To part with money is a sacrifice beyond almost all men endowed with a sense of order. There is scarcely any man alive who does not think himself meritorious for giving his neighbour five pounds. Thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving, but from a lazy delight in spending. He would not deny himself one enjoyment; not his opera-stall, not his horse, not his dinner, not even the pleasure of giving Lazarus the five pounds. Thrifty, who is good, wise, just, and owes no man a penny, turns from a beggar, haggles with a hackney-coachman, or denies a poor relation, and I doubt which is the most selfish of the two. Money has a different value in the eyes of each.
I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. Huzzah! So yeah, I generally prefer to post at least once a week, and it’s been a week and a half, but I FINISHED THE BOOK so I waited. Because, frankly, I’m glad to be done. And it’s not like any of you tend to comment anyway, so I’m really the only one who cares how often I post!
Anyway. My dad suggested I start this post by saying that I’m having trouble coming up with something to say because Thackeray used up all the words… In a book that clocks in at 825 pages, that’s not so far off, but his vocabulary is not as extensive as Dickens’. His writing, though still distinctively 19th-century English, reads as far more simplistic in style. One of the fun things about Thackeray’s style, which heightens the satirical tendencies, is his habit of using obvious names that demonstrate a person’s character, like those in the quote above – but only for minor characters. He gives these one-or-two-scene characters names like Thriftless, Toady, Bareacres, Spoony, and Mr. Woolsey, the tailor. They are not subtle, but they inform a scene or a reference that may last no longer than a paragraph, and they are often an indicator that this section is satirical but we need not pay too much attention to remembering these characters for the whole course of the story.
In film versions and analyses of Vanity Fair, I understand the chapters at the conclusion of the first volume, dealing with the final days of the Napoleonic Wars near Brussels, including Waterloo, get a good deal of attention. And these chapters are indeed the most engrossing and exciting of the first half of the story. But in my opinion the book gets much more interesting in its second half.
Seeing the characters without the distorting lenses of early courtship or the outbreak of actual military battles helps to grab the interest, I think. Amelia’s still a vapid ninny and Becky’s still a manipulative social climber, but putting them each into the role of motherhood adds dimensions to their personalities. Amelia clearly has an obsessive, clingy nature with an absurd tolerance for handsome, selfish, bossy males. She’s indulgent with her boy, who has all his father’s qualities – those that are charming in the short term and incredibly unappealing in the long term. He is, in a word, spoiled.
Becky’s son, almost exactly the same age, is George Jr.’s opposite. Rawdon Jr. is neglected. His mother dislikes him, and he would be entirely forgotten if not for the pity of a housemaid and his own father, who is an idiot, but a genial idiot who is genuinely fond of his son. Moreover, Rawdons Sr. and Jr. are both bullied by Becky, who is fake at best, scornful on average, and downright hostile and insulting at worst. The best thing that happens to Rawdon Jr. is being sent to live with his uncle and aunt after the scandal about Becky erupts and his parents separate.
Vanity Fair lives up to its name. It references a section of John Bunyan’s decidedly un-subtle allegorical work, Pilgrim’s Progress. The town of Vanity hosts a never-ending fair, known appropriately as Vanity Fair. The whole section represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly things – luxuries and so on. Thackeray repeatedly points to the opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy of Vanity Fair, in which people create fictions about themselves to seem more pedigreed or more wealthy or more connected, and in which people choose selfish indulgence over moral righteousness. The difference between Bunyan and Thackeray, though, is Thackeray isn’t preaching a course of righteousness. Thackeray’s just pointing out the hypocrisy so we can all laugh in our sleeves at other people’s pretensions.
Nobody in the book is wholly good or wholly evil. Many are selfish, vain, melancholic, gullible, or just plain amoral. It’s all grey area. It is, as Thackeray intended, a novel without a hero.
Next Up: The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri. Due to be released Dec. 30, 2014.