the vanity of thackeray’s fair

Vanity Fair tips the scales at 700-plus pages; unlike some of my favorite behemoths—Look Homeward, Angel; Moby Dick; Anna Karenina; David Copperfield; Don Quixote; and beast of beasts In Search of Lost Time—Vanity Fair is filled with every conceivable vice; I’m not referring to the selfish hordes that people its pages, either; no, Vanity Fair is filled with excessive semicolons, for one, and a profusion of minor characters who appear for no other purpose than to be named and quickly forgotten, disappearing in a snuff like a match that flares and dies in its flaming (Woolf?). The novel is marbled with the phrase “pure, artless, and innocent” or some slight variation thereof, and bulges with unnecessary incidents, as if Thackeray, highly distractible, simply can’t decide whether to sketch a memorable scene or portrait, or advance the bloody storyline. Thackeray’s prose is plump about the middle, that’s for sure. There are simply  too many references to Vanity Fair and Vanity Fair. Huh? Yeah, get this—Vanity Fair is one thing; Vanity Fair, another. (Now that’s a judicious use of a semicolon!). Vanity Fair the book derives its subject matter from Vanity Fair the reality, you know, from the primping, scheming, preening, and calculating antics of us all, we comic-tragical mammals. Whenever he can, Thackeray sagely reminds us how the world really works behind the surface of kindness and the facade of friendliness, and that we’re not really all that different from the good-foolish people and the bad-selfish people he presents. He’s a bit sententious, that Thackeray, precisely at the moment when he thinks he’s being funniest. Although my Canadian muse finds “the way Thackeray constantly either draws attention to the bookishness of the book or addresses the reader directly” both “distracting” and “compelling,” I find it mostly distracting, annoying, tiresome. If I were to choose a character in Vanity Fair that best represents the peculiar faults of the novel, it’s Joseph Sedley hands down, a fat, unevenly drawn nincompoop, who is intended to be comic but is mostly ludicrous.

14 Responses to the vanity of thackeray’s fair

  1. Fredr says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I can’t be specific, but I do remember it seemed a bit long. However, overall, I did enjoy it. I’ve seen one film adaptation of it, which wasn’t too bad.

  2. Anthony says:

    One day I’ll read the book, but it has slipped down my must-get-to-it list again. I think yours is the first unequivocal opinion I’ve read. No anticipation of Postmodernism? I have two editions, the latest edition is very handsome.

  3. I wrote a truly outstanding comment that seems to have been eaten, or else, as is more likely, I forgot to hit the “Post Comment” button. It involved counting semi-colons in different texts.

    It also included a link to Rohan Maitzen’s essay at Open Letters Monthly on VF that might present a novel closer to your taste. She is not so interested in the narratorial messing around that I like so much.

    Are you reading an edition with illustrations? i have strong positive feelings for Thackeray’s illustrations.

    • When a truly outstanding comment goes missing, I lose big. Bummer. I’ll chase Rohan down later this week. And no, no illustrations. I’m only familiar with your mascot: a puzzled pain look if I’m tired; a dreamy quizzical look if its Friday. Conclusion: ink blot. If you rally, I’d still like to hear your thoughts on semicolons, etc. K

      • Using Gutenberg texts, I searched for semi-colons.

        Vanity Fair: 2547
        Moby Dick: 4179

        And if we were to count characters who appear then vanish and memorable sketches that don’t advance the story, I suspect the results would be similar.

        That was the gist of it.

  4. Ha! That IS outstanding. I’d be interested to learn if Moby Dick has an inordinate number of minor characters, too. I doubt it, so says my memory. But your point is a good one. In my case, I allow novelists a wide berth as they pile up sins until they lose my sympathy entire. Then I lay in waiting, patient as a spider. Unfair? No, I don’t think so. My biggest grievance against Thackeray is a disconnect between his technique and subject matter, but I’m still trying to formulate this one. Thanks for the return visit.

    • The whaling scenes in Moby Dick, which are bloody enough, I admit, are “sins”? Tristram Shandy but be the equivalent of the Necronomicon.

      I’m with Anthony (although Rohan Maitzen is not) – the technique is the subject matter. You’re not really pining for Thackeray to let you know if Dobbin marries Amelia?

  5. Tony says:

    Sorry Kevin, I’m with your Canadian muse on this one – and, incidentally, with old Mr. Trollope, who also enjoyed this sort of banter 😉

  6. @AR – Pining? No. Maybe for a mode of humor that’s more sublte and varied. Although good fun, Irony and sarcasm only go so far before I weary. I’m bad that way, I suppose. Anyhow. The ending of VF is very good. The scene where Becky reveals Amelia’s husband for the lout he is is fantastic. One of the three best scenes in the whole show. I say this as a segue to Tony’s comment because I almost forgive Thackeray all his faults, just on the awesomeness of the ending alone…..

    @Tony, good to see you again! I read Trollope’s commentary last night. It was very rewarding. Trollope uses the word “fault” almost as many times as Thackeray uses semicolons. That’s a big number. But right at the end of his commentary, Trollope speaks of forgiveness. I understand that; it makes perfect sense. I just don’t follow in his footsteps.

  7. @AR, one last thing: I think a distinction can be made between technique and subject matter. I hope so. My next post depends on it. Cheers, K

  8. Biblibio says:

    I guess because I had a short love affair with semicolons of my own, I never really mind when authors totally overuse them…

    Oh, right… a comment on… the book itself? Vanity Fair seemed to me far more difficult to finish than most of those fat and charming books. There were scenes and aspects I liked but overall… eh.

  9. […] Coetzee and Vanity Fair by Thackeray make honorable mention precisely because I only enjoyed them retrospectively and well […]

  10. […] refine my appreciation for works I didn’t like at first blush, as was the case with Foe and Vanity Fair. It’s uncovered some gems I wouldn’t have otherwise read like Embers and The Leopard. […]

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