What Does Thackeray Actually Think About Class?

Early in Vanity Fair, the “incisive” and “liberal” Miss Crawley makes a comment about class that puts Becky Sharp in a positive light. Although Becky retains no social capital from her birth, Miss Crawley claims the young woman is better than those with class status: “‘What is birth, my dear?’ [Miss Crawley] would say to Rebecca—‘Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II.; look at poor Bute at the parsonage; is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you—they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler” (119). Taken at face value, Miss Crawley’s statement appears to be a trenchant critique of the British class system. Becky is more intelligent than Sir Pitt and “poor Bute” (though I cannot say the same about “poor dear Briggs”). Becky does seem to hold “better” internal qualities than the upper class people Miss Crawley compares her to. (Of course, Becky does not always use these qualities in the best way). There is one major problem, however, with this critique: it comes from Miss Crawley. The wealthy woman is clearly an object of ridicule in Vanity Fair, so why would Thackeray make her the mouthpiece of this class critique?

This passage illuminates one of the major tensions in the novel—how do we know when the novel actually critiques an idea, system, or character? At the same time, how do we know when Thackeray is playing with his readers? Can we trust this narrative voice? Vanity Fair satirizes most of the characters and various aspects of society, but does the narrative voice believe in anything? Why satirize if not to incite change?

The tension arises for me when I compare Miss Crawley’s class critique with a later statement by the narrator. When Becky begins to rise in society, the narrator soliloquizes on the idea of the “best” people in society: “Here, before long, Becky received not only ‘the best’ foreigners (as the phrase is in our noble and admirable society slang), but some of the best English people too. I don’t mean the virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but ‘the best’…” (588). While the narrator’s tone is far different from that of Miss Crawley, he, like the wealthy woman, questions the notion of “the best” in society. By using scare quotes, Thackeray shows that the idea of “the best” is empty. To be the best is to be made “the best”—there is nothing inherent that makes someone better than another. Is this not a similar critique as the liberal-minded Miss Crawley? Why would Thackeray’s narrator make the same point as a ridiculous character? Doesn’t that just undercut the trust the reader has in the narrator? At the same time, however, the second passage shows that Becky is no model of moral value. While it is difficult to know where the reader might want his readers to fall in the question of class, perhaps these passages show that Thackeray believed everyone of all classes was horrible.

The relationship between these two passages helps to show why the narrative voice in Vanity Fair is so slippery. In the end, though, it makes me wonder—does the narrator have anything of worth to say? Does Thackeray offer critiques just for the sake of critique? Or, is Thackeray trying to make some kind of point with his narrator? If Thackeray is using satire to create change, why undercut the narrator so much? Surely Thackeray isn’t trying to hold Becky up as a model of moral values and she isn’t “better” than any other character.

On the other hand, is Thackeray making a point about words and language itself? The Hebrew term heh’bel is translated as vanity but it also means “vapor” or “breath.” While I am not trying to suggest that Thackeray knew Hebrew (maybe he did), I do think this Hebrew word can offer some insight. Perhaps, by undercutting the narrator’s satirical voice, Thackeray is saying that our words, our language is all vanity, breath that escapes our mouths and dissipates, inciting no change or leaving no lasting effect. But on the other hand, maybe Thackeray is not saying that. Who knows?

I’m Not Supposed to Like Emma, Right? or The Complicated Relationship Between the Narrator and Emma

Jane Austen, witty, intelligent, and talented, with an impressive oeuvre and droll disposition, seems to unite some of the best words in the opening statements of her novels; and these passages have for over two hundred years distressed or vexed readers. Emma is no exception. What should readers make of the pithy remarks that open this novel?

While the first sentence of Emma tells readers that the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is “handsome, clever, and rich,” it also says that she “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence” (55, emphasis mine). The first part of the passage appears straightforward, apparently giving readers a direct, unbiased presentation of Miss Woodhouse’s attributes. But the “seemed” throws a wrench in this narrative presentation. With this word, it seems that the narrator is no longer just telling readers about Emma but also commenting on the character. This “seemed” creates a tension that, for me, runs throughout the novel: the relationship between Emma and the narrator. It is clear that the novel is (mostly) focalized through Emma’s perspective. At times, however, this narrow focalization purposely keeps information from the reader. At other times, it feels like the narrative voice creates distance to question or comment on Emma’s behavior (See: Box Hill party, Emma’s rude comment to Miss Bates, p. 322). How are we supposed to know how to interpret Emma’s character—or for that matter, what is “real” in the world of the novel—if the narrator vacillates between these positions?

Like the opening passage, there are other times that the unclear relationship between the narrative voice and Emma muddles our understanding of “reality” in the novel. For instance, the narrator seems to participate in Emma’s self-delusion, allowing the character to suppress her “true” feelings. When Emma contemplates taking the young, naïve Harriet Smith under her (patronizing) wing, she compares Harriet to Mrs. Weston: “Such a friend as Mrs. Weston was out of the question. Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want. It was quite a different sort of thing—a sentiment distinct and independent” (71). In this passage, there is a sense of loss that slips through in the sentence, “Two such could never be granted.” But the narrative voice cuts this feeling off abruptly, moving to a self-delusional statement, “Two such she did not want.” How could this be true? Why wouldn’t Emma want another close, equal friend? In this abrupt shift, the narrator follows the movement of Emma’s mind, which keeps the reader from Emma’s true feelings or sympathizing with Emma. Consider this revision: “Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want, Emma thought, trying to ignore her sadness over the loss of Mrs. Weston.” My revision adds commentary on Emma’s thoughts to show how the narrative voice in Emma keeps certain truths from the reader. How could Emma not feel sadness, even with Mrs. Weston only a half mile away? Why wouldn’t the narrator clue us into this (potential) sense of loss? Do these hidden truths make the novel more realistic or less?

It is my sense that Austen constructs the novel in this way so readers can experience and see Emma’s self-delusion early in the novel. We are not supposed to “like” Emma, right? I’m not sure I’d want her in my circle of friends. However, I think it is significant that as Emma gains more self-reflection, the narrator offers a clearer sense of the “truth.” (See: Emma’s reflection on the possible loss of Mr. Knightley). By the end of the novel, I have the feeling that what we see through Emma’s perspective is closer to reality than earlier in the novel, showing her growth as a character.

My overall question seems pretty fundamental to novel reading: What is the relationship between the narrator and the characters in the novel? For Emma, I think this is a vital question because the novel is so focused on how imagination can create “truth” and the consequences that come from made-up reality. But I also think these passages force questions about reading the novel: How are we supposed to read this narrator? Does the narrative voice teach us to read against it? Is it a more realistic novel because the narrative voice follows Emma’s self-delusion? Or is it less realistic? And, most importantly, (but really not important at all), am I supposed to like Emma?

Airy Thoughtlessness or Conscious Schemes?

At the beginning of Frances Burney’s Camilla, the author describes the title character in a striking way: “[Camilla’s] qualities had a power which, without consciousness how, or consideration why, governed her whole family. The airy thoughtlessness of her nature was a source of perpetual amusement; and, if sometimes her vivacity raised a fear for her discretion, the innocence of her mind reassured them after every alarm” (51). There is something counterintuitive in this description. While I think of “thoughtlessness” as a pejorative term, Camilla’s unguarded nature yields amusement. Instead of innocence bringing fear to her family, Camilla’s naiveté offers reassurance. As a young woman, Camilla is praised for her natural openness, her “airy thoughtlessness” and “vivacity.” But does the novel endorse this way of being or just the Tyrold family?

Because of the Tyrold family’s explicit and implicit endorsement of Camilla’s thoughtlessness, I was surprised at the advice Mr. Tyrold offers in his sermon to his daughter. Camilla’s father tells her, “Struggle then against yourself as you would struggle against an enemy. Refuse to listen to a wish, to dwell even upon a possibility, that opens to your present idea of happiness” (358). Though Mr. Tyrold’s exhortation is specifically referring to Camilla’s hopes with Edgar, his advice to treat herself like an enemy contradicts the earlier description of Camilla’s qualities, attributes that her family praises in her. Rather than her “thoughtlessness,” Mr. Tyrold emboldens her to be conscious of her actions. No longer can her “innocence” reassure her father; she now must act in a knowing, affected manner.

The apparent tension between Mr. Tyrold’s sermon and the family’s earlier praise for Camilla’s qualities brings me back to the question of endorsement: Are we supposed to think Burney approves of Mr. Tyrold’s advice? Or, is the author questioning this type of injunction to go against a natural way of being?

On one hand, I think the novel supports Mr. Tyrold’s advice. If Camilla had not been so thoughtless in regards to expenses and Mrs. Mitten, then she would not have gotten into severe debt. While an open and unguarded nature might bring amusement in a secure home, these same attributes can lead to very real, very dire circumstances away from family and in public.

