William Makepeace Thackeray

Start Free Trial

William Makepeace Thackeray Long Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

While William Makepeace Thackeray may indeed be best known as the author of Vanity Fair, to examine all of his novels is to understand why his contribution to the history of the novel is singular. His use of the intrusive narrator, although presaged by Henry Fielding, was developed so carefully that it became a new form of fiction, a “genuine creation of narrative experiment,” as critic Alexander Welsh calls it. In addition, his panoramic realism—although creating that anathema of Henry James, the novel that is “a loose and baggy monster”—explored, both seriously and satirically, a number of topics from which other Victorian writers shied away, such as married life and the development of the middle-class gentleman.

Quite aside from the interest generated by the story line, many of Thackeray’s novels offer explanations of the art of creating fiction as well as criticism of some of his contemporaries’ inadequacies. When Amelia in Vanity Fair, for example, tries to visualize George’s barracks, the doors are closed to her, for the romantic imagination is in all respects inadequate to the exigencies of real life. In The Newcomes, Thackeray compares his method of character-building to the work of the paleontologist who discovers a series of bones and who must construct the habits, behavior, and appearance of his subject from a mere skeleton. He thereby suggests that any such “reality” is merely an illusion, for like the paleontologist, the author must work with probabilities. Insofar as his characters follow a probable course of events, they are true to life and, in a sense, interact without the help of the author.

That Thackeray meant his novels to be something more than believable illusionary worlds is clear when his conclusions are examined. In The Newcomes, for example, Thackeray retreats at the end from Pendennis’s narrative to suggest that the sentimental world he has created has no basis in fact, although the reader may believe so if he (or she) wishes to delude himself. Furthermore, in the well-known ending to Vanity Fair, Thackeray puts his “puppets”—his characters—back into their box.

Rather than following Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of “willing suspension of disbelief,” Thackeray is philosophical, inviting the reader into a reconsideration of his own or of conventional beliefs and preconceptions. Certainly, Thackeray’s satire is operative here, particularly in his Punch series, in Catherine, and in Barry Lyndon, in which he deliberately spoofed popular historical, crime, and romantic novels, respectively. The reader is asked to look at more than literaryconventions, however; he (or she) is asked to examine his own degree of hypocrisy and snobbery. In so doing, the reader is reminded again and again that if he laughs at his neighbors, he condemns himself. Thackeray’s work is thus truly homiletic, both in a literary and in an extraliterary sense.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Thackeray examined in detail the difficulties occasioned not only by marriage but also by other personal relationships; rather than assuming that a novel should end with marriage, he makes it his subject. Certainly, his personally tragic domestic situation and his affair with Jane Brookfield are reflected in Rachel Esmond’s trials with her reckless husband in Henry Esmond’s growing love for her. In the family chronicle The Newcomes, Thackeray looks at the misery occasioned by parental marriage choices; Mrs. Mackenzie (known as the Campaigner), a strongminded virago who runs her daughter’s life, is modeled on Mrs. Shawe, Isabella’s termagant mother. Finally, in The Virginians, he traces the development of family characteristics and family ties.

Another one of the many senses in which Thackeray’s novels are educative...

(This entire section contains 4578 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

is the way in which he redefines the word “gentleman” to apply not to a member of a particular social class, but rather to one who possesses a set of personal characteristics, such as clear-sightedness, delicacy, generosity, and humanitarianism. His upper-class upbringing in India as well as his Cambridge education coupled with his love of the high life would seem to militate against such a redefinition, but, in fact, it is the greengrocer’s son, Dobbin, inVanity Fair who is the gentleman, rather than the pompous and vain George Osborne, and it is Colonel Newcome who, despite his misguided attempts to settle his son Clive’s happiness, emerges as the paradigmatical enemy to snobbery and to greed.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair, the title of which is taken from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), proved to be Thackeray’s most successful novel. Indeed, its attention to realistic detail and its panoramic sweep, to say nothing of the constant presence of the author-cum-narrator, caused many reviewers to label Thackeray “the Fielding of the nineteenth century.” While neither the initial reviews nor the sales were immediately promising, interest in the serial grew steadily until the publication of the volume guaranteed the author a financial as well as a critical success. Rivaling Thackeray at the time was Charles Dickens, whose Dombey and Son (1846-1848, serial; 1848, book) appealed to a wide audience; even Thackeray himself, upon reading the passage describing little Paul’s death, despaired about writing “against such power.” Thackeray, however, had his own power, that of the satirist who created “A Novel Without a Hero” and thus ran counter to his readership’s expectations, and that of the moralist who included his reader and himself in his reflective view of society.

The hero that Vanity Fair must do without is the typically romantic hero. George Osborne (whose first name conjures up the dandified Regency court) is handsome, dashing, and well loved, but he is also vain, shallow, and pompous. After Joseph Sedley has gone bankrupt, George marries the pining Amelia Sedley only at the urging of his friend, William Dobbin; during their honeymoon, George engages in a flirtation with Becky Sharp, herself newly married to Rawdon Crawley. Killed at the battle of Waterloo, George is cherished as a hero only by Amelia. Dobbin is at the other extreme: Gangly, awkward, and low in social standing, he is nevertheless possessed of compassion and understanding, yet he is so blinded by his selfless love for Amelia that he does not see until the end of the novel on how slight a character he has set his affection. Even Rawdon, who develops from a typical “heavy dragoon” who lives by his gambling into an affectionate father for his neglected son, lacks intellectual acumen and, after his separation from Becky, accepts the post that her prostitution to Lord Steyne earned him.

As A. E. Dyson suggests, Thackeray is indeed writing “an irony against heroes”—and against heroines as well. Amelia and Becky are as different as George and Dobbin. Initally, Amelia seems to be a conventional heroine, but the reader who views her in that light will be shocked to discover that he is idealizing the passivity, self-sacrifice, and hero worship that are the earmarks of neuroticism, the three characteristics well seen in her treatment of her son, Georgy, who is absurdly spoiled despite Amelia’s and her parents’ penury. No wonder, then, that readers preferred “the famous little Becky puppet” for her wit and ambition.

From the moment Becky rides away from Miss Pinkerton’s finishing school, leaving Dr. Johnson’s dictionary lying in the mud, her energy in making a place for herself in society is impressive. Failing to entangle Amelia’s brother, Jos, she eventually marries Rawdon, the favorite of his wealthy aunt, and only repines when Lord Crawley himself proposes—too late. She turns her very bohemianism into an asset as she gains entry into the best society, and while she claims that she too could be a “good woman on ¡5000 a year,” her energy in luring dupes to Rawdon’s card table, wheedling jewels from Lord Steyne, being presented to the king, and playing charades at a social affair, belies her claim. As John Loofbourow shows, as Becky comes into social ascendancy, Amelia declines into obscurity. Amelia lacks Becky’s energy, while Becky lacks Amelia’s morality. In the end, when Dobbin has won his prize, Becky has devolved into a female picaresque rogue, traveling across the Continent from disreputable gaming table to questionable boarding house. Neither she nor Amelia qualifies as a heroine.

It is Thackeray’s preface that reveals the moral purpose behind his satire. Posing as the “Manager of the Performance,” Thackeray reminds his readers that they are embarked on a fictional journey through an emblematic Vanity Fair, an evocation related only partly to the original in Bunyan’s work. Vanity Fair, for Thackeray, is a representation of the human condition; it is not for the reader, like Bunyan’s Christian, to pass through and eschew its lures, but rather to experience it “in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind,” for the reader and author alike are part of the fair. Thackeray’s comments throughout serve the purpose of distancing the reader from the characters and forcing him or her to judge not only the created “puppets” but also his or her own preconceptions. If everyone is indeed part of the fair, to condemn the booth owners’ hypocrisy, or social climbing, or snobbery, or mendacity, is to condemn one’s own failings. To be possessed of “charity”—to be able to pity others with the same care one has for oneself—this, Thackeray suggests, is the best that can be expected when the puppets are put back in the box.

