I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray yesterday, and I continue to reflect on it, wondering what its point is, its mission.
The novel, which was originally published in 1847 as a series of installments, just as were the novels of Charles Dickens at that time, made Thackeray’s reputation as a major figure in British literature. The book remains in print to this day, and has attracted lots of critical attention. Without having read the critics, beyond the critical introduction by John Sutherland in my wife Kimmie’s World’s Classics edition by the Oxford University Press—a mass-market paperback she got in 1995, inspired by a TV adaptation we had just seen—I will try to gather my own thoughts here before your very eyes. There will be spoilers, so stop here if you have not read the book! It’s well worth reading, so this can wait until you come back.
When I try to think of the meaning, theme, or controlling idea of a story, the first place I look is the ending. What kind of events resolve the story, and what are the thoughts and, most importantly, the emotions that arise as a result? In Vanity Fair, we have what superficially appears to be a typical comedy ending: a new equilibrium is reached, with the community brought into harmony after the storm and stress of the story. The two main characters, the scheming “adventuress” Becky Sharp and her sweet-natured and long-suffering schoolmate Amelia Sedley Osborne Dobbin, have arrived at the happiest stages of their respective lives. The comedy has been crowned with a wedding, which is the way comedies have properly ended, according to Christopher Booker in his The Seven Basic Plots, since the advent of New Comedy with the plays of Menander in the early 3rd century BC. The “Old Comedy” of Aristophanes, which was a social comedy that satirized various aspects of contemporary life, gave way to what we now would call romantic comedy, in which social issues are revealed in the crucible of a romance between two young lovers whose society deems their relationship as being, for whatever reason, inappropriate. The “romance” in Vanity Fair is actually a story of unrequited love: the stolid army officer William Dobbin carries a torch for Amelia, whose heart was irrevocably given to his brother officer George Osborne, and who cannot be faithless to him even after his death at Waterloo. Eventually the scales fall from Amelia’s eyes, or actually are chipped off by Becky for reasons of her own, and the union so long and ardently desired by Dobbin can take place. Everyone is set up very comfortably, the end.
But Vanity Fair is not a standard comedy; indeed, it might not be a comedy at all, despite its comic characters and comic tone and and comic situations and comic illustrations. For the basic law of comedy, and of tragedy too, come to that, is that virtue is rewarded and vice punished. Or, in the sly words of Oscar Wilde through the voice of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest:
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
If Miss Prism is right, then Vanity Fair is not fiction! For Becky Sharp, who is surely among the bad, ends happily—or as close to that condition as anyone in Vanity Fair can be. Vanity Fair is thus a black comedy: a comedy in which vice actually triumphs. So the feeling tone of the ending is complex. There may be some chuckles, but there is also a sober sense that things are not right with the world. For when we see the triumph of vice in real life our reaction is not laughter, it’s indignation. The triumph of vice offends our sense of justice, and makes us feel, deep down, “this isn’t over.” At the end of the story here, though, it is over, which tells us that this is the author’s picture of the world, of reality: there is no justice, just winners and losers, and who they are has little to do with their character or deserts.
According to the introduction of my edition, written by John Sutherland, the title of the work came to its author as an inspiration one night that excited him so much that he ran around his bedroom, repeating it. Thackeray had already been at work on it for a while under the title A Novel Without a Hero, which would be retained as one of the book’s two subtitles (the other being Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society). But Vanity Fair struck Thackeray as being exactly what he was writing about. So what is Vanity Fair?
The term comes from The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan, an allegory of the Christian path to salvation published in 1678. Bunyan introduces it thus:
Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are: and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein, should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long: therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.
The fair is deliberately placed on the way to the Celestial City in order to distract and ensnare all those who are bound there. It’s somewhat analogous to the Land of the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, where pleasure induces the sojourner to stay on indefinitely and forget about his objective. Or like a Roach Motel: they check in, but they don’t check out. And, like Roach Motels, Vanity Fair is purpose built to achieve the aim of its architects: to prevent Christians from reaching the Celestial City. The demons don’t bother with threats and violence—things that will evoke resistance. No, they use pleasure; their victims come willingly and stay. Mission accomplished, no fuss, no muss.
My point is that Vanity Fair exists because the Celestial City exists; it is a countermove in a cosmic chess game between God and Beelzebub. Thackeray has brilliantly portrayed English society of the early 19th century as an image of Vanity Fair, much as Bunyan described it, complete with its inventory of vanities, many of which are explicitly pursued by Thackeray’s characters. What is absent from his novel is any sense of the Celestial City. The denizens have forgotten their pilgrimage and now look for their happiness in this demon-built place. They look in vain, for happiness is not to be found there; the demons knew what they were about.
The subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero, feels significant. The hero’s task, according to Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is to bring new life to his society by shouldering the task of finding that new life and winning it from whatever dark force is withholding it. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, that hero is Christian, who resists the lure of Vanity Fair, and who, along with his companion Faithful, is exposed to ridicule, abuse, and imprisonment for having no taste for the fair’s goods, but only for truth. Their behavior starts to inspire a few of the wretched inhabitants of the fair, which only brings harsher treatment on the heroes.
Still greater heroes were Prince Gautama in India and Jesus in Palestine, each of whom was tempted by the greatest demonic power in his world: Mara, king of the realm of desire in India, and Satan, the premier antagonist of God in Palestine. Both Gautama and Jesus were offered great worldly success and power if only they would abandon their spiritual missions. They both resisted and won through to their respective goals, bringing salvation to millions of others as a result. The hero’s path always involves suffering and sacrifice, which make severe tests of the hero’s character. Such a constellation of qualities is rare, and heroes are accordingly precious and few.
In Vanity Fair, by design, they are altogether absent. Usually the purpose of a story is to show us the career of a hero. Someone, at least for a time, takes on the exalted qualities and the elevated task of the hero, and we witness how such a person struggles through and wins (or, sometimes, fails to win) the sought-for treasure. Stories teach us how to live, what to value. A novel without a hero lacks this defining element. So what is the purpose of the story? Why does it exist?
According to Sutherland, critics are unanimous that Thackeray’s primary mission here was a moral one. Despite the arch and playful tone of his narrator, Thackeray was well aware of the moral failings of his characters, and did not in the least approve of these failings. The narrator sometimes admonishes his reader not to judge the characters too harshly, since the reader himself has probably done the same thing countless times. This has a somewhat uncomfortable effect, along the lines of Jesus’ admonition to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Who among us is without sin? By what right do we judge our neighbors?
So Vanity Fair could be said to be a holding of the mirror up to nature—our nature. This figure occurs in Hamlet, when Hamlet is charging the actors of the play within the play in Act 3:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
The purpose of playing, or perhaps of narrating, is, according to Hamlet, to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure—pressure here having its archaic meaning of “impression” or “stamp.” We look in a mirror to see ourselves, so Vanity Fair is us.
All right, true enough. Most of us can congratulate ourselves that we’re not so morally derelict as Becky Sharp. On the other hand, we’re probably not so upright as William Dobbin, either—although even here we can gloat over the fact that we would never be such a martyr to our yearning for an unattainable love object. We can surely persuade ourselves that we’re better than every single character, at least in some respect, but even in this we would be marking ourselves as fellow denizens of Vanity Fair, for the characters in the novel can say the same about themselves, too: each one is better than all the others, in some respect. Or at least could make himself believe so.
Where does this leave us? What’s the takeaway? What is the novel saying? I think of a line from Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, something like, “What are we here for but to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them in our turn?” Life is a comedy; our consolation is that we’re not always the butt of the joke; we get to take turns.
I don’t know, for me that feels a bit like thin gruel for such a massive story. My sense is that the author was troubled that the world appears to reward vice and punish virtue, but was at a loss as to what to do about it. His story had no hero because he didn’t believe in heroes. Endless hypocritical scheming to acquire wealth and get ahead in society—that he could believe in, he’d seen plenty of it with his own eyes. On those few occasions when heroism does manifest, as when Rawdon Crawley challenges Lord Steyne after being humiliated by him and his own wife Becky, it is crushed by the juggernaut of society before it can achieve its end and make a difference. We all have a price, and we are all bought—that is, if we’re lucky; mostly we are just peddling our wares and hoping.
As a young man, when I thought I would try to write commercial fiction, I took an interest in the British mystery writer Peter Dickinson. One of his books in my library is The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest, published in 1968. Apparently that was the American title of the original novel Skin Deep; no matter, it has always intrigued me as a title. It’s a vivid image. Through the glass you can watch the teeming colony, each ant intent and serious on its own business, each with a well-defined place in the society, each crawling over and past its neighbors, all busy in their thousands and none ever questioning what they’re doing or why. Even if they knew they were being observed they wouldn’t care in the slightest. Vanity Fair is a Victorian glass-sided ants’ nest. They struggle, they strive, they live, they die. For Beelzebub and his cohort it’s mission accomplished—until a hero shows up.