THE STRUCTURE OF VANITY FAIR
Thackeray's original title, Pen and Pencil Sketches
of English Society, indicates his intention to describe a
succession of social situations. As he was writing his novel, the idea
of society as a Vanity Fair came to him, and he changed both his plan
for the novel and the title. Though the name Vanity Fair comes
from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Thackeray uses the
concept in a very different way from Bunyan. For Bunyan, Vanity Fair
comprises all the worldly activities which distract the Christian from
salvation and lead to damnation; they are vanities for this reason. At
risk is the Christian's immortal soul.
The phrase "vanity fair" came to mean "a place where all
is frivolity and empty show; the world or a section of it as a scene of
idle amusement and unsubstantial display" (the Oxford English
Dictionary or OED ). For Thackeray, everyone lives in
Vanity Fair or society; vanity has become the desire for society's
approval and rewards; the individual seeks, not spiritual salvation,
but the rewards of this world–success, status, and wealth.
The change from sketches about society to society as a
vanity fair raises a major critical question; is the novel rambling and
formless? To paraphrase the subtitle, is it a novel without a
structure? This issue was raised by contemporary reviewers. Robert
Rintoul, who praised Thackeray's realism, saw the novel as episodic:
"if putting Vanity Fair aside
as a fiction of high art, we look at it as a series of bits from life,
it is entitled to the first ranks as a set of sketches lifelike and
natural" (1848). Supporting this view is the time difference in the
first half and the second half of the novel; the first half covers two
years before Waterloo and is compact while the second half sprawls over
the next twenty-five years. Even if the novel lacks form, is that
necessarily a serious flaw? The Victorians did not perceive structure
and unity in a novel the same way as modern readers, who have been
raised on James and Conrad and critical theories focusing on structure.
But is the perception that the novel lacks unity
- Do major themes, like
selfishness, give it form?
- Do the parallel lives of Becky and Amelia structure
the novel? They leave school together, to enter the world; their
subsequent careers, which include marriage, motherhood, and financial
struggles, intersect several times; the tender, loving, and passive
Amelia contrasts with the ruthless, ambitious, and active Becky.
- Is his portrayal of society, with its crippling,
perverted values and its lovelessness, the center which holds the novel
- Does the narrator hold
the novel together and structure it?
- Is Vanity Fair a panoramic novel, i.e., a
novel which presents a broad view of a society? Percy Lubbock uses Vanity
Fair as an illustration of the panoramic novel; he says that
the impression of a world, a society, a
time–certain manners of life within a few square miles of London, a
hundred years ago. Thackeray flings together a crowd of the people he
knows so well, and it matters not at all if the tie that holds them to
each other is of the slightest... The light link is enough for the
unity of his tale, for that unity does not depend on an intricately
woven intrigue. It depends in truth upon one fact only, the fact that
all his throng of men and women are strongly, picturesquely typical of
the world from which they are taken–that in all their different ways
can add to the force of its effect. The book is not the story of any of
them, it is a story which they unite to tell, a chapter in the
notorious career of well-to-do London. Exactly how the various "plots"
evolve is not the main matter; behind them is the presence and the
pressure of a greater interest, the mass of life which Thackeray packs
into his novel.