William Makepeace Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray published seven novels during his lifetime, and the unfinished Denis Duval was printed posthumously in 1864. Vanity Fair (1847-1848) and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), which was filmed, are considered his masterpieces, both of them featuring memorable protagonists who exhibit both heroic and venal qualities. Thackeray was a prolific contributor to periodicals of parodies, satires, humorous sketches, essays, reviews, and articles. He was a correspondent for many newspapers and an editor of several magazines. He also issued popular Christmas annuals for many years.


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In the last decade of his life, William Makepeace Thackeray was considered one of Great Britain’s most powerful novelists. His novels, taken together, form an appraisal of English social history and morals between 1690 and 1863. The lasting value of both the novels and his shorter works, however, rests in their huge cast of vivid characters, ranging from despicable, amoral scoundrels through attractive rascals to truly noble heroes, male and female, from every class. What brings these characters to energetic life is Thackeray’s command of style and narrative technique and his gift for satire. Thackeray experimented with every sort of first-person narration. By manipulating his various personae, he created subtle distinctions in tone. Even when Thackeray employed an omniscient narrator, he was always a mask, distinct from the author. For his Victorian audience, this mediating voice was one of the pleasures of reading Thackeray, who built on the oral nature of storytelling. To moderns, however, the tendency to tell rather than to dramatize can seem an intrusive disruption of illusion, and thus, they sometimes do not appreciate the very commentary that made him so popular in his own time.

Almost as valuable is the impression that remains of Thackeray’s personality. He was a man of good will and a loving father, financially improvident but generous and kindly. Even the difficult times in his own life he reshaped in his works into positive experiences. As a writer and talented caricaturist, he deftly skewered pretension and folly where he found them; as a man, he seemed to view human nature with charity and tolerance, above all affirming what he saw as its inherent good sense.

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William Makepeace Thackeray’s career as a satirist and journalist contributed to his novelistic style. His works appeared in a number of periodicals, including The National Standard, which he owned; The Constitutional, for which he was Paris correspondent; and The New Monthly Magazine. More important, however, the bulk of his writing appeared in Fraser’s Magazine and in Punch, until, in 1860, he became editor of the Cornhill Magazine. In many of his reviews, short stories, burlesques, and travel writings, he adopts facetious pen names that reveal the snobbish preconceptions of his personae. “The Yellowplush Correspondence” appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in 1837-1838 as the supposed diary of Charles James Yellowplush, an illiterate footman who betrays all of the social prejudices of his employers. The story was later published as Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush in 1856.

Thackeray assumed two pseudonyms for some of his comic pieces. As M. A. Titmarsh, Thackeray published A Legend of the Rhine (1845), Mrs. Perkin’s Ball (1847), and The Rose and the Ring: Or, The History of Prince Giglio and Prince Bulbo (1855) among others, in addition to some nonfiction works such as The Paris Sketch Book (1840; 2 volumes), The Irish Sketch Book (1843; 2 volumes), and Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846). As George Savage Fitz-Boodle, an aging and susceptible bachelor, Thackeray wrote The Fitz-Boodle Papers (1852), The Confessions of George Fitz-Boodle, and Some Passages in the Life of Major Gahagan (1841-1842), and Men’s Wives (1843). “Punch’s Prize Novelists,” which appeared in Punch magazine, was a series of parodies of popular novelists of the day, such as Benjamin Disraeli and James Fenimore Cooper, and was perhaps even more effective than the burlesque Catherine (which he wrote as Ikey Solomons, Jr.). Thackeray’s other achievements include The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century (1853) and The Four Georges: Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court and Town Life (1860); a number of tales and short stories, including A Shabby Genteel Story, and Other Tales (1852); and a series of ballads and verses, such as the nostalgic “The Ballad of Bouillabaisse” (1849).


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Long remembered as a social satirist par excellence, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote more in the manner of Henry Fielding than of Samuel Richardson and more in the realistic vein than in the style of the novel of sensibility, that production of the early nineteenth century that sought to achieve heightened emotional effects at the expense of believable plot and characterization. Both in his miscellaneous writings and in his first great novel, Vanity Fair, Thackeray sought to counter the kind of melodramatic and pretentious entertainment provided by such authors as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Harrison Ainsworth, and even the early Charles Dickens. He attempted, instead, to make his readers see through the social and literary hypocrisy that, as he believed, characterized the age. To this end, he adopted a number of pseudonyms in his early essay writing, pseudonyms that can be said to foreshadow the personae he used in his fiction.

In reviewing both art and literature for such magazines as Fraser’s Magazine and The New Monthly Magazine, Thackeray adopted the Yellowplush and Titmarsh signatures; he was thus able to ridicule in a lively way what he found false. His reviews were no less devastating to the current trend of idolizing criminals and rogues, as seen in the series of popular Newgate Novels. As Solomons, Jr., he produced Catherine, the tale of a murderer, but even here, his attempt to deglamorize the account was mitigated by his growing sympathy for his created characters. Again, A Shabby Genteel Story attempted to deal with the middle class in unvarnished terms. His first sustainednarrative, Barry Lyndon, features an Irish adventurer recounting his own life; the novel follows the rise and fall of its picaresque hero to illustrate the specious nature of worldly success. Perhaps most telling in his ten-year preparation for fiction writing were two series that appeared in Punch. “The Snobs of England” was a series of verbal portraits of social types, most drawn for their pretension; “Punch’s Prize Novelists” was a collection of parodic rewritings of popular novelists’ works.

