The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Vanity Fair
VANITY FAIR. Thackeray's ‘Vanity Fair’ is perhaps the most famous novel in the English language; certainly no critic would name the five best novels in English and not include ‘Vanity Fair.’ It is hard for a novel to keep its place in the public mind; only a remarkable novel can do so. Each new generation comes to novels with a new appetite, with demands for some fresh interpretation of life, some exposition, some consideration, some solution if possible, of the new problems that confront it, and it finds novels of the preceding generation wofully old-fashioned. Nevertheless, ‘Vanity Fair,’ although written in 1846-48, is not old-fashioned. Becky Sharpe is still a familiar and intimate companion; Sir Pitt Crawley, the Marquess of Steyne, Major Dobbin are still among the best known of our acquaintances in the world of fiction.
Of course a novel 70 years old cannot affect us in the same sort of way that it affected its first readers. To them ‘Vanity Fair’ was a new kind of novel. They were acquainted with novels of several well-marked types, such as ‘Tom Jones,’ an out-of-door, free-hand, picture of a rowdy young man, ‘Pamela,’ the elaborate presentation of sentimental situations, ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ the delicate delineation of manners, ‘Ivanhoe,’ the romance of adventure, and they were beginning to know Dickens; but Thackeray's detached, cynical, sentimental survey of life was new and strange. Since then novels have multiplied, they swarm like locusts, and yet ‘Vanity Fair’ has its own peculiar power and interest; its place in literature is better established than ever. It was this novel that made Thackeray famous. And though it was followed by ‘Pendennis,’ ‘Esmond’ and ‘The Newcomes,’ it stands, in the general opinion, as his most brilliant novel.
The defects in the book according to the taste of to-day are obvious enough. Artist as he is in details Thackeray lacks the power or the will to make his novel as a whole a work of art. We do not like to have the author poke his head out from the pages every little while and moralize over his characters; we grow tired of the frequent comparisons of life to a pantomime; we find the characters Pitt Crawley, George, Amelia, Dobbin exaggerated, out of drawing, distorted. Thackeray does not hold a mirror up to life; he holds up a warped and twisted reflector that gives the life it reflects a half comic, half satirical aspect. Thackeray's admirers are many and devoted, but for most readers he is too much occupied with the superficial relations of life, with social distinctions, with the envy and vulgarity of those below and the snobbishness and vulgarity of those above. Greater men, such as Shakespeare or Tolstoi, do not find their attention drawn to such matters, they find their interest in experiences, emotions, passions, of a kind more deeply human, they delineate men and women as more occupied with the larger matters of life, love, work, discipline, excellence and so forth, and less concerned with the meaner failings of ill-adjusted social classes.
And yet despite these defects ‘Vanity Fair’ is a novel that represents some manifestations of human society, with remarkable truth. In Becky Sharpe Thackeray accomplished what is commonly accepted as a very great achievement of art, the portrait of a woman who exhibits a familiar human trait so definitely that without losing her individuality she represents a type. Such a portrait has the freshness of novelty, and it has also the interest that attaches to the familiar. This effect Thackeray achieves with surprising swiftness and sureness. Becky Sharpe within the first page or two leaves Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies and we see her opening her wings like a young hawk, just fledged, casting its far-seeing, pitiless eyes about for prey. No sooner do we see that hawk glance than we watch, entranced, for the great circles through the air and the cruel pounce. Becky Sharpe belongs to the order of raptores, creatures that arouse in us all a mixture of apprehension and fascination. Every wild bird has a tragic end, and Becky's career squares with our experiences of life.
Thackeray is a master of English; his flexible sentences adapt themselves like running water to every circumstance, they flow limpidly, they babble, they rush along, or move deep and slow. In this respect by general consent be stands at the head of English novelists, and it is perhaps his command of language that enables him to shift so easily from pathos to humor, from tragedy to comedy, from satire to sympathy; and in ‘Vanity Fair’ his style is at its best.