My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.
There seems to be little to say about Vanity Fair that is worth the time in saying it. This is an open book; its appeal is direct, its themes obvious, its interpretation unambiguous. It is an extended satire of Victorian England—what more is there to add?
I was prepared for the nineteenth-century prose; indeed, Thackeray’s unadorned style has aged uncommonly well. I had readied myself for its protracted length and copious cast of characters. I was even prepared for the strong authorial voice and frequent asides; in this, Thackeray follows Henry Fielding quite closely. But I was not quite ready for such a depressing novel. For the secret of Vanity Fair’s lasting success is not, I think, due merely to Thackeray’s execution—brilliant as it is—but owes itself far more to the novel’s triumphant immoralism.
Like many great novelist, Thackeray opens the book by introducing to us a pair of characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, who are to be foils for each other. Amelia is simple and good, while Becky is calculating and wicked. Following the standard conventions, we should expect Amelia to emerge triumphant and Becky to be foiled. And yet Thackeray consistently and persistently flaunts this expectation. Instead, he throws his characters into a world full of cowards, egoists, hypocrites, dullards, drunkards, gluttons, dandies, and every other species of vice—in short, Vanity Fair—and shows us that, in such a world, virtue is a luxury few can afford.
Indeed, the frightening thing about this novel is that Thackeray gradually pulls us into sympathy with Becky Sharp. The daughter of a painter and a dancing master, she hoists herself up from the lowest to the highest ranks of society using only her wit. In the process, it becomes clear that she is a sociopath in the proper sense of the word—seeing others as mere instruments, unable to care for anyone but herself. And yet we feel—we are made to feel—that she is not morally lower than those around her (who also only care for money and status), only cleverer and more determined.
In a word, Thackeray’s thesis is that, in our depraved world—where people care only for vanities, and where unjust accidents such as birth determine the distribution of these goods—the only logical course of action is to be ruthless. Thackeray completes this impression by showing how commonly virtue leads to misery. Amelia’s virtue, though genuine, is consistently made to look foolish. Her dedication to her husband is rendered ridiculous by her husband’s unfaithfulness, her dedication to her son rendered absurd by her son’s unconcern with leaving the house, and so on. For my part I found it very difficult to like her, and more often found myself rooting for Becky.
William Dobbin is the only character who is allowed to appear really admirable. Yet his virtue, too, is for most of the story ignored and unrewarded. And when he finally obtains his goal—by which time he has grown bitter with waiting—this is arguably caused, not by his action, but by Becky Sharp, the only effectively active character in the book.
The final result of this has been to leave me with a feeling of emptiness. Thackeray’s portrayal of Vanity Fair is convincing enough to leave the reader with a numbing sense of cynicism, scarcely pierced by the novel’s few tender moments. Despite this, I must recommend the book highly. Thackeray has, in many ways, aged better than his chief rival, Dickens. His prose is leaner and sharper, his characters more realistic, and his ethos free of Dickens’ dripping sentimentality. This is satire raised to a sweeping view of human life—which does not make it any funnier.