William Makepeace Thackeray: as A Victorian Novelist

Also Read

      William Makepeace Thackeray  was a journalist. As a novelist he began late with Vanity Fair (1847). Thackeray is a near contemporary of Charles Dickens.For ten years he published his novels - Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians. In 1863 he died.
As an artist, Thackeray shows no consistent development from his first brilliant work Vanity Fair.
William Makepeace Thackeray

      Vanity Fair shows him at his best his clear-sighted realism, his deep detestation of insincerity, and the broad and powerful development of the narrative. His characterisation and indeed all his efforts are more subtle than those in Dickens. He is less troubled by presenting a normal solution that by evoking an image of life as he has seen it. This gives the true mark of greatness to his portrait of Becky Sharp the heroine of Vanity Fair. She is an adventurous and deceitful woman, but Thackeray so presents her that the audience can never retain an attitude of detached judgement. Moreover, his satire is broader and deeper than Dickens. He has tried to anatomise the wickedness of the rising capitalist society. But the end of the novel is in the typical tradition of the Victorian novels -poetic justice and compromise.

      As an artist, Thackeray shows no consistent development from his first brilliant work Vanity Fair. Pendemnis and The Newcomers are too involved in digression to have the strength of design which Vanity Fair possessed. In the portrayal of sentiment Thackeray is more delicate than Dickens. The defect in structure in these novels is corrected in Henry Esmond in which Thackeray writes a historical novel on the eighteenth century. He reconstructs in Esmond the atmosphere of the age of Queen Ann through a plot carefully devised and with a theme difficult to control. The novel relates a peculiar love story - a man falling in love with a young, flirtatious girl and ending up with a marriage to her mother. The essence of the novel, as Pater realised it is a domestic drama of the strange psychological shift from a mother-son relationship to a husband-wife relationship. The Newcomers is Thackeray's dynasty novel of three generations. The new comers are the triumphant bourgeoise replacing the former aristocracy. Thackeray's last novel, The Virginian (1859) relates the fortunes of the descendants of Colonel Henry Esmond and particularly of his daughter Rachel.

      Thackeray excelled in portraying his own social class. Irony and mild cynicism give sharp edge to his criticism. The chief subject of Thackeray is the contrast between human pretensions and human weakness. He was a conscious artist. In his work he rejected the complicated plot used by Dickens and allowed his story to develop through the actions and speech of his characters. He makes up for his indifference to form by the subtle use of dialogue. He portrays sentiment with far greater delicacy than Dickens and described the sordid with ironic detachment.

      The authorial intrusions in his novels are criticised by the modern writers but they suggest a sense of life larger than that which is confined within the story. His realism is relentless - in Vanity Fair he minutely depicts and anatomises a whole class of society - the new leisured gentry, a parasitic class made possible by England's tremendous wealth. He was, however, inhibited by the limitations imposed on him by the age in which he lived. That he submitted readily to the moral code of the age is the measure of his weakness as a novelist.

      Thackeray as a Novelist. Thackeray occupies a prominent position amongst the early Victorian novelists. His great contemporary, Dickens was interested in individuality, he was interested in man. He deals with certain motives and qualities that are present in man. His range is determined by the range of human activities involving these motives and interests. He has a penetrating eye for these motives and qualities he specializes in the study of snobs, egotists and out-and-out climbers, sentimentalists, innocent fools, melancholy self-deceivers etc. He isolates the motives and through that creates a unique world. He uses the novel for a considered criticism of life rather than mere entertainment. He selects facts that are significant rather than giving photographically accurate details. He writes from a subjective point of view and irony is the key note of his attitude. His style is even, easy, simple and free from rhetoric. At its best, it becomes lilting and cadenced like a lyric. His modes were of the 18th-century writers and he had the vein of egotism of Charles Lamb.

      His plots turn on the struggle between selfishness, worldliness, self-indulgence or vanity and instinctive honesty, kindness and humility. And they turn on nothing else at all. Romance, mystery, pure humour, large and subtle dedicated spirits to ideals, conflicts of duty—all these are absent. Accordingly, his world is not as big as it appears. He respects his characters both good and bad. His virtuous women, Amelia Sedley, Helen Pendennis and Lady Castlewood are the same women in different costumes. Becky Sharp, Balanche Amory and Beatrix are the same artful women. Again and again he has the same object of satire. Barring Henry Esmond and Dennis Duval, a fragment, he was an uncertain craftsman. His hold on the structure of his novels was loose. His novels were always too long; his narration was obtrusively hampered by garrulity and most common place comments and repeated moralizing. At moments he became a bore. He was a sentimentalist and indulged his emotions for their own sake. In matters relating to sex, he shared the weakness of this age. His strength lay not in imaginative force but in his power of construction and even more in his insight into the processes of the human mind.

