William Makepeace Thackeray World Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2110
Thackeray’s literary significance lies in his contribution to the development of the novel. His reflections upon Victorian England through the use of an intrusive narrator became a new form of fiction, and his sprawling panoramas of eighteenth century England give the reader a psychological treatise of the times. The slow, satiric revelation of his characters and the realistic analysis of topics that other Victorian writers avoided, told in the form of a memoir by a witty, caustic observer, laid the groundwork for the psychological realism of Henry James; Thackeray’s experiments with the generational form presaged the works of John Galsworthy.
Thackeray’s writing can be divided into four distinct periods. The first, from 1837 to 1843, was a period in which he exercised an almost passionate vigor to point out where society had gone wrong. He places himself outside his writing through his superior attitude toward his characters, lower-class subjects whom he treats in the most disparaging manner conceivable. There is a glimmer of the Thackeray yet to come when he shifts his focus to the middle class, and when, in The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841; later published as The Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1848), he presents the likable Sam Titmarsh. Thackeray cast himself as Titmarsh, thereby indicating his concern about class. This concern was to dominate his writing.
Thackeray was unsure about his own place in the rigid English social system. He thus adopted a jauntily unpretentious persona in his social fictions. He developed a talent for the burlesque and began to attack other writers, ridiculing military adventure novels, satirically attacking the Newgate School, and portraying his fascination with the Europe of that time.
The years 1843 to 1848 marked a significant change in Thackeray’s development as a writer. His personal involvement in his works became more apparent, and his association with Punch heightened his understanding of society’s injustices. During this period, Thackeray wrote a series of short stories, Men’s Wives (1843), that illustrate his misgivings about women and marriage. Along these same lines, he wrote several other pieces. One of particular note, “Bluebeard’s Ghost,” is the tale of a young widow’s devotion to her dead partner; in it, Thackeray’s love for Jane Brookfield and his jealousy of her fidelity to her husband are clear. The opulence of the eighteenth century, the lives of rogues, the education of gentlemen, and the presence of doting mothers blend in his best work of these middle years, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Although the theme of the novel is social pretension, it is also a deliberate spoof of popular historical, crime, and romantic novels. The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves (1846-1874; later published as The Book of Snobs,1848, 1852) is Thackeray’s classic assault on pretentiousness. His message is that the remedy for social ills is social equality.
Thackeray’s first great novel, Vanity Fair, marks the beginning of his literary acclaim. The title, taken from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), and Thackeray’s preface reveal the moral purpose behind his satire.
The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1848-1850) is an important book in any study of Thackeray’s technique, as it presents the background for the persona who was to narrate The Newcomes and as it shows Thackeray’s struggles with Victorian priggishness. In both The History of Pendennis and The Newcomes, Thackeray’s satirical edge had disappeared. His retreat from satire was quite deliberate; he wanted to appeal instead to the hearts and souls of his reading public. In subject matter the two novels are similar: Each concerns the styles and conventions that separate people from one another. The Newcomes, however, illustrates better than The History of Pendennis the discursive style that Thackeray adopted in all of his novels—the roundabout manner of narration, the slipping back and forth in time, and the interpolations.
In 1852, Thackeray published what he considered to be his best piece of writing, Henry Esmond. The novel may be read on many levels—as a historical fiction, as a novel of manners, and as a romance. The Virginians continues the story with Henry Esmond’s grandsons, who are born in America. Of all Thackeray’s novels, it is the least successful. In it, Thackeray’s eighteenth century scenario has lost its appeal: The courtliness, brawling, drinking, and gambling are seen as tedious even by its chronicler. Thackeray was sick of writing novels, and he admits to this in book 1, chapter 18.
Thackeray’s writings constitute a vast imaginative enterprise. For the first time, his panoramic realism gave readers of English literature a sense of living in a distinct yet diverse world. His works offer page after page of sometimes caustic, sometimes playful, sometimes serious, sometimes contemplative, and sometimes hasty observations, all written in his brilliant but seemingly discursive, careless manner, which has come to be known as Thackerayan.
First published: 1847-1848
Type of work: Novel
Becky Sharp ambitiously climbs her way to wealth and social position.
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero is Thackeray’s best-known work, and it established his reputation as a master of social satire. The title is taken from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it is, as Thackeray reveals in the preface, in the same manner a frankly moralistic novel. Posing as the Manager of the Performance, he reminds his readers to avoid simply passing through the emblematic Vanity Fair and to experience it in a “contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind,” for everyone, including the author, is a part of the fair.
Thackeray’s intrusive comments serve the purpose of distancing the reader from the characters, thereby forcing the reader to judge not only the “puppets” but also himself or herself. Thus, the reader cannot feel simple approval or disapproval for any of the main figures, least of all for Becky Sharp, the best character that Thackeray ever created. Indeed, Becky is clever, underprivileged, and courageous; she is also heartless, selfish, and amoral. She takes advantage of the gentle nature of her school friend Amelia Sedley and literally stalks Amelia’s brother Jos as a husband who could give her wealth and social position. In characteristic Thackerayan style, Becky’s plans are foiled through no fault of her own, and Jos returns to India still a bachelor. Thus, the vicissitudes of life, over which Thackeray’s characters have no control, sustain the story and propel Becky into one adventure after another.