The History of Pendennis

The subtitle of The History of PendennisHis Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends, and His Greatest Enemy—gives ample indication that the novel is a bildungsroman. As Juliet McMaster points out, however, it is also a Künstlerroman; that is, a tale about the development of an artist. It is perforce autobiographical, detailing as it does the way in which a young man learns enough about the world and himself to become a writer of “good books.” The novel is important in a study of Thackeray’s technique, presenting, as it does, the background for the persona who was to narrate The Newcomes and showing Thackeray’s struggles with Victorian prudery. Indeed, in his preface he complains that his readers, unlike those of Fielding, are unwilling to accept a truthful portrayal of human beings unless they are given “a conventional simper.”

Thackeray’s reviewers, however, welcomed the novel, their only complaint being the cynicism with which he endowed Pen. Such cynicism refutes the remark of Henry James, Sr., that Thackeray “had no ideas,” for Thackeray’s wryness results from a consideration of political and religious turmoil, from the “skepticism” brought about by the 1848 French Revolution, and from the controversy occasioned by the Oxford movement and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Clearly, one reason for Thackeray’s contemporary appeal was that he reflected the very doubts of his own readers, for whom belief was an exercise in paradox.

The tension between the heart and the world that animates The History of Pendennis is well represented by the frontispiece to the first volume, in which a youthful figure is clasped on one side by a woman representing marital duty and on the other by a mermaid representing the siren lure of worldly temptations. Within the dictates of the plot, the same tension is demonstrated by the demands of Pen’s sentimental mother, Helen Pendennis, who urges her son to marry the domestic, Laura, her ward, and those of his uncle, Major Pendennis, who is willing to blackmail his acquaintance, Sir Francis Clavering, so that Pen can have a seat in Parliament and the hand of Clavering’s wealthy but artificial daughter, Blanche. Between the two, Pen must, as McMaster points out, find his own reality; he must acquire “his uncle’s keen perception without the withering selfishness” and participate in his mother’s world of emotions without engaging in “romantic illusion.” Pen’s education progresses primarily through his amours but also through his choice of career, for to be a writer, he must determine the relationship between fact and fiction.

Pen’s abiding interest in the nature of experience makes his involvement with an actor allegorical in nature. His first affair is with Emily Costigan (known as the Fotheringay), an Irish actor older than he and one who plays her parts serenely unconscious of their philosophical implications; her ignorance Pen passes off as “adorable simplicity.” Extricated by his uncle, who “lends” Emily’s father a small sum in return for Pen’s love letters, Pen next enters Oxbridge, and then, influenced by his roommate, George Warrington, determines to study law and to become a writer. His affair with Fanny Bolton, the daughter of his landlady, is again one of an attraction to adorable simplicity, and his consequent illness a kind of purgation. His attachment to Blanche Clavering is more serious and more dangerous, for Blanche is a social “actress” with whom Pen plays the role of world-weary lover. With her he believes he has matured because he is willing to compromise with disillusionment. His real moment of maturity comes, however, when he finds that he cannot put up with his uncle’s worldliness, for in discovering that Clavering’s second marriage is bigamous and that the baronet is paying blackmail money to his wife’s first husband, the major in turn blackmails Clavering to give up his seat in Parliament to Pen and to cede his estate to Blanche.

Pen’s responsible decision to honor his proposal to Blanche despite the resultant scandal is, in fact, unnecessary, for she jilts him for a more suitable match, freeing him to marry Laura, whose steadfast, honest devotion represents the alternative to Blanche’s sham affection. Laura, in fact, is Pen’s muse, his living “laurel wreath”; she has insight and a critical faculty that force Pen to come face-to-face with himself. With her, Pen finally frees himself from both romantic illusion and worldly disillusionment.

