Thackery and the Art of Snark

One of the themes we have studied this semester has been the metanarrative feature of the narration, how the story is being told. In Vanity Fair, never has the narrator been more of an overt presence, even including the notorious Charles Reade. An interesting contrast occurs in chapter 8 of the novel, and I shall expound upon that.

Hitherto the narrator has been a third person, commenting upon the events as they transpire while dictating them to us. Thackeray seems to be the narrator, peppering the prose with allusions to current events, popular culture, and urban landmarks presumably to foster a rapport with the audience. It has the effect of hearing a story told by a friend or neighbor, with whom you can assume common knowledge of the immediate landscape, thus necessitating the copious footnotes on virtually every page. All well and good; I like that aspect of it since it gives me a feel for the psychology of the writer as well as his understanding of the populace’s aesthetic in consuming literature.

What I don’t appreciate is the commentary on the very circumstances the narrator (Thackeray) purports to communicate to us. For instance, I found it extremely hard to sympathize with the inimitable Miss Sharp as I read thanks to the cutting snarky remarks he layers over her character. Just before Ch. 8, Becky is in the new digs, Sir Pitt’s mansion, on the first night, and surveying the portraits in the room, she sees a fellow “in a red jacket like a soldier. When she went to sleep, Rebecca chose that one to dream about” (72). The implication here is that Becky is so mercenary and calculating in everything she does to the ends of social climbing that she even decides what would be most advantageous, and therefore more pleasant, to dream about; it’s slightly ridiculous to think that she can choose what her subconscious mind will kick up during her slumber.

Chapter 8 is all the more interesting since it offers direct insight into Becky’s character and mental cogitations, even if filtered through her letter to the witless Amelia. Becky is appropriately catty in places and denigrating of Pitts and Crawleys, but she never reveals the true mercenary nature that will stop at nothing to secure a husband and stability through riches. I hesitate to draw such sweeping conclusions from such a small sample (having not read the entire tome), but this section, coupled with the following conclusion to the chapter, makes me question Thackeray’s execution of the narrative and how much he relies upon commentary as opposed to illustration: telling instead of showing.

In the conclusion to Ch. 8 the narrator inserts the following: “But my kind reader will please to remember that these histories in their gaudy yellow covers, have ‘Vanity Fair’ for a title and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretentions” (83). He continues, warning the reader what kind of story he’s telling and of what quality the characters are (84). This convention of reminding the readers that they’re reading a made-up story is certainly jarring, much more so than Stoker’s little asides or even Reade’s ham-fisted moralities. On the one hand, it is in keeping with Thackeray’s snarkiness, elbowing the reader with a wink, saying, “Get it?” after every joke. On the other hand, does it arouse questions about the very nature of literature as perceived by the Victorians? Did they enjoy having that overt acknowledgement of the artificiality of the proceedings? Or did they like to imagine that the person writing the tale really thinks himself as an actual person and not an invention of an author? Even in Jane Eyre and Mary Barton the narrator would step out of the recitation of events to address the reader directly; was this just a convention of the times or did it reflect the sensibility that Victorians wanted a more honest form of literature, one that admitted the contrivance of a storyteller telling a fictional tale?

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