Write a note on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair.
Thackeray’s breakthrough came with Vanity Fair (1847–1848), a novel published in monthly installments.Thackeray’s novel is set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and the battle of Waterloo (1815) provides the backdrop for some of his most important scenes. Yet even as Thackeray creates his own version of the historical novel, he explores contemporary issues, giving special attention to the emergence of a new class of capitalist financiers. This new group is represented by Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy London stockbroker. Throughout the novel, Amelia is contrasted with Becky Sharp, an orphan descended from two bohemian artists.
Before long, Amelia’s father is forced to declare bankruptcy and auction off his possessions. The family’s financial collapse nearly prevents Amelia’s marriage to her childhood sweetheart, George Osborne.
In the meantime, Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, son to Sir Pitt Crawley, in whose home she has been serving as a governess. Neither couple has any money—and eventually both George and Rawdon find themselves in the army. George dies at Waterloo, and Amelia devotes the rest of her life to her young son.
As the stories of these characters are intertwined, larger questions take shape. Are newly rich financiers and businessmen asking for trouble? What happens—to them and their families—when their fortunes take a turn for the worse? Can we find any reliable source of moral or personal value? Are all classes equally corrupt? And if so, does that corruption infect every single individual?
Thackeray’s success was well-deserved: Vanity Fair was one of the most innovative novels of the age. Vanity Fair is the first great example of the Victorian multiplot novel, pointing the way toward many later works, including some of Dickens’s greatest achievements. In earlier works, such as Tom Jones and Waverley, we chart the development of a single character or protagonist. In a multiplot novel, we are introduced to several clusters of characters, watching as their stories come together over hundreds of pages.
This multiplot structure was especially popular in the middle decades of the 19th century and seems to reflect a mid-Victorian desire for social coherence and wholeness.
Vanity Fair also seems intended for an audience of adults. Earlier novels had often been designed for all ages, avoiding subjects that might embarrass or confuse younger readers. Vanity Fair, though never improper, deals more directly with matters of sex and betrayal than Dickens’s early works.The novel also refuses to idealize marriage and motherhood, suggesting that a doting mother may do her children more harm than good.
Thackeray’s novel rejects dominant assumptions about novelistic characterization and plotting. The book identifies itself as “a novel without a hero,” and it probably does without a villain as well. In Thackeray’s world, everyone can be the object of ridicule—or the focus of sympathy—including the narrator and the reader.
Thackeray makes his most striking departure from novelistic conventions by refusing to provide us with a conventional comedic ending. Like most of the novels that came before it, Vanity Fair ends with a long-awaited marriage between Amelia and her childhood friend Captain Dobbin. Yet unlike those novels, Vanity Fair does not suggest that this marriage offers a solution to the couple’s problems or stands as a reward for their enduring virtues. Neither, in its final images of a widowed and perhaps lonely Becky, does the novel suggest that all of its characters’ vices will be punished. Poetic justice is upheld here, but not in the ways that experienced novel-readers would have come to expect.