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.
the vanity of thackeray’s fair