William Makepeace Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray Short Fiction Analysis

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William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Yellowplush” was first introduced in Fraser’s in November, 1837, and was republished in the United States and translated into German. In 1845, the footman was revived in Punch, having been promoted to Charles James De La Pluche, Esq., through successful speculation in railway shares.

“Miss Shum’s Husband”

On his first appearance in “Miss Shum’s Husband,” Yellowplush tells how he got his name. His mother, who always introduced him as her nephew, named him for the livery of a famous coachman, Yellowplush. Although he was illegitimate, he has gentlemanly tastes, and his cockney speech is spiced with affectations. His employer, Frederic Altamont, takes rooms in a crowded house in John Street. The footman reports that they breakfast from his master’s tea leaves and dine on slices of meat cut from his joints, but Frederic endures this to be near his loved one Mary. In the next episode and with his next employer, Yellowplush has descended to petty thievery (which he calls his “perquisites”) himself. During his courtship, Altamont refuses to reveal where he works but assures Mary that he is honest and urges her never to question him about what it would cause her misery to learn.

After their marriage, Frederic and Mary move to an elegantly furnished house in Islington, from which he mysteriously disappears each day. After their baby is born, Mrs. Shum becomes a daily visitor. This mother of twelve daughters who spent her time reading novels on the drawing room sofa, scolding, screaming, and having hysterics is the first of the terrible mothers-in-law so prominent in Thackeray’s fiction, including Mrs. Gam, Mrs. Gashleigh, Mrs. Cuff, Mrs. Crum, Lady Kicklebury, and Mrs. Baynes. They are always snobbish, interfering, and domineering. Mrs. Shum undermines the mutual affection in her daughter’s household by implanting suspicions. “Where does his money come from? What if he is a murderer, or a housebreaker, or a forger?” When Mary answers that he is too kind to be any of those things, Mrs. Shum suggests that he must be a bigamist. At this moment, as Mary faints, Mrs. Shum has hysterics, the baby squalls, the servants run upstairs with hot water, and Frederic returns. He expels Mrs. Shum, double-locks the door, and tries to appease his wife without exposing his secret. His in-laws set up a spy network and finally discover that he is a crossing sweeper. Frederic sells his house and starts his new life abroad. His footman renders his snobbish judgment of the whole affair:Of cors, I left his servis. I met him, a few years after, at Badden-Badden, where he and Mrs. A. were much respectid, and pass for pipple of propaty.

The satire depends for its effect on the dissonance between the social pretensions and the misspellings in which they are conveyed. In Victorian England, a gentleman did not work for a living, and a footman conscious of his position could not work for a laborer. He could “pass” abroad, because foreigners were unable to tell the difference between inherited and earned money. Obviously, only income from property qualified one to enter society.

“Dimond Cut Dimond”

“Dimond Cut Dimond” is about Yellowplush’s next master, who is penniless but titled. He is the Honorable Algernon Percy Deuceace, fifth son of the Earl of Crabs. If he had been a common man, he would have been recognized as a swindler, but since he is a gentleman, with his family tree prominently displayed in his sitting room, his gambling is considered acceptable. Dawkins, just out of Oxford, moves in with his entire fortune of six thousand pounds to establish himself...

(This entire section contains 1940 words.)

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as a barrister. Deuceace manipulates an introduction by tripping the servant carrying Dawkins’s breakfast tray. He substitutes a pastry he has purchased for this purpose with an elaborate letter, claiming it had been sent to him by an aristocratic friend. Once they are acquainted, he suggests a game of cards, which he deliberately loses as a setup.

The scheme is complicated by a second con man, Richard Blewitt, who tells Deuceace that Dawkins is his pigeon to pluck and that he means to strip this one alone since he already has him securely in his claws. Deuceace makes a deal to split the gains; after he wins, however, he coldly announces to Blewitt, who has come for his share, that he never had any intention of keeping his promise. Blewitt, “stormed, groaned, bellowed, swore” but gets nothing, and the villain escapes to Paris, telling Yellowplush that he can come too if he likes.

Thackeray, as a student, had lost large sums to such gamblers. The insolent criminality with which Deuceace robs both Dawkins and Blewitt is not condemned by his footman, who is engaged in robberies of his own. “There wasn’t a bottle of wine that we didn’t get a glass out of we’d the best pickens out of the dinners, the livvers of the fowls, the forcemit balls out of the soup, the egs from the sallit you may call this robbery—nonsince—it’s only our rights—a suvvant’s purquizzits.” In the eyes of the footman, the cold-blooded malice of his master is superior to the blustering passion of Blewitt.

“Foring Parts”

The next episode, “Foring Parts,” tells how Deuceace has posted a sign on his door, “Back at seven,” and departed, owing the laundress. The footman learns that to gain respect in France, one must be rude. His master had abused the waiters, abused the food, and abused the wine, and the more abusive he was, the better service he got; on his example, the footman also practices insolence because people liked being insulted by a lord’s footman. Deuceace writes to Lord Crabs for his allowance; but the answer comes back that, since all London knows of Deuceace’s winnings, could he instead lend Lord Crabs some money. He encloses clippings from the newspapers about the transaction. Shortly afterward, a retraction appears in the paper for which Deuceace had sent a ten-pound note, with his compliments. The narrator comments that he had already sent a tenner before it came out, although he cannot think why.

