Critical Evaluation

As is demonstrated by its subtitle, The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends, and His Greatest Enemy is a bildungsroman, the story of the coming of age of Arthur Pendennis, the devoted son of a devoted and unworldly mother. It is likewise a Künstlerroman, a tale about the development of a young artist. The novel is the most autobiographical of William Makepeace Thackeray’s works, detailing some of the ways in which he learned about himself and the world in which he lived to become a writer of “good books.” The History of Pendennis is also a study of Thackeray’s technique and provides background for the persona who goes on to narrate The Newcomes (1853-1855) as well as exemplifying Thackeray’s struggles with Victorian prudery.

Thackeray modeled The History of Pendennis upon Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), hoping to capture some of that eighteenth century author’s frankness, which had become unfashionable in Thackeray’s time. Thackeray reinvented Fielding’s frankness in terms of a modern morality. The wrapper of The History of Pendennis, which was published in monthly numbers from 1848 to 1850, presents a young man torn between the forces of good and evil—a youthful figure clasped on one side by a woman who represents marital duty and on the other side by imps and a mermaid who represents the siren lure of worldly temptations. More than halfway into the novel, the author defines his purpose: “Our endeavor is merely to follow out, in its progress, the development of the mind of a worldly and selfish, but not ungenerous or unkind or truth-avoiding man.” The History of Pendennis is arranged in blocks of action that are connected only by the fact that Pen participates in them all. The novel’s plot is loose, working in scenes. In its characterizations The History of Pendennis is a masterpiece. The characterization of Pen’s uncle, Major Pendennis, is full and complex, making the major one of the most famous snobs in English fiction. Thackeray draws the major as a complete human being, neither abating his snobbery nor denying him the possession of good and admirable qualities. The major’s kindness toward Pen is admirable, and his skill at extracting Pen from many difficult situations is unfailing. At the novel’s end, when the major triumphs over Morgan, he seems almost heroic.

Critics have pointed out that Thackeray anticipates modern psychoanalytical theory in Pen’s relationship...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)