in modern times as "omniscient narration" and the basis behind 95 percent of all novels ever written.)

As such, then, fans claim that Vanity Fair is also important for a related reason -- that after decades of Austenesque tales in which heroes and villains were supposed to be unambiguously identified by the author, with good (or at least "good sense") ultimately triumphing over evil (or chaos, if you will), it was early Romantic artists like Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert who first introduced the idea of moral relativism to the arts, and the concept that perhaps the world isn't filled with black and white decisions but rather an endless series of grays. And then if this wasn't enough, the book also gives us one of the greatest and most complex antiheroes (sympathetic villains?) of the entire 19th century, the beguiling and instantly fascinating Becky Sharp, a charming yet completely sociopathic social climber capable of both great harm and great good (sometimes in the course of a single evening), and who metaphorically represents many of the tough decisions that single women with ambition were forced to make in the decades after the Industrial Revolution but before the equal rights movement.

The argument against:
As is the case with many Victorian novels, one of the biggest complaints you find online of Vanity Fair is its sheer length; because since so many of these 19th-century tales we now think of as standalone books were actually designed to be digested in small bits weekly over the course of an entire year or two, and since these writers were generally paid by the word, what could've been a tightly told 300-page story in so many of these cases turn out to be twice that length or more, a problem that only started going away as society began getting more and more literate in the 20th century, and as more and more of these long-form stories started being envisioned in book form right from their starts. Also, you see lots of people argue that Thackeray was just a little too good at his characterizations, ironically creating people so despicable that it's hard to gather the sympathy or even interest to finish the book in the first place; and this is especially true of our dear Miss Sharp, who is as passionately hated by some readers as she is passionately loved by others.

My verdict:
I think it's no secret by now that I'm a big fan of Victorian literature, and that it takes an out-and-out stinker for me to actively dislike any particular title from the 19th century; but that said, while I ultimately enjoyed Vanity Fair, I think it's fair to say that I enjoyed it less than other books published in those same years, and that it can't really hold a candle to such tight masterpieces as, say, Jane Eyre by his contemporary Charlotte Bronte, or Madame Bovary by the aforementioned Flaubert. And yes, a big part of this is caused by exactly what its critics charge, its excessive length and serially-inspired micromanaged plot, with there being plenty of moments while I was reading this that it felt like it was NEVER GOING TO FREAKING END; and I'm now looking forward to checking out some of the film and TV adaptations that have been made of it over the years, in that I suspect that this story will move a lot faster and better once you start cutting away giant amounts of chaff from the wheat (starting with each and every reference to the children that Amelia and Becky eventually have, whose problems take up a huge chunk of this novel's last third but that don't offer up even a single interesting or unique thought).

But that said, like many, I sort of fell in love with Becky Sharp from nearly her first appearance, because of her fondly reminding me of several trainwreckish ex-girlfriends from my youth; and although all of us eventually discover the hard way what a nightmare it is to date a human trainwreck, they still remain utterly fascinating creatures, a big part of what draws us to such people in the first place, as Thackeray shows us through Sharp's mastery (for example) at weaseling out of bills, her decision to simply start dating French dudes if the Napoleonic Wars end up going badly, etc. There are better Victorian novels out there to pick, if you have only a casual interest in the subject and are looking for a mere handful of books that best illuminate this period of the arts; but if you've now read those and are hungry for something meatier, this still remains 160 years an excellent choice. Like Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne, I believe we are on the last cusp of history to find Thackeray wildly popular; and unlike such timeless masters as Dickens and Bronte, I have a feeling that in merely another 50 years or so, a book like Vanity Fair will be generally seen in much more critical terms than it is now. That makes it a perfect novel to consume here in the early 2000s before it's too late, and I encourage those with an interest to do exactly that.

Is it a classic? For now

The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer

Read even more about Vanity Fair: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:12 PM, June 18, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |