Can we see the “spot” beneath the ink? Vanity Fair as Palimpsest

The readers are often referred to as “brother wearers of motley” – fools listening to another fool’s story (185). Yet, as we have seen in Shakespeare and other weavers of tales, the fool is often the font of knowledge and the voice of reason, and while the narrator perceives of his story through the lens of satire, many of his observations hold weight. He mentions that his aim is to show a side of the Fair that is rarely seen, the private realm. The narrator aims “to walk with you [the reader, the fellow fool] through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there” (185). In his desire to examine “the shops,” could there be a multiplicity implied? And can we see the images of past stories through the lines of the fool’s tale?

Vanity Fair is many things – satire, realist, comedy, romance – but what about palimpsest?

The written word depicted in letters and journals becomes an important marker of how time changes perception in the novel. In the first two hundred pages of the novel, the narrator remarks on the changeling nature of letters over the years: “Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while!” (187) One meaning warps into another meaning as more information behind the text becomes unveiled.

One of the narrator’s more sincere comments brought out the idea of the novel as palimpsest: “The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else” (187). This is very clearly the definition of a palimpsest. Indeed, throughout the narrator’s tale, the reader is reminded that this is one of many stories in the Fair; there are more stalls that have their own stories, and this is the background of one of many stalls – such as the one we find Rebecca at the end of the novel (730). What is to say that the other layers of the Fair have not also been written and vanished so that this tale could be told. Instead of writing “on it to somebody else” it has been written on about somebody else.

This multiplicity comes out as the narrator compares the actions of his tale to those not present. This can be something as simple as referring to a “neighbor Jones” or a “neighbor Smith,” which obviously are standby names for anyone – inferring that these events have a universality (372). Yet there are more specific analogies to past characters, such as Lady Macbeth, that suggest that this story has been stacked upon other stories not mentioned: “Lady Macbeth would not quit Becky’s chamber until her cup of night-drink was emptied” (431). While this is not the only example of personification, this section exemplifies an interesting quality in the novel, the moments when characters become others. Even if only for a moment, Lady Southdown becomes Lady Macbeth. It begins with a simile: “looking more like Lady Macbeth than ever” (431). However, Lady Macbeth embodies Lady Southdown for a brief sentence as she “would not quit Becky’s chamber.”

These moments when the writing under the present text shows itself to the reader, begs the question: is this glimpse of the undertext an intentional ploy by the storyteller, or has the old story reared up to make itself known? In other words, was this analogy carefully selected from amongst other options, or was it inevitable? The repetition of the Fair, in all its versions, is unstoppable, and each character represents someone who has come before, whose story has all but evaporated from the page.

(I had to end this dramatically, yet I understand that Lady Macbeth’s story hasn’t disappeared, I mean it’s a play that has been written down, but you get where I’m going.)

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