Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
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 with his mother, Helen Pendennis. Thackeray writes of Helen’s supervision of her son’s loves, “I have no doubt there is a sexual jealousy on the mother’s part, and a secret pang.” There is much in the novel that suggests an Oedipal relationship between son and mother. In all of Pen’s relationships with women, Helen is seen as the jealous rival; the only woman she is willing to see Pen marry is Laura Bell. This is possibly because by marrying Laura, a domestic who is Helen’s ward, Pen will be marrying a woman who is an extension of his mother’s personality. Major Pendennis, on the other hand, wants Pen to marry Blanche Clavering. The major is willing to blackmail an acquaintance, Sir Francis Clavering, to procure Pen a seat in Parliament and Blanche’s hand in marriage. Pen must choose between two very different women—Blanche or Laura—and the conflicting advice of his interfering elders, to find his own reality, balancing his uncle’s “keen perception without the withering selfishness” and his mother’s world of emotions without the romantic illusion.
The women in the novel are set against one another as the antitheses of good and evil. Blanche represents the evil side of women because she is a contemptible cheat. The good women are Helen and Laura, whose hand Pen captures after being purged of his worst faults. Although the reader is set up by Thackeray to admire Helen, the character strains sympathy in her cruel treatment of Fanny Bolton, the servant who nurses Pen through an illness. Here the Oedipal complex again comes into play. Laura often seems too certain of her own virtue and too sure of the correctness of her own opinion, which makes her—like Helen—less than entirely admirable, entirely good.
Although Pen’s education progresses primarily through his loves, it is through his choice of career that he truly matures. To become a writer means to be able to determine the relationship between fact and fiction. Pen’s involvement with Emily Costigan, an Irish actress older than he, is allegorical in its depiction of Pen’s serene unconsciousness of the philosophical implications of his actions. After Pen determines to study law at Oxbridge and becomes a writer, he engages in an affair with Fanny, his landlady’s daughter. Attracted by her adorable simplicity, he is extricated from this affair by an illness, which serves as a sort of purgation. In his affair with Blanche, Pen acts out the role of world-weary lover, and he believes he has matured when he comes to accept disillusionment; however, his real discovery of maturity comes when he realizes that he cannot abide his uncle’s worldliness.
When Blanche rejects Pen for a more suitable match, he is free to marry Laura, whose honest devotion represents the alternative to living with Blanche and her deceptiveness. Laura becomes Pen’s muse, his living “laurel wreath.” It is through Laura that Pen is able to face himself and free himself from the romantic illusions of his mother (only to some extent, because Laura is an extension of Helen) and the worldly disillusionment he learns from his uncle. His experiences on Grub Street as he develops as a writer complete his maturation.
In The History of Pendennis, Thackeray attempts to make his readers see through the social and literary hypocrisy that characterized the Victorian era. In this long, sustained work, Thackeray leaves his readers with a panoramic view of humankind under the guidance of a witty persona. Following in the footsteps of Fielding (especially in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), he laid the groundwork for the novel of psychological realism. Most of all, Thackeray is noteworthy for his charitable renderings of all individuals in all walks of life.