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

Criticisms and Interpretations. VI. By James Oliphant

TO sum up on this point, it must be granted that while Thackeray was unrivalled in his power of representing all types of character on which it was possible for him to direct his satire, we must place against this great merit three serious considerations:—his satirical habit often led him into caricature; he failed entirely in creating types of ideal beauty, lapsing always into vagueness or inconsistency; and finally in number and importance, as well as in truth to nature, the contemptible figures in his portrait gallery are so preponderant that the whole effect is an utter travesty of human life. In a novelist this is an unpardonable sin. The avowed satirist purposely limits his vision, and we accept his pictures with the knowledge that they do not represent the whole truth. But the artist in fiction stands in a different position. He professes to tell us what life is. If it is not necessary that every novel should be a synthesis, the sum of the writer’s work must at least give us a reflection of reality that is faithful up to the measure of his capacity. Thackeray was either insincere, or he was blind to the greater part of those elements in life which all of us hold most dear. There is no writer whom it is more delightful to dip into in certain moods; he ministers so admirably to the innate malice of human nature. His books have indeed a more justifiable value than this; as a corrective to conceit, to self-deception, to excess of enthusiasm, his barbed words may often yield a wholesome moral tonic. But as a whole his novels do their readers the greatest disservice that lies within the possibility of any one man’s influence upon others. They strike at the root of the noblest sentiment that can animate the human spirit; they would destroy man’s faith in man. We never rise from his books with brighter hopes or quickened energies.

One respect in which Thackeray stands supreme among novelists is the perfect naturalness of his conversations. It was perhaps easier for him to attain this, owing to his dealing mainly with the superficial aspects of life, but it is a gift of the highest order, and one which few of the great novelists have possessed even in a moderate degree. In the mouths of his characters as well as in his own person, his style has many of the qualities of his very best prose. It does not rise to the passion and melody of the finest imaginative writers, but it is a model of ease, and purity and grace. Having such a command of expressive language, and so keen a power of minute observation, it is somewhat strange that he should have attempted so little in the way of description. Very seldom in his novels have we any graphic picture of the outward surroundings of his scenes. The beauties of nature do not seem to have appealed to him strongly. He was a denizen of cities himself; London and Paris formed by far the greater part of his world, and the country was little more than an indefinite background, suggestive rather of dulness than pleasure.

That Thackeray was one of the chief literary figures of our century, and that his individuality has had a marked influence on the work of his successors there can be no manner of doubt. As a painter of manners, as a satirist, a critic, a stylist, he takes a very high rank, but the qualities which enabled him to excel in these various capacities do not of themselves constitute a great writer of fiction. If he must also be called a great novelist, it is not because he possessed in an eminent degree the special gifts which form the chief glory of the artist, but that his genius in certain faculties which should be subsidiary to the main purposes of creative art, was so forcible as to make him largely independent of the forms of expression he adopted, and to cover his many and serious deficiencies. His influence on the development of the novel has been almost entirely indirect. Following Miss Austen and Dickens in drawing his material from contemporary life, he helped to widen the range by dealing with new phases of society. Following the same writers, but reaching a higher success, he touched the limits of realism in dialogue. But he did little to help in guiding the art of fiction into its true channels. In his general methods he has fortunately had no imitators. He sought to turn his novels into vehicles of instruction, and the art he thus treated with indignity has revenged itself on him. With all his wonderful and manifold gifts he stands now in the history of fiction rather as a warning than as a model.—From “Victorian Novelists” (1899).