August 2010 Archives

Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

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Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons

The final destiny of the gods

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My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök."  In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars.  Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais. 

At first, people applaud and weep.  But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.

The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals).  At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat."  Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals. 

(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God.  Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy.  As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)

I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya.  Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness.  But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong.  Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.

That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error.  It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight.  The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.

Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge:  "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel."  Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.

If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why. 

(Image of the god Thoth from BBC)
What is William Makepeace Thackeray talking about, in Vanity Fair, when he asserts:

If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms: if a dear girl has no dear Mamma to settle matters with the young man, she must do it for herself.  And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener!  We can't resist them, if they do.  Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same.  And this I set down as a positive truth.  A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES.  Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts in the field, and don't know their own power.  They would overcome us entirely if they did.
(p. 25 (emphasis in original).)

While Thackeray is frequently an uncomfortably insightful critic on matters of human greed and gluttony, on this issue - the supposed freedom women have to select their own husbands - Thackeray appears to me to be a lunatic. 

Never mind the fact that his assertion is utterly contrary to my own experience: times have changed.  Vanity Fair predates feminism and, if feminism has proved one proposition, it is that women (with fair opportunities and without absolute humps) awakened to their own power - freed from their beasts-in-the-field likeness, in Thackeray's parlance - are far from assured of marrying whom they like. 

No, my sense of Thackeray's lunacy derives from his own depictions of women attempting to marry whom they like.  The marital trajectories of Thackeray's own characters contradict his overarching statement.  Becky Sharp, for example, begins the novel wanting to marry Jos Sedley.  Despite an exercise of her prodigious power, inopportune drunkenness on Sedley's part, followed by an unkind intervention on the part of George Osborne, drown Becky's hopes.

Nor does Amelia Sedley's marital history support Thackeray.  Amelia, too, exercised her personal powers to show (more than) a "little inclination" to marry George Osborne, but her own efforts would have resulted in spinsterhood.  Nothing short of the extraordinary social pressure exerted by Osborne's long-time friend, mentor and source-of-extra-funds-in-a-pinch, William Dobbin, convinced Osborne to take the plunge with Amelia.

So I return to my original question: what is Thackeray talking about?

One possibility is that Thackeray is just being provocative.  At playing provocateur, he excels.

Another possibility is that Thackeray just had one of those human lapses that lead to the fervent espousal of contradictory positions.  It happens to all of us, even in print, even when editors are supposed to catch that sort of thing before it goes public.

Yet a third option is that Thackeray is urging us women on to greater heights.  Although Thackeray is too much of a realist and a story-teller to be a severe moralist, he does take a firm stand against one sort of immorality: the refusal to grow. 

Thackeray can do nothing but frown on Amelia Sedley's steadfast devotion to the unworthy George Osborne; Thackeray has nothing but contempt for Becky Sharp's persistence in her manipulative and degenerative social tactics.  However much Thackeray hectors and berates his characters, and punishes their stubborn inertia, they don't change.  But perhaps we, the audience, might. 

Hence, just as Thackeray shows us what not to do, he tells us what we should do: ladies, he admonishes us, stop being cows and start getting what you want from the men you want.  In a word: change.

I appreciate the sentiment.  But I also appreciate that Thackeray didn't show us an example of his idealized woman for a reason: she doesn't exist in Vanity Fair - or, since Vanity Fair is a representation of our own materialistic world, she doesn't exist.

Which raises a fourth possible answer to my question of what, exactly, Thackeray is talking about: like most novelists, he too frequently makes things up.

(Image of Romola Garai as Amelia Sedley in Mira Nair's film version of Vanity Fair from Garai's website; image of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in the same film from The New York Times)

Borges and Bolaño

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In a prior post, I speculated about possible reasons for Roberto Bolaño's propensity to create writer characters whose oeuvres remain opaque to the audience.  By depriving these writer characters of an oeuvre, Bolaño isolates them from the possibility of literary dialogue with other authors and texts.  I conjectured that Bolaño might conceive of such a writer character as a symbol of mortality.