In his sustained works, however, Thackeray leaves his readers not with a collection of isolated vignettes but with a panoramic study of humankind under the guidance of a witty persona whose satiric bent is tempered by the realization that he himself partakes of the foibles of his own characters. Thackeray’s characteristic persona derives from not only Fielding and his prefaces to the various books of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) but also Samuel Johnson, who ends Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) by suggesting that since an ideal world is impossible, a wise individual will stoically accept the one that exists. Thackeray’s experimentations with the persona in The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire, a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne—commonly known as Henry Esmond—a novel written in the memoir form, laid the groundwork for such masters of psychological realism and irony as Henry James and James Joyce. In addition, Thackeray’s experimentations with the generational form, in which several novels are melded together through the familial relationships of their characters, look forward to such productions as John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922). In presenting the affairs of Henry Esmond’s grandsons and the development of the beautiful Beatrix Esmond into a worldly old woman in The Virginians, he was also implicitly exploring the kind of genetic and environmental influence that the naturalists defined as determinism.

While many modern readers are perhaps not as comfortable as their nineteenth century forebears with the conception of the authorial voice as a constant, even necessary factor in the plot, Thackeray nevertheless remains noteworthy, especially in his early novels, both for the realistic renderings of individuals in all social walks and for his moral standpoint, best expressed in the preface to Vanity Fair as a charitable outlook on human foibles.

Discussion Topics

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William Makepeace Thackeray wrote much about snobbery. Was he a snob himself, particularly with reference to his early fiction?

Two bildungsromans, Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850), appeared serially at the same time. In what ways does Thackeray’s novel fall short of Dickens’s?

Was Thackeray more interested in the eighteenth century than in his own century?

What did Thackeray mean by calling Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero”?

Does Vanity Fair have two heroines, Amelia and Becky?

Was Henry Esmond Thackeray’s ideal gentleman?


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Bloom, Harold, ed. William Makepeace Thackeray. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of essays on various aspects of Thackeray’s fiction, including such issues and concepts as humor, realism, characterization, point of view, and irony.

Carey, John. Thackeray: Prodigal Genius. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. Carey’s appreciation of Thackeray’s “imaginative vitality,” particularly as it is expressed in his earlier, shorter, largely satirical literary and journalistic work, provides the focus for this absorbing study. Many of Thackeray’s major short works are discussed and analyzed in their chronological context.

Clarke, Michael M. Thackeray and Women. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995. Examines Thackeray’s treatment of female characters. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Dodds, John Wendell. Thackeray: A Critical Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. This scholarly, twelve-chapter study of Thackeray’s genius and the art of his fiction includes, particularly in chapter 3, “The Early Humorist and Story-Teller: 1838-1840,” an assessment of his short satirical sketches and stories. A thorough index is useful. An important book in the canon of Thackeray criticism.

Fletcher, Robert P. “‘The Foolishest of Existing Mortals’: Thackeray, ‘Gurlyle,’ and the Character(s) of Fiction.” Clio 24 (Winter, 1995): 113-125. Discusses Thomas Carlyle’s and Thackeray’s different conceptions of history and fiction. Claims that a contrast between Thackeray’s and Carlyle’s opinions on novels and knowledge uncovers the buried anxiety in Carlyle’s emphatic preference for history over fiction.

Harden, Edgar F. Thackeray the Writer: From Journalism to “Vanity Fair.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A thorough study of Thackeray’s literary career.

Mudge, Isadore Gilbert, and M. Earl Sears. A Thackeray Dictionary: The Characters and Short Stories Alphabetically Arranged. 1910. Reprint. New York: Humanities Press, 1962. As the title indicates, this volume is an essential reference book for students of Thackeray’s works. The “Chronological List of Novels and Stories” clarifies and lists the individual and collected works titles under which many of Thackeray’s short sketches and stories were published and republished; “Synopses” provides invaluable annotations on the contents of all Thackeray’s works, short and long. The main “Dictionary” section is an alphabetical reference book for Thackeray’s characters.

Peters, Catherine. Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. The purpose of this thorough, fresh, intelligent, and readable twelve-chapter study is, in the author’s words, “to identify the raw materials, but to be aware that the finished work is a work of art, and not a covert autobiography.” In defining what Thackeray’s writings owed both to his life and to his particular genius, Peters provides invaluable insights. Short works such as Men’s Wives and The Yellowplush Papers are analyzed, and individual short pieces are discussed in context. A thorough index helps readers to search out discussion of individual works.

Shillingsburg, Peter. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An excellent introduction to the life of the great novelist. Thorough and scholarly, but accessible.

Taylor, D. J. Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. A lengthy biography that argues for Thackeray’s preeminence among nineteenth century English novelists. A more or less comprehensive study of the man that sheds much light on his work.

Welsh, Alexander, ed. Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Thirteen essays by a selection of the foremost Thackeray scholars are a useful introduction to the student of Thackeray’s works, though discussion of the short works is included only in the analyses of Thackeray’s narrative techniques and style.

Wheatley, James H. Patterns in Thackeray’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969. This volume is a lucid, readable study of the development of Thackeray’s techniques and concerns as a fiction writer. Follows his literary career from chapter 1, “Early Parody,” through chapter 6, “Later Fiction: The Sentiment of Reality.” Two works of short fiction, The Yellowplush Papers and A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, are discussed at some length in chapter 2, “Developments from Parody.” The “Works Cited” guides the reader to other relevant critical sources.

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