Henry Esmond

Like Dickens, who turned from the largely unplotted “loose and baggy monsters” of his novelistic apprenticeship to produce the tightly controlled Dombey and Son, Thackeray moved from the looseness occasioned by serial publication to the careful construction of Henry Esmond. While the novelist Anthony Trollope agreed with Thackeray that the book was his “very best,” initial critical reaction was mixed, ranging from high praise for Thackeray’s realism to a scandalized outcry against what Gordon Ray calls the “emotional pattern” of the work—Esmond’s marriage to Lady Castlewood, his cousin and senior by eight years. All agreed, however, that the novel was profoundly moving. Much of its power is owing to its genesis: Written when Thackeray was recovering from his alienation from Jane Brookfield, the novel reflects his own emotional current, his nostalgia, his suffering, and his wish fulfillment. In addition, Henry Esmond may be read on many levels—as historical fiction, as novel of manners, and as romance.

Superficially, Thackeray might seem an unlikely figure to write a historical novel, inasmuch as he composed a series of parodies of “costume dramas” (as he called them) for Punch and inasmuch as the historical novel was going out of fashion by 1852. Nevertheless, because Thackeray was steeped in seventeenth century history, the work has a verisimilitude that, in the view of some critics, allowed him to outstrip even Sir Walter Scott. The point of view he adopts, that of the first-person narrator, adds to the illusion. This tour de force is accomplished with a success that even Henry James, the master of psychological realism, might envy.

The entire story is presented from the limited point of view of Esmond, the cheated heir of the Castlewood estate, who is adopted by his cousins, falls in love with the beautiful but irresponsible Beatrix Esmond, and for her sake joins the Jacobite cause. Then, when Beatrix becomes the Pretender’s mistress, he realigns himself on the side of the Stuarts, marries Beatrix’s mother, and immigrates to America.

That Thackeray could, through a limited narrator, represent the complexity of Lady Castlewood’s growing love for the innocent and unconscious Henry is remarkable in its own right. Thackeray’s own memories of his boyhood helped him to re-create Henry’s loneliness; his relationship with Jane Brookfield shaped his characterization of Lady Castlewood. As John Tilford points out, Thackeray prepares carefully for the marriage, doubtless aware that it challenged many readers’ expectations and moral assumptions. Through nuances of dialogue, Rachel Castlewood’s awareness of her feelings and of Henry’s is revealed. A number of crucial scenes prepare for the denouement: Rachel’s hysterical reaction to Henry’s early affair with the blacksmith’s daughter, an affair that brings smallpox to the family; her vituperation of Henry as he lies in prison for his involvement in a duel that killed Lord Castlewood, whose drinking, gambling, and hunting had contributed to a loveless marriage; and, finally, her overwhelming joy when she sees Henry after his long period of military service.

One early criticism of the novel was recorded by William Harrison Ainsworth, with whom Thomas Carlyle joined in objecting to the exultation of “sentiment above duty” in the novel; other critics found the comparison between the excitement of romantic love and marital unhappiness to be dangerous. The more sophisticated analysis of McMaster registers an “ironic tension” between “Rachel’s moral rectitude andthe psychological damage” it can cause.

Like James’s Mme de Mauves, Rachel is possessed of a cool virtue based on a conviction of moral and intellectual superiority; as McMaster suggests, she may indeed welcome evidence of her husband’s coarseness as a way of rationalizing her affection for Henry and may therefore be responsible for exacerbating her husband’s untoward behavior. Thackeray does give both sides: While Castlewood, like Fielding’s Squire Western, is rough and careless, pursuing a prodigal, adulterous life once his wife has lost her beauty to smallpox, he accuses her of pride and of a blighting coldness, and pleads for “the virtue that can forgive.” Even Beatrix complains that her mother’s saintliness provided so impossible a model that she was driven to ambitious selfishness. Such complaints themselves sound like rationalizations, however, for at the end of the novel, Rachel has undergone a long period of repentance. Having sent her temptation—Henry—away, she lives with the renunciation of happiness while he matures. Upon his return, then, she is no longer an angel, but, as he says, “more fondly cherished as woman perhaps than ever she had been adored as divinity.”

