Our Lovely, Undecipherable Narrator Strikes Again…And Again

What are we to do with this narrator? We’ve already spent some time discussing his (lack of) reliability, sarcasm, and inconsistency. He claims to know all, yet holds some information back. Sometimes we know what is written in the letter or on the note, and sometimes not. Sometimes we are led to believe that the narrator’s words reflect his own views, but often they (supposedly) do not.

Significant to this problem of the narrator is how Thackeray chooses to frame his novel, beginning with the prologue entitled “Before the Curtain.” He (either Thackeray, the narrator, or the Manager, or some combination of the lot, we cannot be sure) describes Vanity Fair as a show, with the characters of the novel first as actors with face paint and masks and then as puppets and dolls. The whole story is a performance we, as members of the audience alongside the Manager, are sitting down to watch.  This is problematic because throughout the novel the narrator continuously shifts roles, and thus determining Thackeray’s intentions becomes much more difficult.

As Andy brought up in discussion last week, periodically we see the narrator deigning to step down into the action of the novel in a manner of sorts. Andy suggested that it could be visualized as the Manager/narrator sitting next to you at the play and pausing the action to comment and bring you in on some of the inner-workings and issues at hand.  However in chapter 62, the narrator makes an unprecedented move and actually enters the story. He states, “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance,” referring to those main characters who were vacationing in Pumpernickel. He even attends the same play (of all things) as “our friends” as he refers to them (793). Besides the obvious contradiction of his assertion that his “history” (not tale or story) is true, we now must puzzle over what these paragraphs tell us about the narrator’s omniscience and role in the story.  Who is he, and why/when should we believe him?

Thackeray maintains the play construction all the way through the novel to the final page, ending: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (878). The illustration paired with words depicts two children beside a toy box. Various dolls are strewn about within and around it, and the inside of the lid reads “FINIS.” Rather than returning to the idea of the characters as painted and masked actors, Thackeray chooses to finish with the characters as dolls and puppets put away in a box for another time. The effect is a telling contrast between the triviality of the playthings and the penultimate lines: “AhI Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?” (878). The narrator has ended not simply mocking and criticizing the individual characters and their respective stereotypical roles, but rather the novel as a whole; all the decisions, worries, and experiences are worthless, the insignificant and frivolous stuff of child’s play.  He ends having negated all the supposed messages of the novel, leaving his audience to decipher Thackeray’s intentions.

In this final scene—if it can be called that since the story has already finished—the narrator is lifted back to his meta-narrator role completely outside the novel, so outside that it is he who is instructing the children who ostensibly have been pulling the strings of the character puppets and walking the legs of the dolls. This final layer of ingenious and elaborate obfuscation complicates the novel yet again, still leaving us with the question, what are we to do with the narrator?

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

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