      Characterization. Thackeray's characters were drawn from life as much as from his idealized conceptions of human beings. Whichever be the source, they were real to him. He knew them as fellow inhabitants of the world. Their appearances and manners, their family relation, their clothes, the houses they lived in, were part of the identification. His intuitive knowledge, especially of women, was nearly perfect. He was not a psychological novelist in the modern sense, but he felt his characters. Major Pendennis (Pendennis) was drawn from a typical club snob but his creative imagination invested him with an individuality. His characters were parts of his society. When Colonel Newcomes (The Newcomes) died he burst out of his room with tears in his eyes crying, 'I have killed Colonel Newcomes'. His pathetic scenes are brief and moving like those in Shakespeare's tragedies. He is guilty of inconsistency in treating sex-impulse, and in describing respectable characters: for example Beatrix is described to be cold as a stone and Lady Castlewood as jealous of her own daughter. Such falsification of his characters was in consideration of Victorian convention.

      Power of Construction of Plots. He had the gift of manipulating a huge mass of material by the parallel construction method-an extension of Fielding's method. Fielding told the story openly in his own person, interrupting the action from time to time to comment on what was taking place. Thackeray tells us the story as he might tell it if he was sitting talking to us in his arm chair. It is thus easy for him to cover a great deal of ground. He does not need a set theatre, he acts the part himself and when his point is made he can shift the scene without any further assistance than he can supply with his own voice. By this method, he controls his material and characters and imposes a unity of tone on a heterogeneous subject matter. Over the whole is spread equally the tone of his personality. His hold on the structure of his plots is on the whole loose but the individual scenes are finished in a few pages with remarkable dexterity. He can make his effects so quickly: indicate a situation, draw a scene in a few words: he had that unteachable gift for dialogue which can make a character reveal itself in its lightest phrase. For example, the quarrel scenes in Esmond. With equal power, he could draw a pen-portrait. These gifts combined together to overcome the looseness of texture that resulted from his in-season and out-of-season comment and homilies.

      Picture of Contemporary England. Vanity Fair presents a panorama of English Society in the years before and after Waterloo. In Pendennis, he drew for material upon his own early life and experience in journalism. The Newcomes is the successor of Vanity Fair and Pendennis as a picture of London Society. His material was characteristic of the upper classes, as Dickens' was of the lower. For him the organization of society by families was a reality: families and characters go from one story into another. For example, Rachel, Henry Esmond's daughter marries one Warrington in Virginia and her sons are the Virginians who meet their aunt, Beatrix as Madame de Bernstein. A descendant is George Warrington the friend of Pendennis. Pendennis appears in The Newcomes. Among the upper classes, his favourite topic is the marriage of convenience. Among the lower classes he knows the servants best. He looks down upon them with patronage whereas Dickens did with transmuting sympathy.

      His world includes Anglo-Indians, Irishman, Jews, Frenchmen, artists, social adventurers, servants and parasites. Usually, he worked on models.

      His Conception of the Novel. He followed the tradition of the 18th-century novelists and regarded the novel as a means of unlimited communication between himself and his audience: a sort of confidential talk between the writer and reader. This conception is of the essayist rather than the novelist. Being a realist he could not take the novel very seriously as something governed by law. He knew he was the master of his creations: the master of the puppets. Many times he stepped in as the omniscient creator when the novel was being written from another person's point of view. This habit of his was responsible for much extraneous matter and holding up the narrative proper. Nevertheless, it produced an illusion that we were listening to an actual experience. This form of the novel has been rightly described as panoramic, a loose combination of narrative writing, rising occasionally into a dramatic scene of great power. With this conception of the novel and the publication in monthly installments, he was negligent of form. Henry Esmond is technically the best executed. The vividness of scenes and felicity of expression make them delightful to read.

