Home  »  Vanity Fair, A Novel without a Hero  »  Criticisms and Interpretations. VII. By Gilbert K. Chesterton

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

Criticisms and Interpretations. VII. By Gilbert K. Chesterton

THE MERE title of “Vanity Fair” was certainly an inspiration; for it is both the strength and weakness of the book that it produces on the mind (I might say, even on the nerves) the same impression of mixed voices and almost maddening competition as a crowded square on market day. The force and fault of Thackeray was always to be irrelevant; but here irrelevancy rises till it reaches to a sort of deafening distraction. Elsewhere in Thackeray digression was destined to be slow; but here even digression is swift, swift as the dance of death at the balls of Lord Steyne or the swoop of all the vultures to the sick bed of Miss Crawley. Everyone in this tale is filled with a futile energy. The reader is purposely left wondering at so much courage in that craven battle, so much endurance in that strange and selfish martyrdom. Newman said once, I believe, “Evil always fails by over-leaping its aim and good by falling short of it.” Whether true or not this might almost be a motto for “Vanity Fair.” Here Thackeray is right in calling himself so constantly a moralist. He is genuinely a moralist in this essential sense that he insists that actions shall be judged not by their energy, but by their aim.

Many strenuous critics have sneered at the softness of Amelia Sedley and openly exalted Rebecca along lines of the will to live. It would be hard to persuade modern critics that Thackeray may be deeper or even more daring than they are. But I hardly think that they see Thackeray’s point. His point surely is that Amelia was a fool; but that there is a certain sanative and antiseptic element in virtue, by which even a fool manages to live longer than a knave. For after all when Amelia and Becky meet at the end, Amelia has much less energy, but she has much more life. She is younger; she has not lost her power of happiness; her stalk is not broken. She could really, to use Thackeray’s own metaphor, grow green again. But the energy of Becky is the energy of a dead woman; it is like the rhythmic kicking of some bisected insect. The life of the wicked works outwards and goes to waste. The life of the innocent, even the stupidly innocent, is within; if anyone dislikes the battered sentiment of the word “love,” I will say that innocence has more zest, more power of tasting things. Hence Thackeray’s thought is really suggestive; that perhaps even softness is a sort of superiority; it is better to be open to all emotions as they come than to reach the hell of Rebecca; the hell of having all outward forces open, but all receptive organs closed. For the very definition of hell must be energy without joy.

It was very specially in connection with “Vanity Fair” that the great accusation of “cynicism” broke about Thackeray’s ears. The argument is a mere logomachy, the trick of taking a vague word and then asking if it applies precisely. If cynicism means a war on comfort, then Thackeray, to his eternal honour, was the reverse of a cynic. It is absurd, in this sense, to call a man cynical whose whole object it is to show that goodness, even when it is silly, is a healthier thing than wickedness when it is sensible. The truth in the accusation is probably this; that his vile characters are drawn a little more vividly than his virtuous characters. So, in the small artistic sense, Dante is more successful with hell than with the beatific vision. Virtuous characters are always drawn less vividly than other characters; because they are so much more worth drawing.—From the Introduction to “Thackeray” in “Masters of Literature” (1909).