William Makepeace Thackeray World Literature Analysis - Essay

William Makepeace Thackeray World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2110 words.)