Now, however, I have a new theory.  I think Bolaño's oeuvre-less writers are a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, after all, is the author who (as I highlighted in another prior post) eschewed composing actual novels in favor of imagining them and then commenting on them.  Borges' short stories, moreover, overflow with texts that we don't see (e.g., John of Pannonia's tract against the heresy of the Monotoni in "The Theologians"; Borges' own fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir in "The Zahir"), and with texts that we don't see completely (e.g., Benjamin Otálora's tale in "The Dead Man"; Christopher Dewey's tale in "The Man on the Threshold").  Without too much mental gymnastics, one could truthfully describe Borges as a novelist who, instead of having an oeuvre, merely has a commentary on his own imaginary oeuvre.

By his own account, Bolaño loved Borges.  In The New York Review of Books, Francisco Goldman quotes Bolaño saying, "I could live under a table reading Borges." 

Knowing of Bolaño's reverence for Borges, and now having read some of Borges' work, I'm inclined to see the protagonist of Bolaño's novel, 2666, the enigmatic writer, Benno von Archimboldi (a/k/a Hans Reiter), as a Borges-like figure.  Like Borges, von Archimboldi is a man with a split identity (see Borges' short story, "Borges and I"); like Borges, von Archimboldi is withdrawn from the world; like Borges, von Archimboldi writes imaginary novels; like Borges, others (especially critics and criminals) see von Archimboldi as a figure of power and redemption; and like Borges, von Archimboldi hasn't won the Nobel Prize.

Goldman interestingly cites Bolaño's observation that, "[his] life . . . has been infinitely more savage than Borges's."  Benno von Archimboldi's life, however, has seen its share of savagery.  Perhaps, in Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño was offering his mentor - who'd always been cagey about his identity as "Borges" - another identity, one less bookish and less focused on the 19th century, one more infused with the lessons that Bolaño had learned from his own life.  In Bolaño's hands, Borges could be everything he wasn't in life: a physical presence, a soldier, a killer, a lover - everything, in fact, but a writer with an oeuvre of novels. 

Even a novelist with an extensive oeuvre like Bolaño's, it seems, has some limits.   

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from Maud Newton; image of Jorge Luis Borges from Wikipedia

Borges on Jews

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I didn't know what to make of what Borges makes of Jews.  My first impressions did not accord with the assessment of academic Evelyn Fishburn, who wrote,

Borges' philosemitism is not at issue here: his credentials in this respect must satisfy all but the most paranoid.

Well call me paranoid.

Philosemitism didn't occur to me when I read the following description of "Aaron Loewenthal" in Borges' short story, "Emma Zunz" (from his 1949 collection, The Aleph):

Aaron Loewenthal was in the eyes of all an upright man; in those of his few closest acquaintances, a miser. . . . The year before, he had decorously grieved the unexpected death of his wife - a Gauss! who'd brought him an excellent dowry! - but money was his true passion.  With secret shame, he knew he was not as good at earning it as at holding on to it.  He was quite religious; he believed he had a secret pact with the Lord - in return for prayers and devotions, he was exempted from doing good works.
Fishburn doesn't quote this rigidly stereotypical character description in her discussion of "Emma Zunz," but she does say:

The story is placed almost entirely within the confines of the Jewish world of Buenos Aires around the year 1922 and includes scenes of embezzlement, prostitution, lies, betrayal and cold-blooded, premeditated murder, thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary.
"Thus opening up the social and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary"?  Is Fishburn somehow suggesting that Borges is immune to common anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that cast them as embezzlers, liars, betrayers, cold-blooded premeditated murderers (blood of Christian children in the Passover matzoh), etc.?  Without in any way suggesting that depictions of Jews should be immune from the full range of human behavior in which they (and all groups of humans) engage, I can't see anything laudatory about Borges descending to depict Jews consistently with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

That said, I do not think Borges is anti-Semitic.  As J.M. Coetzee writes of Borges in The New York Review of Books,

Englishness was one part of Borges's self-fashioning, Jewishness another. He invoked a rather hypothetical Sephardic strain on his mother's side to explain his interest in the Kabbalah, and, more interestingly, to present himself as an outsider to Western culture, with an outsider's freedom to criticize and innovate. 
Much as Borges might have been an example of the much-loved Jewish stereotype of the "self-hating Jew," much more likely (in my opinion) is that he extended to Judaism the same openness, curiosity and delight that he obviously shows in Islam and other traditions of long lineage in which he found interesting engagement with large questions of theology, time, existence and reality.