The Newcomes

Subtitled Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, The Newcomes is a novel of manners that explores the way in which four generations of a nouveau riche family acquire social respectability. The novel, the first third of which is densely packed with background material and consequently slow-moving, is a deliberate return to the serial format that Thackeray had abandoned in Henry Esmond. While some modern critics object to the pace of this “monster,” nineteenth century reviewers believed that, with this novel, Thackeray had outstripped even Dickens, whose anti-utilitarian manifesto, Hard Times (1854), was running concurrently. To be sure, a number of reviewers noted some repetition in theme and characters, a charge against which Thackeray defended himself in the “Overture” but admitted to in private, acknowledging a failure of invention because of sheer exhaustion. One such “repetition,” which is, in fact, a way of extending the scope of the novel, is that Pendennis is the “editor” of the Newcome memoirs. This device allows Thackeray not only to assume an objective stance from which his satire is more telling but also to criticize the very social punctiliousness that Pendennis reveals, thereby achieving an advanced form of psychological analysis.

What provides the novel’s “unifying structural principle,” as McMaster notes, is “the repetition of the mercenary marriage and its outcome between various couples.” This theme, however, is a manifestation of the larger examination of the nature of “respectability,” as the subtitle implies. For Barnes Newcome, the banker, for the aristocratic Lady Kew, and even for her granddaughter, Ethel Newcome, affection and generosity are weighed against wealth and social position and found wanting. The touchstone figure is Colonel Thomas Newcome, Barnes’s half brother; unworldly, honest, and loving, he is seen by Gordon Ray as a model of Christian humility. The underlying cynicism of the novel is underscored by the inability of the characters to gain happiness, whether they satisfy their acquisitiveness or rebel against such a value, for Thackeray reminds his readers that real fulfillment only exists in “Fable-land.”

To pursue the marriage theme is to understand that in Thackeray’s world even the best intentions go awry. Certainly, the unhappiness that accrues in some relationships seems self-created: While the joining of money and class in Barnes’s marriage to Lady Clara Pulleyn satisfies the dictates of the marriage market, Barnes’s brutality drives his wife to elope with a former suitor. In contrast, Clive Newcome, the Colonel’s son, is forbidden by Lady Kew to marry Ethel because his profession as an artist is unacceptable. Even Clive himself is infected by the view, for he neglects his modest muse to devote himself to society. For his part, the Colonel, seeing Clive’s unhappiness, schemes to marry him to the sweet but shallow Rosey Mackenzie, the niece of his old friend James Binnie. The loveless though well-intentioned match is unhappy, for Clive longs for Ethel’s companionship and the couple is tormented by the dictatorial Mrs. Mackenzie after the Colonel’s bankruptcy.

Ethel, like Becky Sharp and Beatrix Esmond, is a complex heroine, one who, through much trial and error, weans herself from the respectable avarice she was reared to accept. In love with Clive despite her relations’ objections, she nevertheless admits that she delights in admiration, fine clothes, and jewelry, and, although she despises herself for it, that she enjoys being a coquette. Her fine sense of irony about the marriage market, however, prompts her to wear a “sold” ticket pinned to her dress, much to the annoyance of her respectable relatives. At first affianced to Lord Frank Kew, she breaks the engagement; then, capitulating to social pressure, she pursues the feebleminded Lord Farintosh, only to repent at the last moment when the devastation of Barnes’s marriage, on which her own is to be patterned, is borne in upon her. In revulsion from her family’s values, she devotes herself to Barnes’s children and manages to divert some of the Newcome fortune to the impoverished Colonel and his son.

Ethel’s “conversion” and Rosey’s death do not, however, lead necessarily to a happy ending, for in the years of following Ethel hopelessly, of neglecting his painting, and, finally, of engaging in a loveless marriage, Clive has become less resilient, more demoralized. Indeed, a conventional ending to The Newcomes would be as unwieldy as the happy denouement that Dickens was persuaded to tack on to Great Expectations (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book). All Thackeray does promise is that in “Fable-landEthel and Clive are living most comfortably together.” As McMaster points out, “poetic justice does not operate in life, however it operates in romance and fairytale.” In the end, Thackeray refuses to cater to weak sentimentality.

