Austin Powers and the Narrator of Vanity Fair

You are likely thinking “finally!” Or perhaps “what?!?” Either way (and I am pretty sure there are only two possible reactions to my title), watch this now and by the end of my post, everything will be illuminated.

Casting our male and female gazes upon the semester, it is notable that the narrator of Vanity Fair is unlike the other narrators that we have read thus far. Having said this, he (I say he because Thackeray does) does share some superficial qualities with these other narrators, yet he exhibits vastly greater artistry. The narrator of Vanity Fair is quite conspicuous, as is the narrator of Mary Barton, yet the narrator of Vanity Fair is much more dexterous when speaking directly to the reader, whereas the narrator of Mary Barton is startlingly abrupt. Moreover, the narrator of Vanity Fair has a moral aim in mind, as does the narrator of It Is Never Too Late To Mend. However, the methods of the two narrators could not be more different. William Thackeray’s narrator utilizes satire and is incredibly successful, while Charles Reade’s narrator preaches at the reader and therefore fails to gain the sympathy of the reader.

Thackeray is successful with his satire in large part through his chameleon-like narrator, whose voice guides and orders the construction of the narrative at one point, permits the freedom for subversion within that structure at another, and cleverly and humorously mirrors what is happening in the narrative at the next. An example of this is observed when the narrator is foregrounding for the readers Dobbin’s temperament in the wake of George and Amelia’s honeymoon, “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer, who know, at once, how credulous we are, and how sceptical [sic], how soft and how obstinate, how firm for others and how diffident about ourselves” (223). The narrator is here acknowledging his nimbleness and fluctuating voice.

Through his nimble voice, the narrator of Vanity Fair accomplishes many things: for instance, a critique of the aristocracy, a moral appeal to the middle class, and a disparaging of jingoism (65, 91, 326). But a central task of the narrator is a reconsideration of genre. The novel’s narrator most clearly depicts this at the end of chapter eight when he states, “while the moralist who is holding forth on the cover, (an accurate portrait of your humble servant) professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery, in which his congregation is arrayed” (83). Here the narrator unmasks his aim by taking the title of moralist. Yet this moralist is wearing the costume of a clown (“long-eared livery”), not the “gown” or “bands” of the priest, the garb which Reade’s above mentioned narrator wears. Furthermore, this clown costume is the same that “his congregation is arrayed” in. It is in this clownish clothing, satire, that the moralist narrator may complete his work.

Yet, the narrator is not simply a moralist, as he discusses “a brother of the story-telling trade at Naples” who was worked into “a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing” (83). The narrator is here invoking and criticizing the Italian melodrama. He follows this story with a critique of French realism (84). Yet Thackeray does not criticize these genres in order to exclude them from his novel, but to include them. Thackeray critiques the generic elements of melodrama and realism by combining them in his moralist satire. Indeed, Thackeray’s blending of different genres alters the very definition of these genres. It adds complexity to the novel, where the Victorian novel corresponds in its generic gluttony to Joseph Sedley, the resident glutton of Vanity Fair. The novel both critiques the above genres and becomes them.

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