William Makepeace Thackeray (YGtCTO Words #37)

Vanity Fair

Book by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray- what a marvelous name, eh? So much to think about with him, too- early success, rivalries, settling into comfort, etc. But first- the book!

I finally broke down and read Vanity Fair a few years ago, but it was probably a good thing that I had waited. Maybe I have a tin ear, but the humor might not have worked as well for me when I was younger. Also, I might have lost myself in that collegiate discussion of heroes and anti-heroes.

In short, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp are meant to be polar opposites in wit, innate goodness, purity, pride, upbringing, and all those important things to readers in 1847. Amelia is the proper young lady. Becky is the striver, justified by having had to make her own way in the world from a young age. As a rather unreliable narrator, Thackeray vacillates between whether either is much of a heroine and whether the story simply is doing without one. From our vantage point, Becky might have her good points, making her way in the world. Then again, she probably represents everything people fear about feminism.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Early on as a writer,
Thackeray went to a lot of trouble to write books without the sort of protagonists that people expected. His second best known work is Barry Lyndon. If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, then you know what I mean when I say that’s another story without a hero.

If nothing else, reading Thackeray is a pleasant reminder that iconoclasts like him were already sick and tired of the standard plots. As much as I love Charles Dickens, I wonder how much Thackeray moved literature forward so that Dickens and Trollope could truly run with it. Speaking of Dickens, he was something of a rival to Dickens. They tended to make rude witticisms at each other’s expense, given the chance.

But let’s move on to the part that should really reach out and grab the modern reader in Vanity Fair. Along the way of the tale, we find ourselves in continental Europe with the British forces fighting the French. I can’t think of any earlier book that so blatantly and darkly satirizes the horror of war. The outcome of battles is pointless. Men expect glory and find fear. Families are routed. The bystanders prey on one another for everything as they run for their lives. Believe me, I could go on. Thackeray does. He was in his mid-30s when he called out his world for the sheer idiocy of waging a war that ended in nothing gained and so much lost.

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