Rather than being an expression of anti-Semitism, I think Aaron Loewenthal is simply a function of Borges' generally weak skills at characterization.  In Borges' quick sketches, readers find many characters capable of grand action and exhilarating thinking, but very little in the way of deep psychological and emotional portrayals.  (Indeed, Fishburn votes for Emma Zunz herself as being Borges' most fully fleshed-out character: "his only moderately developed character is female; also Jewish, manipulative and murderous; and uniquely pitiable").  This being the case, I think that when Borges reached for a character description of Aaron Loewenthal, he defaulted to the "Jewish miser" stereotype.  So ingrained was this stereotype into the world in which Borges lived that his invocation of its broad form may have seemed "right" to him as a description of a Jew.  I doubt seriously that Borges even recognized in Aaron Loewenthal an anti-Semitic stereotype.

All the same, whether Borges was philosemitic or merely interested in Kabbalah (and even if he was prey to the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his day), I don't recognize myself, as a Jew, or as a Jewish woman, in Borges.  What Borges makes of Jews, however thought-worthy, doesn't strike me as Jewish.

(Image of Borges' El Aleph from

The unbearable heaviness of "Borges words"

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In a previous blog post, I focused on the explanation given by Jorge Luis Borges, in his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, about why he hadn't written a novel:

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them
My prior post was occupied with the second half of Borges' remark: that imagining vast novels and commenting on them is better than writing them.  But, with extended reflection, I think the first part of Borges' statement may be more revealing: his conviction that novel writing is laborious and impoverishing madness.

Certainly, I agree with him.  Writing novels has consumed the better part of five years of my life; the work wholly exhausts me; I don't think anyone who knows me intimately would argue too strenuously that I'm sane; and I'm teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, having succeeded in never having earned a dime from my fiction writing.

Still, my guess is that Borges was referring to some other "laborious," "impoverishing" and "mad[dening]" aspects of novel writing.  I take my cue from this passage in his story, "The Writing of God":

[T]here is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say "the jaguar" is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth.
Here Borges offers an extraordinary conception of a word, one that departs from our common currency.  Each "Borges word" has almost unimaginable weight and resonance.  The more "Borges words" one strings together, the more propositions one advances, the heavier and more unwieldy the work becomes, the more the universes conjured by each word clang against one another, creating cacophony and undecipherable complexity.

To write a vast tome from such components is truly laborious; hauling each "Borges word" into place must be on par with positioning the stone blocks that comprise a pyramid.  And the task is also impoverishing - to the language.  The vibrancy of each word is overshadowed, damaged and cramped by the presence of so many other words, by the weight of so many other universes.  Borges was not exaggerating to say that composing a novel with "Borges words" would be maddening.

And, although Borges didn't mention this corollary, to read a novel composed of "Borges words" might be a similar laborious and impoverishing madness.  Reading a Borges short story is so demanding that I read each of his stories twice . . . before I go back and "reread" them again.  The weight and resonance of an entire Borges novel might very well reduce me to my atomic constituents.

Luckily - however much Borges described his choice as that of an "inept" and "lazy" man - Borges knew both his power and his métier.  He spared me atomic disintegration and gifted me untold hours of pleasure in his stories, a balance that I can only describe as a prudential and laudatory use of "Borges words."

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times)

Jorge Luis Borges, book blogger

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Jorge_Luis_Borges.jpgExplaining why he'd never written a novel, Jorge Luis Borges remarked,

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Not just books, or imaginary books, either.  Borges is a compulsive summarizer and commentator.  No text, real or imagined, seems too short to merit this treatment.  He opens his six-page story, "The Dead Man," by saying, "I do not know the full details of [Benjamin Otálora's] adventure; when I am apprised of them, I will correct and expand these pages.  For now, this summary may be instructive."

