October 2, 2008

George Levine on Vanity Fair

Unsurprisingly, eminent Victorianist George Levine writes well about "Vanity Fair and Victorian Realism" in his newly released How to Read the Victorian Novel:
In refusing the satisfactions of closure, Thackeray is implicitly affirming the importance of the realist enterprise; in rejecting the comic ending and the possibility of a satisfactory conclusion ("Which of us is happy in this world?" the book's final paragraph asks), Thackeray is, with some fatigue, turning away from the literary forms that in fact give spine and structure to his own enormous book. Thackeray arrives at what might be seen as the ultimate attitude of the realist, something like contempt for the impossible enterprise and for the fantasies to which it aspires.
I'm reading the book in order to review it along with Harry Shaw and Alison Case's equally new Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Austen to Eliot. So far I'm impressed with both books, though both also leave me puzzling a bit about their function. If I assigned either one as a companion in my 19th-century fiction class, for one thing, there wouldn't be much need for me to be in the room! Case and Shaw more clearly have a student reader in mind: their language is deliberately non-technical and their tone is companionable and relaxed. (Perhaps their analysis also reads comfortably to me because Shaw was my thesis supervisor and I had the pleasure of working as the TA for his 19th-century fiction class once: the approach and the examples in many cases are familiar to me.) Levine's text is denser and more overtly engaged with recent theoretical and critical approaches. I happily anticipate having my own ideas and habits refreshed as I work my way through both books.

When I get my hands on Philip Davis's forthcoming Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, I think Blackwell Publishing will have met all my needs.


Keith Oatley said...

Thanks for this post, and for the interesting quote by Levine, I am struck by the last sentence of the quote. "Thackeray arrives at what might be seen as the ultimate attitude of the realist: something like contempt for the impossible enterprise and for the fantasies to which it aspires." Our reading group—nine of us who, with a few changes of members, have been meeting approximately monthly for 17 years to discuss novels—has just read Vanity Fair. Most of the group liked the book, and found it witty. I did not much like it, and decided not to finish it (comforted by Pierre Bayard's benign teaching that we don't have to read books in their entirety). I was put off by Thackeray's general attitude of contempt not so much for the enterprise of the novel, but for his characters. This isn't realism, is it? Sneering seems to me a poor substitute for art. And although there are elements of fantasy in novels, is not their primary function to try to understand other people and ourselves or, as George Eliot said, "to extend our sympathy?"

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, Keith;

I have become quite an admirer of Vanity Fair, despite having initially recoiled also from what can seem like the 'sneering' aspect of it. I wrote a bit more about it over at The Valve a little while ago: Vanity Fair: It's All About You. Much 19th-century criticism saw Dickens and Thackeray--both overtly social critics and moral reformers--as opposites in their approaches, some preferring Dickens for offering ideals, others preferring Thackeray precisely for not doing so. One thing Levine is very good at is explicating different notions of 'realism.' Realism of moral attitude is one--which is not necessarily the same as realism of representation, just for instance (these are my clunky summary terms, not his).

I don't think Thackeray is trying to do what George Eliot tried to do with the novel form (for instance, in many ways I think VF reads as a morality tale or parable, rather than as a novel). But I do think his is one way of trying to get us to understand (or confront) ourselves. I agree that Vanity Fair lacks warmth, but it doesn't lack heart, and in fact there are passages in it that I think are tremendously moving about the human condition (if you'll forgive the cliche).

Did you get as far as Chapter LIII, "A Rescue and a Catastrophe"? Great stuff....

Rohan Maitzen said...

A follow-up to my reply to Keith: here's an excerpt from Theodore Martin's essay on Thackeray:

"through his harshest tones, there may be heard the sweet under-notes of a nature kindly and loving, and a heart warm and unspoiled, full of sympathy for goodness and all simple worth, and of reverence for all unaffected greatness"

and later, comparing him to Dickens,

"Both are satirists of the vices of the social system; but the one would rally us into amendment, the other takes us straight up to the flaw, and compels us to admit it. Our fancy merely is amused by Dickens, and this often when he means to satirize some grave vice of character or the defects of a tyrannous system. It is never so with Thackeray: he forces the mind to acknowledge the truth of his picture, and to take the lesson home. Dickens seeks to amend the heart by depicting virtue; Thackeray seeks to achieve the same end by exposing vice. Both are great moralists; but it is absurd to class them as belonging to one school."