However, the novel also seems to question Mr. Tyrold’s exhortation. By ignoring her true feelings for Edgar, Camilla assumes various schemes that Edgar misreads and misinterprets. Had only Camilla acted with her same “airy thoughtlessness” and “vivacity,” then her relationship with Edgar might not have become so complicated. Perhaps another implied censure to Mr. Tyrold’s advice is in the scene with the singing bird. When Camilla expresses dismay that the singing bird is pinched, the man who owns the bird says, “Why how do you think one larns them dumb creturs? It don’t come to ’em natural” (493, emphasis mine). Perhaps this is a stretch, but I read this statement as an echo of Mr. Tyrold’s letter. Like the bird, Camilla is made to go against what is “natural” to her. Because of this, she puts on an affected attitude toward Edgar and constrains (or cages) herself in a way that leads to the dissolution of their union.

The questions I am raising could be a part of a rhetorical analysis of Camilla because I am trying to tease out the author’s message to the reader and there is certainly an ethical dimension to these questions. In the end, it seems that the novel—and Camilla herself—endorses a more thoughtful approach to life, especially in how suspicious the novel is toward other characters’ natural ways of being (see: Indiana, Clermont, Bellamy, Lionel). Perhaps, though, Burney is not just endorsing one side. Perhaps she shows us that there are times to act with natural thoughtlessness and there are other times we must be more conscious of our actions.

The Heart Want What It Wants

As I reflect on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, some major, disconcerting questions stand out: Why would Pamela choose to marry the man who abused and oppressed her? How could Richardson believe this a “reward”? Did his readers find this an acceptable outcome to Pamela’s plight? These are questions first of narrative plausibility, for they problematize a primary assumption of the realist novel— that a novel presents the narrative events in a real or true way. Closely tied to plausibility, though, are issues of characterization, which is what I want to focus on in this post. If we are to believe these characters as “real,” then how could we accept Mr. B’s behavior and Pamela’s choice to marry him? Would real people make these choices?

One problem with the question of realism in characterization is what Alex Woloch describes as “the tension between the authenticity of a character in-and-of-himself and the reduction of the character into the thematic or symbolic field” (15). For me, especially with realist novels, I assume the characters’ authenticity should be brought to the forefront while thematic or symbolic representations should take a backseat. Perhaps Richardson creates Pamela and other characters as archetypes, but I didn’t get the sense that Richardson was trying create his characters as mere conduits of his thematic concerns. It seems he was attempting to create believable events and plausible characters. However, because I am reading Pamela from a 21st century perspective, my definition of authenticity is most likely vastly different from Richardson’s (duh), which could be a cause for my confusion. So, I want to try and find a way that these actions, especially Pamela’s choice to marry Mr. B, could be plausible for eighteenth century readers.

I was fascinated by the idea of choice in the novel and how the characters understood this concept. Perhaps their understanding of choice could give us a clue to the believability of the characters’ actions. Without a doubt, Mr. B makes (creepy and disgusting and abusive) choices to entrap Pamela. But when he defends himself against her, he makes it seem he has no choice. In Letter XXX, Pamela quotes Mr. B: “You have too much good sense not to discover, that I, in spite of my heart, and all the pride of it, cannot but love you. […] I must say I love you” (115). While I do not think this is Richardson sanctioning Mr. B’s actions, it is interesting how Mr. B conceives of himself as a victim to his love for Pamela—he “cannot but love” her. Moreover, the way Mr. B describes his heart is also fascinating. His heart appears to be out of his control, his love a symptom of a vessel he has no jurisdiction over.

Mr. B’s attitude, of course, is problematic, but what’s even more disconcerting is how Pamela uses similar language to describe her love for Mr. B. When her love awakens, Pamela chastises her heart: “Yet, O my treacherous, treacherous heart! How couldst thou serve me thus! And give no notice to me of the mischiefs thou wert about to bring me! How couldst thou thus inconsiderately give thyself up to the proud invader, without ever consulting they poor mistress in the least!” (284). Like Mr. B, Pamela characterizes her love as an action of the heart, and she conceives of the organ in even more autonomous terms than Mr. B. It is something that “serves” her, operating on its own volition and without her consent. Her heart has given itself “up to the proud invader.” Like the earlier quote, this one is probably more disconcerting to a contemporary reader because we expect Pamela to have control over her love and choices. Yes, Pamela’s statement about her heart could be an overly fanciful statement from a young woman, but I think these passages help to give us a sense of how readers could believe Pamela’s choice to marry Mr. B.