The Virginians

Written while Thackeray was fighting a lingering illness, The Virginians is a long, formless novel, many of whose characters appear in earlier works. The weight of critical opinion, both contemporary and twentieth century, implies that Thackeray, as he well suspected, was at the end of his fictional powers. To Walter Bagehot, the novelist merely presented an “annotated picture” and, indeed, many complained about the plethora of details that substituted for imaginative creation. Thackeray’s habit of digressing grew more pronounced, aided by his failure to preserve a distance between himself and his persona for the second half of the novel, the sardonic George Warrington. Connected with such digressions was Thackeray’s increasing propensity to justify himself in the eyes of his critics; such justification introduced in a work of fiction was as gratuitous, many felt, as the air of mordant rumination that colored the novel.

On the other hand, Thackeray’s supporters cited his adept portraiture of character and his classical style. Geoffrey Tillotson’s suggestion that all of Thackeray’s works are like one long novel well represents this point of view. In reviving earlier characters and in introducing their descendants, Thackeray studies the development of character traits as well as repetitive familial situations. Beatrix Esmond, for example, having been mistress to the pretender and the king and having buried two husbands, one a bishop, reappears as a fleshy old woman with a caustic tongue and piercing black eyes. The enigmatic George Washington in The History of Pendennis reappears in the person of his namesake; George and Henry Warrington are twin sons of Rachel, Henry Esmond’s daughter.

Thackeray was unable to pursue his original plan, which was to place the brothers on opposite sides in the Revolutionary War and to insert real-life sketches of such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Dr. Samuel Johnson. The American section was foreshortened, although Thackeray’s prodigious reading in American history lends it a remarkably realistic air—so realistic that some American readers were initially incensed that George Washington should be portrayed in so commonplace a light. The book falls into halves, the first reserved for the English adventures of the innocent, gullible Henry. As Gordon Ray points out, the theme, although difficult to discern, is “the contrast between American innocence and Old World corruption.”

Henry becomes involved with his cousins at Castlewood, who welcome him as the heir of the Virginia estates, on the supposition that George has died in the battle of Fort Duquesne. Enticed into a proposal by the elderly Maria and encouraged to dissipate his fortune by his infamous cousins, Henry is rescued from debt by his twin, who had not died but was taken prisoner by the French. Deceived by his fortune-seeking relatives, Henry returns to Virginia to marry the housekeeper’s daughter. The second half, narrated by George, details his adventures in London. Kept on short funds by his mother, he marries Theo Lambert, the daughter of the gentlemanly General Lambert, a figure much like Colonel Newcome.

Even a brief plot outline of The Virginians reveals a number of Thackeray’s recurring themes. The attraction of young men to older women is one: Just as Henry Esmond married Rachel, many years his senior, so his grandson becomes attached to Maria, and, conversely, so his mother, Mrs. Esmond Warrington, becomes attached to a much younger suitor. The dogmatic and clinging nature of the parent-child relationship is another, much-explored theme: Hetty Lambert gives up her love for Harry to nurture the general, who is loath to let either of his daughters leave; Mrs. Esmond Warrington throws impediments in the way of George’s marriage to Theo; even George himself meditates on his fear that his own daughters will eventually marry. In the final analysis, while The Virginians is justly faulted for its digressiveness, Thackeray’s treatment of character and his mellow, pure style grant to this work what Gordon Ray calls “a modest vitality.”

Overshadowed in modern assessments by his great contemporaries, Dickens and George Eliot, Thackeray is an essential figure in the history of the English novel, and his masterpiece, Vanity Fair, is among the great novels in the language. It is with this work that Thackeray is assured a place among the great authors in British literature.


William Makepeace Thackeray Short Fiction Analysis


William Makepeace Thackeray World Literature Analysis