      Philosophy of Human Nature. Towards society, Thackeray is a satirist, but he is a moralist of the individual. In the first capacity he is concerned, not with large problems of class adjustment, but with personal relations, chiefly those arising from the institution of the family. In the second, he has a simple moral code, which approves the knightly virtues — self-sacrifice, chastity, honesty, loyalty, truth in love, kindness — and also intelligence: and reprobates their opposites, selfishness, incontinence, hypocrisy, pretense, fickleness, mercenary ambition, cruelty and stupidity. He envisages a society which does not exist for the moral improvement of the individual. Virtue does not always get a reward; not does vice always get punished. He does not draw ideal characters but secures our sympathies for the good-meaning blundering sort who suffer because of the failings in their own character or the social conditions. This world he looks at with melancholy tempered by humour, seeing, as did Antonio (Merchant of Venice), "a stage where every man must play a part, and where the roles are apportioned with less regard for the merits of the actor than for the caprice of the Manager."

      A Satirist or a Cynic. To call Thackeray a cynic is to do him the greatest injustice. So far as the man is concerned he was very kindly-gentle to a fault The word "cynic" is always used in a bad sense: "Of a dog, currish", Thackeray had always a tear in his eye like Helen Pendennis or Lady Castlewood. The companionship of his Bohemian friends was the very breath of his life and its memories the prop of his old age. The Ballad of Bouillabaisse will prove beyond doubt that at heart—behind the sneering enemy of snobbishness, hypocrisy, cant and wicked and—he was a very kindhearted good-meaning gentleman. See for yourself how he remembers the friends who are gone leaving him alone.

My old accustomed corner here is,
The table still is in the nook,
Ah! vanish'd many a busy year is
This well-known chair since last I took.
When first I saw ye, cari
I'd scarce a beard upon my face,
And now a grizzled grim old fogy,
I sit and wait for Bouillabaisse.
Where are you, old companions trusty,
Of early days here met to dine?
Conte, waiter I quick, a flagon crusty;
I'll pledge them in the good old wine.
The kind old voices and old faces
My memory can quick retrace;
A round the hoard they take their places.
And share the wine and Bouillabaisse.

      He was a resigned man who would cheer himself with these happy memories.

I drink it as the Fates ordain it.
Come fill it, and have done with rhymes;
Fill up the loney glass and drain it
In memory of dear old times.
Welcome the wine: whatever the seal is;
And sit you down and say your grace
With thankful heart, what'er the meal is.
Here conies the smoking Bouillabaisse.

      So when he died the charge of cynicism against the man was denied in a poem in The Punch, to the pages of which he used to contribute during his life:

He was a cynic! By the love that clung
About him from his children, friends and kin:
By die sharp pain light pen and gossip tongue
Wrought in him, chafing the soft heart within

      Was, then, cynicism a characteristic of his writing? We need not deny that no barked at the vices, follies and pettinesses of the world around him arid humanity in general. His motive was not to pooh-pooh them for the mere fun of it but to redeem the virtues from beneath the load of vice and give them a chance to thine. The mere fact that he was satirist is not enough to condemn him as a cynic. He attacked the social vices of hypocrisy and snobbishness as virulently as the individual vices of perversity, selfishness, vanity, ambition, meanness etc. His didacticism was largely actuated by his earnestness for reforming the people and improving their social relations. In one of his Roundabout papers he pictured himself as a knight-errant riding the pegasus and armed with a quill going to fight the Ogre Humbug. His advice to the knights of the Pen was: "Be gentle to all gentle people. Be modest to women. Be tender to children. And as for the Ogre Humbug out sword and have at him."

      Some of us may say that as a realist he is not impartial: he lays heavily upon the objects of his satire. They should distinguish between a satirist and a misanthrope and between a realist and a naturalist. The misanthrope hates mankind as a race of two legged animal; but the satirist aims at making him better. The realist describes people as they are and the naturalist takes delight in emphasizing the lurid side of the picture and in raking up the filth. Thackeray defended his realistic method in the introductory chapter of Henry Esmond and again in The Newcomes: "I cannot help telling the truth as I view it. To describe it otherwise than it seems to me would be falsehood to that calling in which it had pleased heaven to place me, treason to that conscience which says men are weak, that truth must the be told, that fault must be owned, that pardon must be prayed for, and that love reigns supreme over all."

      In the words of Earnest Baker, "his was a sentimentalist philosophy: and those who deem him a cynic have entirely misunderstood the cries of anguish wrung from the heart of one who saw with much painful clearness the baseness and falsehood of the world about him, and was driven to despair of the ultimate victory of good." Again and again he sought consolation in his good, erring men and women. "He is essentially a moralist, a preacher and the method of his teaching is satirical. He was first a realist, secondly a moralist; consciously and deliberately a realist. He is like a valet to his characters: he is omniscient and knows their virtues and vices. He satirizes the faults for their benefit and applauds the virtues for ours."

Previous Post Next Post