Nor does he restrict his commentary to a sentence here and there.  More than half of his barely five-page page, "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," is commentary on an anecdote about a barbarian who switched sides while sacking Rome.  And while Borges' commentary constitutes the story in the foregoing example, his commentary seems to reverse the meaning of the story in the case of "Averröes' Search," transforming the tale from one of discovery into one of failure.

Borges offers a potential rationale for his inveterate commenting in, "The Immortal," at the end of which he appends a "postcript" [sic] to a text allegedly slipped into the last volume of Pope's Iliad.  Acknowledging that the text's veracity has been questioned because it quotes or plagiarizes from other texts, Borges remarks:

To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable.  As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus [the author of the text found in Pope's Iliad], there are no longer any images from memory - there are only words.  Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men - those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
What else is commentary but "words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men"?  To quote the words of other men (or the imagined words of other men) and "mutilate" them by placing them in another context, arguing with them, juxtaposing them against other words, complicating their meaning, burnishing or adding to their facets, is to engage in the act of commentary.  And for Borges, the raw materials for that commentary - the words - were "the alms left him by the hours and the centuries": his inheritance from history.

At this juncture, I'd like to offer my commentary on Borges' habit of commenting: his impulse is not so much like that of a fiction writer, but of a blogger.  Fiction writers are interested in stories: plots and characters.  Borges is interested in analysis.  Borges - because he's Borges - manages to make stories out of analysis, but his success doesn't transform his approach from one of a commentator into one of a fiction writer.  Nor does that fact that Borges is sometimes commenting on or analyzing imaged texts make his methodology suitable for fiction: just as a law student arguing a moot court case is practicing legal techniques, not fiction writing, so Borges is acting the part of commentator, not author.  

As Rivka Galchen says in her New York Times essay on Borges,

he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading. . . . To love a text: isn't that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?
"[W]riting . . . [as an] intensely engaged way[] of reading" - that's why I blog about books.  When I finish a book, I want to deepen, heighten, round-out and complete the experience by writing about it.  "[H]elplessly casting about for something to say in return" to a book is a good description of my blog.   

In this light, Borges' stunning innovation is that he appears to have invented book blogging before blogs existed.  Not that this technological gap really matters.  If Cartaphilus can chat with Homer eleven hundred years after he wrote the Odyssey, then Borges can blog before blogs - or the Internet, or even personal computers - were invented.  In my analysis, Borges' stories, properly understood and contextualized, are blog posts.  Likewise, Borges' books are compilations of his posts - he may be the world's first blogger to have landed a publishing contract.  

And in this post, I am imagining Borges' blog and (imaginarily) hyper-linking to it.  Check it out, folks: once you read his posts, you'll want to leave a comment.

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times

The bitch side of Jane Austen

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William_Makepeace_Thackeray.jpgWilliam Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair should be a mandatory complement to any Jane Austen reading assignment.  Focusing on the same social set in the same country and time period as Austen, Thackeray offers a view of the world depicted in Austen's novels that is less romantic, less hopeful and less moral than the perspective Austen proffers.

Thackeray is also unrelenting.

I'm a fast reader, and yet Vanity Fair claimed a month of my time.  The extended reading period is odd.  Without question, I enjoyed the book, and I found Thackeray's authorial voice entertaining.  I loved the depth that Thackeray added to my understanding of social dynamics in Britain at the time of Jane Austen.  And, as I passed the hours in Thackeray's company, I admired his wit, courage and antics.  

But the extent to which I dawdled finishing the book is testament to an inherent flaw: the plot didn't function.

The plot is the engine of a novel.  Just like an engine, a book's plot has to rev up to full speed.  As the story progresses, plots should gather momentum like a toboggan hurtling downhill.  The plot should pull the reader onto the toboggan for the plunge.  When the plot functions, a reader should reach a point - somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way through - where he or she feels compelled to finish the book.  With Vanity Fair, I never felt that compulsion.