(The essay was in the Westminster Review in 1853.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Rohan, for these explanations. I don't feel very good about my inability to respond to Thackeray. I know lots of people like him, and I feel I am missing something. I think that being a satirical moralist is a viable stance for a novelist, though difficult. Let me try and express some of my disquiets about Thackeray. (I don't feel very sure of this; I feel more confident on authors I like and think I can understand better.) It seems to me that for both satire and moralization one needs something like a moral centre as a point of reference, the narrator perhaps, or a principal character like Sissy Jupe in Dickens's far more convincing satirical and moralizing novel Hard times. I want to know: "So where are you, the author or narrator, in all this?" and "Where are we, the readers?" Otherwise it can come across as uniform misanthropy. I know that in various utterances, Thackeray was scathing about himself, but that seems to me to make the situation worse: a painful case. My sense of the beginning and end of Vanity Fair (the parts I have read) is that this is a book written to amuse readers, to pass their time. I would like to have more time in the day, not less, so I am already anxious. I am, however, quite taken by the puppet idea, both in the preface and at the end of the novel. in the last sentence the narrator says: "let us shut up the box and the puppets." As one of the few people in the world who has a professional puppeteer in the family, I take an interest in such matters. Puppets allow us to project something of ourselves onto their blank faces. Think of the Japanese puppet drama-form, Bun Raku; think even of Disney's Pinocchio. In Vanity Fair, the puppet metaphor is of characters acted upon by forces they do not understand: a fine and productive idea. But I cannot decide how important this is to Thackeray, or whether he wants, merely, to remind us that he is pulling on strings.

Rohan Maitzen said...


I certainly don't agree that Vanity Fair is ultimately a book "written to amuse readers, to pass their time." I just gave my final lecture on the novel to my class and made the case that it stands as a 'deathbed revelation' for its readers, a chance for us to look at ourselves in the narrator's mirror and reflect on our own shortcomings before it is too late! (One way I try to make this case is by looking at the many death scenes in the novel and how they provide the narrator with opportunities to speak to us about our own inevitable participation in a like scene one of these days. The chapter "In Which Two Lights are Put Out" is a good example.)

I do agree that we need some kind of moral center if we are going to a novel to "extend our sympathies" (though this is not necessarily what we go to all novels for, is it? it depends on the novel). But I think we have to allow for that 'center' to be somewhat outside the novel itself--for instance, in what Wayne Booth calls the 'implied author.' This is especially likely to be the case in satire. I would say it is also the case in, say, The Remains of the Day, one of the most morally profound and moving novels I know. But the narrator in Vanity Fair gives us a lot more than sneering as we go along.

It's interesting to me that you cite Hard Times as more convincing. I do admire that novel, but not because of Sissy (who seems heavyhanded even for a Dickens character) but for Louisa. But that's another post.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This is a very enjoyable discussion. I must read Vanity Fair soon.

Keith Oatley said...

Well ... as i said, I may be missing something in Thackeray, and your idea about reflections on death certainly makes him interesting. You mention Wayne Booth's idea of the implied author. To take up another of Booth's ideas, Part of my difficulty in Vanity Fair is that I feel pressed to identify someone—implied author, narrator, character—with whom to be friends. But I totally agree with you that The Remains of the Day is a fine, moving, and (again following Booth) ethically substantial novel. In Vanity Fair, I did not get as far as Chapter 53: "A rescue and a catastrophe," or Chapter 61, "In which two lights are put out." But on your recommendation, I shall read them.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Why "pressed"? I've read and enjoyed plenty of novels where I had no friends. Even some where if I was pressed at all, it was to be the narrator's or author's enemy.

The only Booth I have read is his lovely book on playng the cello, which is probably not relevant here.