The great English novelists of the 19th century - the Victorian Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot - wrote social novels, stories in which the characters were firmly imbedded in a social context and could hardly be understood outside it. The reader will understand me if he considers the great American novels of the time: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn are concerned with individuals to the exclusion of society, even against society as in Huck Finn. But for the English novelists social norms are determinative, and characters are judged as they accommodate themselves to those norms.
Thackeray, a journalist who wrote comic satiric pieces for magazines like Punch, published his first novel, Barry Lyndon, about an Irish scoundrel, in 1844, and his next, Vanity Fair, three years later. Over the next ten years he wrote four more novels (Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians), but his reputation rests on Vanity Fair, and well it should for the novel is greatly superior to anything else he wrote. It is a masterpiece, one of the enduring monuments of English prose, a novel that artfully combines comedy, pathos, and irony in a way that only Thackeray could do.
Vanity Fair, in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, was a symbol of worldly society. Thackeray's novel opens with a prefatory note "Before the Curtain":
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place . . . [Here follows a description of smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing] . . . Yes, this is a Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy . . . the general impression is one more melancholy than mirthful.
He then refers directly to his characters as "the famous little Becky Puppet," "the Amelia Doll," "the Dobbin figure," and so on. The effect of the note is to endow the writer with an air of benevolent, bemused omniscience, and the book and characters with a veneer of irony. "And with this, and with a profound bow to his patrons, the Manager retires, and the curtain rises." What a beginning!
It was not uncommon for Victorian novelists to insert themselves in the text, to comment on the action or the characters, but it was Thackeray's constant practice, so ubiquitous in some of his novels that it becomes tiresome, but here it works because these little editorials (so to speak) constantly remark on behavior in the light of the Vanity Fair metaphor: "That is the way to get on, to be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair." These paragraphs came easy to Thackeray, too easy, because they sometimes seem a lazy writer's indulgence. Nevertheless, there's no question that these remarks are indispensable aspects of the novel; without them, it would be a much-diminished thing, because it gives the actions of the characters added moral significance.
This is not, however, a dull moral tale but a lively story full of unforgettable characters brought to life as soon as we meet them, by the writer's consummate artistry. The first scene of the narrative is the departure of Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp from Miss Pinkerton's "academy for young ladies," and before the first page is read we know Miss Pinkerton, and within a couple of pages we also know Amelia and Becky. Thackeray is not a writer of surprises - how a character first appears, morally and characteristically speaking, is how she shall appear at the end.
Thackeray's plotting is very clever. Beginning with Amelia and Becky together, he ensures, by a combination of Amelia's soft-heartedness and Becky's scheming, that their lives shall be intertwined, to a degree, for the rest of the story. Although she does not know it until the end, when Becky herself reveals it to her, the central fact of Amelia's life has been her husband's infatuation with Becky, while Becky's life has been a series of only intermittently successful intrigues. Becky is reprehensible, heartless, bright, brave, full of spirit and fascinating, while Amelia is a typical Victorian heroine, soft, sweet, and dull. She marries, and worships the rotter George Osborne, who is killed at Waterloo (just after proposing to run away with Becky), and goes on to raise her son in near-poverty, all the while dedicating herself to the memory of George. Meanwhile she has been loved (and unobtrusively helped and supported) by Dobbin, George's comrade in arms, whom she treats as a doormat. Finally, after a quarrel about Becky, Dobbin frees himself from his infatuation, telling Amelia that she is "not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you." It's a great, just, ringing speech, and Amelia is devastated when he leaves.
She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all.
Becky, eventually taking pity on Amelia, tells her of George's inferiority to Dobbin and his infidelity, shows her the note he gave to Becky the night before Waterloo, and by freeing her of her delusion about George, allows her to accept Dobbin's love. So a reconciliation takes place, they are married, and in time Amelia has a daughter, Jane. On the last page it is remarked that Dobbin is fonder of her
. . . than of anything in the world. "Fonder than he is of me," Emmy thinks, with a sigh. But he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle, or thought of a want of hers that he not try to gratify.
The episode is handled in a masterly fashion: the author gives the reader a happy ending but it is qualified. Dobbin gets Amelia, and their love is genuine, but it is not quite what he had hoped for; she does not have his strength of character. Thackeray's irony triumphs, as the last words of the book imply:
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? - Come, children let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
I began this essay by remarking the social aspect of English Victorian novels, but then I busied myself with the plot. Why? Well, if you think about what you have just read, you'll see that the action is socially driven and controlled. Reflect on Captain Ahab or Huck Finn or Hester Prynne - they are all deviants, defiers of society; their struggles are with themselves, and their triumphs and tragedies are their own. But Becky Sharp is society's creature, always struggling for social esteem, always intriguing for social security, and she is condemned by society because she has violated its norms, just as William Dobbin is esteemed, not merely for his qualities of character, but because he fulfills his social role admirably. *