William Makepeace Thackeray: Victorian novelist

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      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.

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