Saturday, May 10, 2008

Vanity Fair | William Thackeray

"Vanity Fair" 's pseudonym title is "A Novel Without a Hero", which is a suitable description. I'm going to begin, with my favourite quote of the novel:

"I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented to the public in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner (My note: He's being sarcastic, here). In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims." Pg812-813
So if you could not deduce from this quotation, this novel is all about high society in the 1800's, where your sole purpose in life was to party with the rich, put down the poor so they felt better about themselves, and obtain further monies through swindling, marriage and other means. As such, most characters were deplorable. The quotation obviously cautions you to not focus too much on the surface, but instead look deeper into how these characters really are.
If you look beyond the surface, you may find a sadness reserved for the characters. Were they a product of their upbringing? Did they have the ability to rise above Vanity Fair? While Thackeray doesn't explicitly explore these questions, the novel does lead you in a direction to ask these questions of yourself.
Another question: Which audience was Thackeray speaking to - the poor or to the rich? Or, to the middle class? I'm not entirely sure, but my assumption is that he is speaking to both the rich and middle class (the poor couldn't probably afford his books). Some of his statements are to poke fun of the thought process of the rich - what they think gives their life purpose, and some of his statements caution the middle class to be careful what you wish for. In the end, the money isn't what makes you a strong character or what fulfills you.

This book hits home, even today. We live in an incredibly vain society. Our concepts on what people hold value are still largely based on what they were then - money. A lot of us are chasing this dream of being wealthy, because society teaches us that by earning and consuming you are contributing to the great good - driving the economy. In the end, does any of this consumption and constant work for the machine really make us happy?
Also, where do you draw the line between vanity and necessity? We are ALL vain in some way shape or form, but the continuum is essentially without end. As such, it's my belief that the only thing we can do is be vain within our own personal comfort with vanity. At the same time, try not to put down others who have different comforts than your own. Not everyone can fit into the proper level of vanity that you have as your own point of view.
That being said, it's important to me to try to live life within my own personal code. I think that Dobbin was able to do this, and he was as close to a hero as one gets. I don't mean to compare myself to a 'hero' by any means, but what I am trying to imply is the same as the old adage "do unto others, as you would do unto them." The world would be a lot better with more Dobbins, but that does nothing for the government or the corporations, who essentially run at least the western world. But it is important to know that despite his environment, Dobbin was able to overcome. I hope everyone I know and everyone I meet, can as well. The less hideous monsters hiding underneath the surface, the better.

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