Friday, October 5, 2007

Vanity Fair, Part 1

by William Makepeace Thackeray

"Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" —Vanity Fair

If I were a little more eloquent I could have written those words myself today. I have a lovely day and no pressing business. I was all set to listen to my Librivox downloads of Vanity Fair while I ironed, did some mending, and just generally enjoyed a slow day of light work, when I discovered that I was up to Chapter 39 of the 40 chapters I had on hand. Time to get the rest from Librivox. No such luck. Their website seems to be down. And so it goes...the best laid plans of mice and men. Oops! Wrong book!

Time for Plan B. Hmmmm...looking at it again, the quote doesn't quite fit after all. Well, it's still a cool quote. So, instead of listening to more of the story--which by now I'm well into--I shall write about the novel instead. Come to think of it, it's probably very fortuitous, as Vanity Fair is a tremendous book and I was beginning to wonder how I was ever going to get any words around it. Two -- nay ten -- blog posts won't begin to do it justice. But as I must begin somewhere, the title is as good a place as anywhere.

The term "vanity fair" originates from the allegorical story, The Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678 by John Bunyan, where there is a town fair held in a village called Vanity. And, it is believed that Bunyan's source for his fictional town's name comes from the book of Ecclesiastes and the opening statement, 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'

Thackeray has written a satire and let's be honest, satire's are not easy to write because they lack universal appeal. You walk on a knife's edge of humor--sharp, narrow and treacherous. While satire is usually meant to be funny, its real purpose is instruction. The author wants to hold up a mirror to an individual, group, or event and show--by means of irony, derision, ridicule or simply the unfolding of circumstances--heretofore hidden or unacknowledged vices, follies, abuses or shortcomings.

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray is satirizing all of humanity, from the highest to the lowest. Whereas Dickens usually targeted the wealthy and/or those in power, our author does not share the Dickensian' illusion that the poor are without vice. He is a believer in original sin--all of mankind is born capable of evil; though underclasses may have less opportunity for vice, when occasion coincides with motive, poverty is no guarantee of virtue.

Hence the subtitle of the book, A Novel Without a Hero. Thackeray's characters for this reason are less easily typecast than many other fictional characters of the time period. There is no hero, nor heroine. Perhaps that is also why I find his characters more real, more believable than those of his literary contemporaries, who usually had clearly defined heroes and villains.

As to the main characters, however, an interesting discussion developed on the Yahoo British Classics Book Group last month when we read this book. (Yes, yours truly is behind everyone else. The rest of the group has moved on to Agnes Grey and I'm still pluggin' away at September's read.) Many of the ladies in our group saw a strong similarity between the novel's female antagonist, Becky Sharp, and Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara. Likewise, there were recognizable likenesses between Vanity Fair's female protagonist, Amelia Sedley, and Melanie Wilkes from GWtW.

Becky Sharp is by far the most interesting and memorable of our novel's characters and in that sense I concur with her being compared with the indomitable Scarlett. She is feisty, selfish, manipulative, cunning and always (at least so far) manages to get her own way. I realize this rampage of ruin which she is wreaking on everyone can't last forever, but so far, she seems unbeatable. Amelia, on the other hand, is mousy, insipid, sweet to the point of being nauseating and consequently gets used by people and circumstances. In that sense I do not agree that she is like Melanie Wilkes who was supposed to be and in fact seemed to be, a genuinely good person, meek, in the Gospel sense of the word, but certainly not stupid.

What I found most interesting in our group discussion was how all the ladies saw themselves in either Becky or Amelia. And whichever they considered themselves in their early years, they were striving to be more like her opposite as they aged, i.e., an outgoing opportunist as a girl, wanted to become more reserved as a woman and the consummate wallflower of youth, longed to blossom into a forceful woman to reckon with in her later years. I wonder if that would be true if a larger sample of women were to read and discuss this book. In any event, just because our author is male, doesn't mean he doesn't understand the female psyche; indeed, he captures our ability to wound each other perfectly as well as the deeply regrettable inability of some to ever forgive and forget.

'But those who know a really good woman are aware she is not in a hurry to forgive, and the humiliation of an enemy is triumph to her soul.' (p441) How sad! And yet the women have no monopoly on this human sinkhole of fear--the real opposite of love. The father of one of the young men in our story also severs ties with his only son for the usual reason parents of the day cut their offspring, because they fail to make the expected and presumed 'correct' matrimonial alliance. Thackeray must have known from personal experience the pain and waste associated with such loss, especially when death forever makes reconciliation an impossibility. Even then this hard-hearted old man refuses to see the error of his way, thus inuring and perpetuating vengeance onto the next generation, his own grandson. But the book isn't over yet, so I may be getting ahead of myself. As the saying goes, 'Where there is life, there is hope.'

But if Vanity Fair were only full of the dark and the bleak in the tide of human affections, it would not be ranked in the top one hundred books ever written in many lists still today. What is it that we love about it? Certainly it is full of wry humor, witty dialogue and clever escapades. It is set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, primarily in Great Britain, but moves to the continent for the infamous Battle of Waterloo and then returns to England again. So it provides a contextual backdrop for the satirical commentary as well as giving us rich insight into a fascinating time in history, with all its associated mannerisms, customs and idiosyncrasies.

I cannot speak for the critics but one of the things I love about these old books are the words--words which have gone out-of-fashion. Those delicious words which are so expressive and can insult -- or praise -- with such finesse and panache. It seems such a pity that the average American vocabulary is dwindling every day. Some of my favorites from this book include: odious, hobbledehoy, discomfited, peccadilloes, mésallianiance, pluck, cordiality and dandle, to name but a few. What treasures we are denying ourselves when we drop these from our correspondence and conversation. Yesterday I worked on using the first and my favorite, 'odious' as often as I could. What fun and so much better than resorting to smaller and less descriptive adjectives.

Ah! I just checked and Librivox is back up, so I'm off to download more chapters. Part 2 shall have to wait! (to be continued...)

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