William Makepeace Thackeray Critical Essays

William Makepeace Thackeray Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)