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William Makepeace Thackeray. (1811–1863). Vanity Fair.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. II. By Doctor John Brown

LOOKING at Mr. Thackeray’s writings as a whole, he would be more truthfully described as a sentimentalist than as a cynic. Even when the necessities of his story compel him to draw bad characters, he gives them as much good as he can. We don’t remember in his novels any utterly unredeemed scoundrel except Sir Francis Clavering. Even Lord Steyne has something like genuine sympathy with Major Pendennis’s grief at the illness of his nephew. And if reproof is the main burden of his discourse, we must remember that to reprove, not to praise, is the business of the preacher. Still further, if his reproof appears sometimes unduly severe, we must remember that such severity may spring from a belief that better things are possible. Here lies the secret of Thackeray’s seeming bitterness. His nature was, in the words of the critic in “Le Temps.” “furicase d’avoir été désappointé.” He condemns sternly men as they often are, because he had a high ideal of what they might be. The feeling of this contrast runs through all his writings. “He could not have painted ‘Vanity Fair’ as he has, unless Eden had been shining brightly before his eyes.” And this contrast could never have been felt, the glories of Eden could never have been seen, by the mere satirist or by the misanthrope. It has often been urged against him that he does not make us think better of our fellow men. No, truly. But he does what is far greater than this—he makes us think worse of ourselves. There is no great necessity that we should think well of other people; there is the utmost necessity that we should know ourselves in our every fault and weakness; and such knowledge his writings will supply.—From “Thackeray’s Literary Career,” in “Spare Hours” (1866).