Thursday, January 22, 2009

A World Not Unlike Our Own

Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair 

“A woman may possess the wisdom and chastity of Minerva, and we give no heed to her, if she has a plain face. What folly will not a pair of bright eyes make pardonable? What dullness may not red lips are sweet accents render pleasant? And so, with their usual sense of justice, ladies argue that because a woman is handsome, therefore she is a fool. O ladies, ladies! there are some of you who are neither handsome nor wise. ”    ― William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

TWO girls and two very different personalities and temperaments, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, form the center of this lengthy story "without a hero". By the end I was almost convinced that all is 'vanity' in this world, or at least in this novel. This reminded me somewhat of Balzac (e. g. Cousin Bette), but with more humor.
The best thing in the book was the Authorial presence as Thackeray comments on the people and their actions at regular intervals. The two most memorable aspects of the book for me were the voice of the author and the character of Becky Sharp, certainly one of the most memorable in all of my reading. Unlike Dickens, the author does not deal with the ills of society at large (e. g. education or debtors' prison), but focuses on the characters of the individuals and the consequences of their character and actions on their lives.
The characters seem like puppets on a stage at times, while he uses them to reveal general truths about human nature. Becky is the best example as her greed and selfishness knows no bounds. She is brilliant when attempting to influence others to get her own way:
“The little cares, fears, tears, timid misgivings, sleepless fancies of I don't know how many days and nights, were forgotten under one moment's influence of that familiar, irresistible smile.” 
In comparison with most of the other characters you almost don't mind since they usually deserve the treatment they receive from her; however, her unmotherly actions toward her son betray a more vile nature than one would expect, from anyone that is other than Becky.
This is a novel that explores the dichotomy between love and money, those who depend on the largess of others are often disappointed and all the love in the world does not pay the bills. Thackeray manages to keep the story interesting primarily because, in spite of her character flaws, Becky is both smart and charming. He explores her nature in a way that is both profound and detailed and ultimately, with a large supporting cast, creates a world in Vanity Fair that seems not too unlike our own.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Penguin Classics, 2003 (1848)

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