Perhaps eighteenth century scientific texts about the heart could also give us some clues to how Mr. B and Pamela understand choice in love. Questions that these passages raise for me about eighteenth century biological conceptions of the heart: Does the heart operate autonomously? What emotions or actions does the heart control? How did eighteenth century people understand the brain? Do they think the brain is the “control center” of emotions and actions like we understand it today? These are questions that I cannot address, but I think the answers could help us grasp how Mr. B and Pamela understand their hearts and how it controls love, which would give us a better sense of how their choices could be considered plausible by the eighteenth century readership. If the heart is an organ that controls love and operates autonomously from other organs that control reason (perhaps the brain), then maybe Pamela’s marriage to Mr. B is not so implausible. After all, in the inimitable words of Selena Gomez, the heart wants what it wants.

The Confusion of Class

Although I am no expert on 18th century British society, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones reveals a clearly defined social hierarchy based on title and land ownership that governs much of the characters’ actions and experiences. Not only does a character’s class determine income and status, it also shapes how others view that person, especially if that person is in the upper class. Built into the class system is the assumption that the aristocracy is inherently good and noble even if behavior suggests differently. It’s as if non-aristocrats are forced to see the upper class through rose-tinted glasses, making it nearly impossible for anyone to question or challenge the actions of the upper class. Undoubtedly, Fielding questions these assumptions about the upper class, but it is more difficult to know what he thinks about the class system itself. Does Fielding think the class system unfairly stratifies British society? Or, is he merely calling the upper class to a higher standard?

Throughout the novel, Fielding sketches aristocratic characters whose actions are based entirely on their class position and the assumption that this position makes them infallible. Most of the time, these characters appear ridiculous, suggesting that Fielding argues against these class-based presumptions. For instance, Squire Western’s rigid and unfair expectation that Sophia marry Mr. Blifil and Mr. Allworthy’s trusting relationship with Mr. Blifil show how the upper class, though supposedly imbued with superior character, can be so very wrong.

Fielding explores this issue most clearly through Tom Jones and Mr. Blifil. Unlike most of the characters in the novel, Sophia, even at a young age, recognizes the difference between the two young men: “To say the truth, Sophia when very young, discerned that Tom, though an idle, thoughtless, rattling rascal, was nobody’s enemy but his own; and that Master Blifil, though a prudent, discreet, sober young gentleman, was at the same time strongly attached to the interest only of one single person” (143). As the narrator reveals, although Tom is not upper class and a product of an illegitimate union, he has a better nature and is more empathetic than Blifil, who is supposed to be the image of upper class superiority. Like this passage, the novel sets up this opposition to show how aristocratic people do not inherently have a good nature. The novel makes us recognize, as the narrator states directly later in the novel, that “virtue and understanding” are not class-based, but “strictly personal” (560).

At the same time, however, Fielding also seems to undercut this argument in the novel’s insistence that Tom Jones is a “gentleman” and in the final reveal that Tom is actually the son of a member of the upper class (though he is still illegitimate). The final sentence of the novel appears to be a clear statement of upper class superiority: “And such is their condescension, their indulgence, and their beneficence to those below them, that there is not a neighbor, a tenant, or a servant, who doth not most gratefully bless the day when Mr Jones was married to his Sophia” (871). The words “indulgence,” “condescension, and “beneficence” all reveal Tom and Sophia’s goodness toward the lower class, but these words also connote a superiority that the narrator seems to question earlier in the novel. Does the ending negate what the novel claims earlier about class?

While there are many ways to answer this question, I am going to pivot back to the relationship between Mr. Blifil and Tom. In the end, these characters end up being brothers. Well, actually half-brothers—I think this distinction is significant. Although Blifil’s father is not the worst character in the novel, the narrator describes Captain Blifil as conniving and selfish. On the other hand, when the narrator reveals who Tom’s father is, Jenny Jones describes Mr. Summer as “so genteel” and with “so much wit and good breeding” (831). In this way, the character of the son follows the character of his father. Perhaps, then, Fielding is making a biological claim. Perhaps Blifil’s selfishness comes from his father, a natural progression of traits. Thus, Tom’s good nature owes itself to the “good breeding” of his father, Mr. Summer. While this could be another way that the assumptions of the upper class are perpetuated, it is my sense that this argument about parentage is saying something different than the class assumptions of Fielding’s time.