Forced to earn an income, Becky takes a position as a governess for the household of Sir Pit Crawley. At Queen’s Crawley, Thackeray begins to introduce the crowd of minor figures that populates the novel and whose purpose it is to authenticate the sprawling, wandering plot and emphasize the profuse and disorganized world in which both the characters and the readers live. The best example of these minor characters occurs in chapter 47 with the Gaunt family, which is given a history; Thackeray even describes Gaunt Square, with its statue of Lord Gaunt.
In Becky and her quest to gain entry into the rich and pretentious life of the upper class, Thackeray expresses his resentment against English society. Becky makes fools of the pretentiously proud Crawleys and triumphs over the aristocratic Bareacres. Her adulterous affair with Lord Steyne and her murder of Jos Sedley (if she is indeed guilty) are far less damning in the reader’s eyes than her lack of motherly love. That same motherly love is Amelia Sedley’s only virtue. Other than that, Amelia is absolutely vapid. Her self-indulgent devotion to her dead husband’s (George Osbourne’s) memory and her unworthy attitude toward Captain William Dobbin are irritating. That Thackeray focuses upon Amelia’s motherly love, however, suggests Thackeray’s childhood and his separation from his mother at such an early age and reveals the systematic thought that underlies all of his works.
In the end, Becky is reunited with the unsuspecting Jos, and although she cannot obtain a divorce from Rawdon Crawley, they live as man and wife. Upon Jos’s suspicious death, Becky receives a considerable insurance payment and spends the rest of her life as a virtuous widow with a reputation for benevolence and generosity.
If, then, everyone is a part of the vanity fair, to condemn Becky or any of the other characters is to condemn oneself. As the puppets are put back in the box, Thackeray suggests that the best that can be expected is to possess charity toward others and to care for others as one cares for oneself. Otherwise, all is vanity.
The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire
First published: 1852
Type of work: Novel
Amid historical events of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a man struggles with his love of two women.
The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire, a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne, is the book that Thackeray considered to be his best piece of writing. Set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it presents history as Thackeray thought it should be presented. That Thackeray did not have a high opinion of the historians of his time precludes the blend of fact and fiction in this gentleman’s memoir. Henry Esmond tells his own story, which is meant to be the hero’s autobiography. Thackeray’s blend of the relationships of private manners and historical events is characteristic of most of his other works, and the false pathos of the artificial, self-imagined hero collapses when everything is viewed from the porch of everyday life.
Henry Esmond grew up at Castlewood under the guardianship of Thomas Esmond, Viscount Castlewood. Henry was aware of some mystery concerning his birth, and he vaguely remembered living as a very young child with weavers who spoke a language other than English. When the viscount met his death at the battle of the Boyne, young Henry was cared for by his new guardians and distant cousins, Francis and Rachel Esmond, and their children, Beatrix and Frank. Thus begins the major thematic integration of the novel: Henry’s love of two women, of Rachel, the loveliest woman he had ever seen, and of Beatrix, her daughter, for whom his courtship becomes almost tedious to the reader.
Henry Esmond reflects a very personal part of Thackeray’s own life. His wife, Isabella, was institutionalized for insanity in 1840, leaving him bereft of a family life, something that was very important to Thackeray. As a result of this, he became enamored of the already married Jane Brookfield, but this relationship became a drawn-out platonic affair. While he was writing Henry Esmond, Thackeray’s love for her came to a sad crisis in September, 1851. His letters of the time indicate his painful feelings during this period, which greatly affected the tone of this “grave and sad” book.
Henry Esmond introduces Thackeray’s readers to yet another Victorian fantasy world, much as Vanity Fair had done. First, the sexual theme begins when Henry, twelve years old, sees Rachel for the first time. He loves her as a son would, and he identifies her as his surrogate mother. As time passes, the relative ages of son and mother are reversed, and Henry becomes her “tutor”; he appears to be “older” than her, and by book 3, chapter 4, he feels as if he is her “grandfather.” Thus, when Henry’s love for Beatrix, who is one of the most fascinating women in all of English literature, is dead at last, the reader should not be surprised when Henry at thirty-five, marries Rachel, who is forty-three and, the reader is assured, looks younger than her own daughter.
There is something obviously Oedipal in this relationship, and Thackeray’s almost reverential worship of his mother comes to the surface in Henry Esmond. Critics and his reading public alike were quick to sense something was amiss, and charges of incest were levied at the protagonist, Henry Esmond.
The second theme of the story is also a fantasy. When Henry discovers that he is the real Lord Castlewood, the legitimate son of the viscount, he, out of consideration for Rachel, conceals his identity so that she and her children will not be disinherited. When the truth is finally revealed, the aristocrats who have slighted him do him homage. Even Beatrix, previously scornful of the humble Esmond’s courtship, repents and considers it an honor to know him.
Henry Esmond represents, then, the culmination of middle-class wish fulfilment. Its hero is nobler than the nobles, yet he of his own volition remains a commoner. At the end, Esmond immigrates to America, thus rejecting the institutions of the aristocracy.