“If Rawdon Crawley’s blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art.”

When Robert Louis Stevenson, author of a famous little novella, one of my favorite books I’ve read in the last five years, states an opinion, although exaggerated, one had better listen. Show some deference. Now, I’m not a big fan of Vanity Fair. That’s clear; it’s unregulated. Tactically flawed. Thackeray’s conceit from the start is that people aren’t nearly as kind and friendly and selfless as they appear. Problem is, because his characters are so transparently foolish, naive, and calculating, they’re exactly as they appear. Straightaway, then, the reader is robbed the opportunity of rending deceptive masks. More damaging, Thackeray’s technique is at odds with his central theme. Duplicity is but poorly served by caricature, and satire and irony can sustain a reaction to surface play for only so long. In any event, Stevenson thinks Vanity Fair a very fine work of art. He identifies a single incident that makes the whole thing cohere. One incident. You can count it on your fingertip. One. I’m wary. The scene occurs in chapter 53, when Rawdon Crawley, a block-headed boob, catches Becky, his saucy minx of a wife, with another man. Rawdon thrashes him proper. Here’s Stevenson, “If Rawdon Crawley’s blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art. That scene is the chief ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon’s fist is the reward and consolation of the reader.” Really, the chief ganglion? It’s a delicious scene, to be sure, as gratifying as young Becky Sharp tossing her copy of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary out the carriage—but the ganglion? I doubt it. Structurally, the novel has two main currents, one that follows Amelia and Becky’s changing fortunes, and the other that bumps up alongside, despite many gaps in chronology, Major Dobbin and his selfless love for Amelia, his best friend’s widow. Stevenson has confused a lovely, pleasant waterfall — a diversion from the main current — for a ganglion. Do you agree or disagree with Stevenson?

References

Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip in the Rain,” Memories and Portraits, 1887.
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2 Responses to “If Rawdon Crawley’s blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art.”

  1. Colleen says:

    “Thackeray’s conceit from the start is that people aren’t nearly as kind and friendly and selfless as they appear.”

    If you believe this, I can see why you don’t like the book. This is not the VF I read, however, which may account for why we have such differing feelings about it.

    T’s premise seems rather more desperate, and much less pat, to me than this. It seems to me, rather, that it’s not so much that people aren’t so good as they appear but that we can’t see others clearly because our own masks are obscuring our views of them; it’s being drunk but still aware that all the camaraderie is a total sham. It’s a hopeless place and that’s partly why Dobbins’s love for Amelia is both so tragic and ridiculous–he’s the only person who doesn’t know, at bottom, that nothing–Including, nay especially, self!–is real. He’s the hero, if the novel has one, because he’s the only one who doesn’t assume even on a basic level that people aren’t nearly as kind and friendly and selfless as they appear. His heroism, because A is so unworthy of his devotion, often merely literal in that he’s truly alone as he pursues his misapprehensions and unworthy goals.

    Like any good late Shakespearean Comedy, the sad promise of impending Tragedy underscores everything.

  2. Hi C, what a wonderful comment. It got me thinking more about masks, perceptions, and ganglions. Becky’s perception of others is quite clear. She sees live people—Amelia, pure, naive, thoughtless; G. Osbourne; philanderer, dandy, lout; Dobbins, decent, even admirable, but situationally blind, especially to Amelia’s “unworthiness.” It’s largely because of her astute insight psychology that Becky is so successful in manipulating others, even when they secretly fear or revile her. That’s why, returning to R.L. Stevenson, the ganglion of the novel isn’t a scene but rather a character. Becky is the chief nerve around which characters twitch and jerk. K

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