When critics call William Makepeace Thackeray’s characters in Vanity Fair lifelike, they are using that term for a subtler meaning than it usually conveys. His people are not true to life in the sense of being fully rounded or drawn with psychological depth. On the contrary, readers sometimes find their actions too farcical to be human, as in Jos Sedley’s ignominious flight from Brussels after the battle of Waterloo, or too sinister to be credible, as in the implication that Becky poisons Jos to collect his insurance—totally out of keeping with what readers learn about her in the previous sixty-six chapters. She may be a selfish opportunist, but she is not a murderer. Thackeray’s characters are lifelike if “life” is defined as a typological phenomenon; when readers shrug their shoulders and say, “that’s life,” readers are indulging in a kind of judgment on the human race that is based on types, not individuals, on the common failings of all men and women, not on the unique goodness or evil of some. Insofar as all people share one another’s weaknesses, everyone is represented in Vanity Fair. Human banality levels all. That is the satirical revelation that Vanity Fair provides—that is the way in which its characters are lifelike.
Thackeray’s general approach is comic satire; his method is that of the theatrical producer, specifically, the puppeteer. In his prologue, he calls himself the “Manager of the...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)
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