Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sharper than a serpent's tooth

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847. This is one of those books I read in college and probably would not have given another thought to in this life, except that I saw a bit of the recent film adaptation with Reese Witherspoon and became interested to go back and understand more about the background and characters. Now that I have reread the novel, I will return to the movie and see what I think of it. (I doubt from what I have seen so far that it will stand a chance against the classic that inspired it.)

There are two features that really mark Vanity Fair as a work worthy of preservation down the ages, I think. First, Becky Sharp is a fantastic character. She has the extraordinary ability to please people, flatter them, make them fall in love with her, men and women alike. What that means is you too, reader, will be pleased. Unfortunately, like all the others, you will be betrayed. The charisma-dripping Miss Sharp turns out to have nothing on her mind but herself and living in the style to which she has become accustomed, usually at your expense. The amazing feat of characterization here is that at least for the first half of the novel, we are pulling for Becky, even though we know she is a bad 'un, and only when everyone else has finally abandoned her do we also reluctantly set our carriages off in the opposite direction from her. Thackeray got us to love her in spite of ourselves, and finally to taste the bitter ashes of our own foolishness for doing so.

The second salient feature of this book, for me, is the incredibly intrusive narrator, who defines the disillusioned, ironic stance while imposing his view of things on us every other moment. Despite this, we would probably never have any interest in this story if not for the personality of the storyteller, who is so outrageously funny, so piquant yet nonchalant, a self-declared puppet-master for the characters who are trotted out before us, yet without a lot of love for any of them (oh, perhaps Becky, bad as she is) that we are compelled to turn the page.

"Vanity Fair" sees the world as a theatre for people's vanity, and one by one they are defeated by their own attachment to money, beauty, fame, and the eternal comfort of feeling that they are better than somebody else. Some things, unfortunately, have not changed much since 1847.

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