A major reason for that failure is Thackeray's unrelenting bitchiness.  He is so unsympathetic to his characters that he has disabled the plot in two ways.  First, he successfully persuades the reader that the characters in Vanity Fair are not worth caring about.  Here, for instance, is Thackeray discoursing about Rebecca Sharp:

Miss Rebecca was not . . . in the lease kind or placable.  All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treat ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get.  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 . . .This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody . . . .
(p. 8.)  Of course, the world uses ill many good people who drink deeply and undeservedly from the cup of bitterness, but Thackeray early on dismisses any notion that Becky Sharp might belong in that category.  Nor is Thackeray satisfied to pass condemnatory judgment on Becky, but he jumps up and down on the point:

And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce the, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader's sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.  Otherwise you might fancy it was I who was sneering at the practice of devotion, which Miss Sharp finds so ridiculous; . . . - whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success.  Such people there are living and flourishing in the world - Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless: let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main.                             
(pp. 70-71)  "[L]et us have at them . . . with might and main"?!  When an author recommends to his reader that he or she treat the protagonist thus, what can a reader do but comply?  And since Thackerey harangued me into not liking - and therefore not caring about - his characters, I never became invested in the resolution of their stories.

Second, Thackeray seems to have gotten so carried away being nasty to his characters that he neglected to plot adequately for them.  For example, when William Dobbin wakes up his commander, Mick O'Dowd, in the middle of the night and demands leave so that Dobbin can attend to a personal matter in England (i.e., Amelia Smedley's allegedly impending marriage), Dobbin's urgency generates momentum that Thackeray completely dissipates by failing to follow through on Dobbin's story line for more than a hundred pages.  

Similarly, after Becky's disgrace with Lord Steyne, she falls so thoroughly out of society that the end of the book can have no suspense with respect to her plot line: rehabilitation is impossible.  A compulsive drinker and gambler, living in flophouses, chased away and stumbling from city in city in Europe, Becky has neither the means nor the motivation to restore her reputation.  Thackeray has utterly gutted her plot possibilities both by casting her so low and by giving her a meager living from her ex-husband, Rawdon Crawley.  A woman with a regular income may wish the income were higher, but if she can survive on it, she'll adjust to it - which is what Becky does.  (By the same token, Thackeray ruins Becky's relationship with her son so early in the book that, by the end, when young Rawdon inherits the family money and title, reconciliation is unthinkable - yet another plot possibility for Becky eliminated.)

Thackeray's plotting misadventure is interesting and surprising because, as an author, he's self-aware (and voluble) on the topic of effective story telling, authorial motive and pacing.  Here he is, for example, on all three topics:

I have heard a brother of the story-telling trade, at Naples, preaching to a pack of good-for-nothing honest lazy fellows by the sea-shore, work himself up into such a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing, that the audience could not resist it; and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale, so that the hat went round, and the bajocchi tumbled into it, in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.

At the little Paris theatres, on the other hand, you will not only hear the people yelling out, "Ah gredinAh monstre!" and cursing the tyrant of the play from the boxes; but the actors themselves positively refuse to play the wicked parts, such as those of the infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks, and what not, and prefer to appear at a smaller salary, in their real characters as loyal Frenchmen.  I set the two stories one against the other, so that you may see that it is not from mere mercenary motives that the present performer is desirous to show up and trounce his villains; but because he has a sincere hatred of them, which he cannot keep down, and which must find a vent in suitable abuse and bad language.                       

I warn my "kyind friends," then, that I am going to tell a story of harrowing villany and complicated - but, as I trust, intensely interesting - crime.  My rascals are no milk-and-water rascals, I promise you.  When we come to the proper places we won't spare fine language - No, no!  But when we are going over the quiet country we must perforce be calm.  A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd.  We will reserve that sort of thing for the mighty ocean and the lonely midnight.  The present Chapter is very mild.  Others - But we will not anticipate those.
(p. 70).  And, yet, "sincere" Thackeray's storytelling and pacing did not generate the momentum of Thackeray's "mercenary" brother in Naples.  Whether the problem was that, in his enthusiasm for demonstrating his "sincerity," Thackeray went overboard - or whether Thackeray simply enjoys being bitchy too much to resist when necessary for the sake of the plot - the outcome was the same.  Bitchiness can be diverting over the course of an evening - but after a month, it gets old.

(Image of William Makepeace Thackeray from The Free Library)

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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