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?