“Confessions of Fitz-Boodle”

“Dorothea” appeared in 1843 along with “Miss Loewe” and “Ottilia” as part of “Confessions of Fitz-Boodle.” Since their narrator is a leisured gentleman, these stories differ in pace and tone from the Yellowplush series; Fitz-Boodle’s aristocratic birth and classical education enable him to make social commentary of a different sort. The story turns on his failure to have learned dancing at Slaughterhouse school, where he learned little that was useful. He adds ruefully, however, that such is the force of habit that he would probably send his sons there, were he to have any. In a series of semiscenes typical of Thackeray’s style, Fitz-Boodle describes the many dancing lessons he has taken from various instructors in London, in Paris, and finally in Germany, from Springbock, the leader of the Kalbsbraten ballet.

The continual shifting of temporal perspectives is also typical of Thackeray. He interrupts chronology for an amiable digression which meanders back to the starting point and also digresses into the future consequences of an action, or presents retrospective memories of an even from years later. For example, the discursive soliloquy on dancing is suddenly interrupted by “The reader, perhaps, remembers the brief appearance of his Highness, the Duke.” This is followed by an elaborate description of the Duke’s pump, the whole point of which is that Speck, who designed it, is Dorothea’s father. He ingratiates himself into the family by sketching the pump and is consequently introduced to the beauty, whose charms inspire him to classical allusions. Then the narrative redoubles again:In thus introducing this lovely creature in her ball-costume, I have been somewhat premature, and had best go back to the beginning of the history of my acquaintance with her.

Next follows a history of the Speck family leading up to the narrator’s first glimpse of her, and the narrative resumes.

The next semiscene, midway between summary and dramatization, is characteristic of Thackeray’s refusal to disguise his fictions, to mount them dramatically. His narrators set the stage but do not retire from it; they remain to pose alternatives, suggest possibilities, speculate, and muse expatiatingly. Thackeray constructs a model which the reader must then fill in; by concealing as much as he discloses, he forces the reader’s participation in completing his paradigm, using a pronoun shift to the second person which asks “you” to participate. Thackeray appeals to universality (an eighteenth century device probably derived from his study of Henry Fielding, whom he had both imitated and parodied), and the interjected “I have often said” is a strategy found throughout his work. Vanity Fair contains countless “Captain Rawdon often said” interspersings, a technique that allows the author to interpolate commentary and to leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. The story concludes with the ball at which Fitz-Boodle has managed to sign up Dorothea for a waltz, and his subsequent fall on the dance floor.

“Mr. and Mrs. Frank Berry”

“Mr. and Mrs. Frank Berry” is part of the story sequence called Men’s Wives which first appeared in Fraser’s in March, 1843. In two parts, it shows Frank as a boy bravely battling the school bully and being hero-worshiped by the narrator; then, in a later encounter, he is seen as a uxorious husband who has shaved off his mustache and grown fat and pale. Part 1 is called “The Fight at Slaughter House.” After the preliminaries, as the air resounds with cries of “To it, Berry!” there is a typical Thackerayan footnote, “As it is very probable that many fair readers may not approve of the extremely forcible language in which the combat is depicted, I beg them to skip it and pass on to the next chapter.”

This chapter is entitled “The Combat at Versailles,” and this time the heroic Frank is not the victor. Mrs. Berry has “a rigid and classical look” and wears a miniature of her father, Sir George Catacomb, around her thin neck. Her genteel coldness is aptly caught in her maiden name, Miss Angelica Catacomb. She spends her time making notes in the Baronetage on her pedigree, and she entertains her guest with an icy silence. After several pages about the other guests, Thackeray provides the apostrophe that, if there had been anything interesting, “I should have come out with it a couple of pages since, nor have kept the public looking for so long a time at the dishcovers and ornaments of the table. But the simple fact must now be told, that there was nothing of the slightest importance at this repast.”

The narrator then tells how Angelica controlled her husband’s smoking, drinking, and conversation. The narrator decides to rescue Frank from his captivity and orders claret, which, after sufficient quantity has been consumed, leads to riotous singing. He feels free enough to complain, when he is inebriated, about having to spend his evenings reading poetry or missionary tracts out loud, about having to take physics whenever she insists, about never being allowed to dine out, and about not daring even to smoke a cigar. In a moment of daring, the narrator accepts an invitation for the next night, but he is not permitted to keep the appointment, and the next time he meets Frank, the latter sheepishly crosses over to the other side of the street; he is wearing galoshes. The boy who was courageous enough to beat the school bully has turned into a henpecked husband.


William Makepeace Thackeray Long Fiction Analysis