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Thackeray's contemporaries equated Thackeray with the narrator, whom they saw as omniscient; as a result, they often missed the irony, read Thackeray's satire as his actual beliefs, and attacked him for cynicism and worse. A more careful reading of the novel indicates that the narrator is not consistently nor even mainly omniscient. His character constantly shifts from omnisicence to fallibility, to ignorance, and even to incomprehension. His identity changes too. He is the stage manager, introduced in "Before the Curtain"; even in this guise, his role shifts from directing the performance, to controlling the actions of the characters or puppets, as he calls them, to helplessly watching them do as they wish. (So, even when Thackeray adopts the guise of the stage manager, questions arise; is he the creator of the story, the teller, or a hapless observer?) He metamorphoses into critic, clown, satirist, commentator, preacher, reporter, and participant. His situation changes, for example, from being married to being single, from having no children to having children. His relationship to the characters shifts from being a friend to being a hostile judge. His attitude too undergoes breathtaking transformations, being by turns wise, sentimental, worldly, cynical, amused, sad, inane, smug, and pleased at showing the characters up.

This shifting in the narrator has led some readers to accuse Thackeray of being inconsistent. This is a serious charge and would be a major flaw in any novel. The charge implies that Thackeray lacked the skill to create a consistent narrator, that he was too careless to create a consistent narrator, and/or that he was too intellectually lacking to be aware of the narrator's inconsistency (Thomas Carlyle, for instance, questioned Thackeray's capacity for serious thought). The charge of inconsistency is particularly serious because of the pervasive presence of the narrator; he is everywhere with his comments and his reactions and even appears as a character who has met Amelia and Dobbin. We see the characters through his eyes and know them through his words, though Thackeray also presents myriad other voices and views. For these reasons, the narrator is a major source of the ambiguity--or difficulty in determining Thackeray's intention and meaning–throughout the novel. When are the narrator's comments and attitudes ironic? when are they to be taken literally? and when or how often do they express Thackeray's attitudes and values?

Not everyone concedes that Thackeray is unintentionally inconsistent. If the narrator is seen as a fictional persona, then he does not necessarily speak for or as Thackeray. He becomes one more character, different in kind and in function from the other characters, certainly, but a character nonetheless. Therefore, Thackeray is free to manipulate him to achieve particular effects at different points in the novel. Viewing the narrator as a persona raises another set of considerations and assessments. Are the narrator's shifts justified by achieving special effects, or are they confusing? Do they, in other words, add to or detract from the novel?

The views of critics differ significantly on these issues, as the following sampling of opinions suggests:

  1. Are the shifts in the narrator a flaw in the novel?

    • E.D.H. Johnson attributes the shifts in the narrator to Thackeray's ambiguous relationship to his world.  Johnson believes that Thackeray had difficulty in combining his satiric bent and his moral purpose, a difficulty which resulted in confused aims:

             The curious alternations of attraction and repulsion manifest in Thackeray's handling of Becky and Amelia characterize his attitude towards the entire world of the novel. As a satirist, he castigates the manners and morals of that world; as a moralist, he is more taken in by its standards than he is presumably aware. Unlike Fielding, he was never able artistically to harmonize his twin purposes, because again unlike Fielding he lacked any compelling vision of forces making for unity and poise within the social organism.
      Johnson explains that the eighteenth-century Henry Fielding lived in a stable society with intact institutions underpinned by a robust religious faith. But in Thackeray's society, religion was losing its authority. In Johnson's view, one result of this loss was that love as a generalized form of brotherhood and charity no longer held society together but existed only as a bond connecting individuals.
    • Arnold Kettle, on the other hand, attributes the difficulty in determining Thackeray's intention and views to his cowardice, "from a desire to expose illusions and yet keep them."

  2. Are there positive ways to view the narrator's shifts?

    • Harold Bloom calls Thackeray's narrator "that supreme fiction" and sees the point of view as one of the strengths of the novel. Many readers see the narrative shifts as part of Thackeray's subtlety, a device whereby he  indicates the difficulty, if not the impossibility of arriving at the whole truth. If determining the truth is problematic, then making judgments becomes an issue; in this view, the narrator's shifts challenge our right to judge since we are all corrupted, in some way and to some degree.

    • Kathleen Tillotson believes that the narrator's commentary serves other purposes. It bridges past and present. Furthermore,

      Without Thackeray's own voice, the melancholy and the compassion of his attitude to Vanity Fair might escape us. It is needed merely as relief, from a spectacle that might otherwise be unbearably painful. And not only morally painful, but mentally impoverished. The characters, the best as well as the worst, are almost without ideas; the intellectual atmosphere of the novel is provided by the commentary.

      By presenting the narrator's comments and reactions as well as the characters' feelings and reactions, Thackeray gives the novel a richer, more complex, and subtle texture.

    • Juliet McMaster believes that the narrator's commentary, which she calls alternately inane, snug, cloying, or cynical, forces the reader to react, thereby giving the characters a kind of life and making them feel like autonomous beings.

You will have to decide these issues for yourself based on your reading and understanding of the novel.


Just as the narrator's identity shifts, so does the reader's identity. The narrator addresses a succession of different readers–e.g., a supercilious clubman, a lady, women in general, "you"–to whom he attributes specific attitudes and whom he characterizes as behaving in certain ways. Behind these fictional readers there are the actual readers of the novel. What do you see as the functions of the fictional readers addressed by the narrator? And what is the relationship between the fictional readers and the actual readers, that is, between them and you? For example, do they create a bond between you, the actual reader, and the narrator? or a bond between you, the actual reader, and the characters? Are your feelings and your judgment about the characters, their actions, and their world affected by Thackeray's use of fictional readers? When Thackeray addresses "you," is he addressing the actual reader, or is the "you" a fictional persona? or is the identity of "you" sometimes the actual reader and sometimes a fictional persona?


 Day 1

Thackeray, Vanity Fair. pp. ix-170
Overview of Thackeray and Vanity Fair
The Narrator, the Reader, and Ambiguity
The Structure
Thackeray's Illustrations: A Discussion

 Day 2 Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Attitude Toward Women
 Day 3 Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
 Day 4 Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Becky's Innocence
 Day 5 Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
Album of All the Vanity Fair Drawings


February 16,  2011