Vanity Fair is surely one of the world's most devious novels, devious in its characterisation, its irony, its explicit moralising, its exuberance, its tone. Few novels demand more continuing alertness from the reader, or offer more intellectual and moral stimulation in return. — A. E. Dyson, Vanity Fair: An Irony against Heroes 
Not many readers and critics today would disagree A. E. Dyson's assessment. The difficulty of reaching interpretive closure was not lost even on the first-time readers of the novel. Their earliest reaction is succinctly recorded by Henry Kingsley in his recollection of people saying, "It is so very strange. One don't know whether to laugh or cry at it" (in Tillotson and Hawes: 330). In her lengthy review (which presages much twentieth-century criticism), Elizabeth Rigby complained that "we cannot see our way clearly" (in Tillotson and Hawes: 80). More than a hundred years later, similar voices can still be heard: "Vanity Fair is capable of producing upset, annoyance, and confusion in readers," writes Steig, for whom the novel is an example of "evasive narrative" (214). On the whole, words like confusion, ambivalence, and ambiguity have become familiar labels for this intricately woven work which both invites and rejects responses with a claim to literary, philosophical, or moral competence. In this chapter I argue that in Vanity Fair irony works on a comprehensive scale and with all the authority granted to it by its inclusion into the novel's narrative function. It is the founding principle of the social, moral and literary satire on Victorian values and conventions; it builds the philosophic perspective on human existence; it is the chief strategy of characterization; it supports and enriches the dual structure of the narrative and reveals the full discursive potential of the omniscient narrator. Still, Thackeray's irony in Vanity Fair exposes sites of vulnerability in the moral and epistemological premises not only of this particular novel, but of the Victorian realist narrative as a whole, and thus allows for a textual function to assert its own power, albeit tentatively.
Ever since the publication of the first installments in 1847, critics have united around the view that Thackeray's Vanity Fair is first and foremost a comic satire on Victorian materialism. Satire, Northrop Frye points out, arises out of an inverted conception of the world (227). The frontispiece [wrapper design] Thackeray drew for the serial numbers makes this this principle clear: It bears the picture of a preacher dressed in motley, standing on an upturned barrel and addressing a similarly clad audience. In the background appears Nelson's column turned upside down. Like Bunyan, from whom he borrows his title, Thackeray attacks the commodification of moral values, a phenomenon which he observed all around him , but his novel expands and particularizes this theme by placing it in a remarkably vivid representation of a world dominated by the worship of quantifiable goods. As in the eponymous marketplace in The Pilgrim's Progress, everything changes hands in Thackeray's Fair from property, titles, reputation, sons and daughters, ultimately to human affection and love. Unlike Bunyan's place of exchange, however, this one has a stable, recognizable currency. Money is the universal signified in this novel, which reflects a world where human values have been replaced by market prices. Becky's famous statement "I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year" (40: 532) summarizes the way of the commercial, competitive, and hierarchical social conglomerate which Thackeray presents with astounding accuracy. So, the spectacle of mirth from the introductory Before the Curtain in the course of the narrative develops into a grotesque representation of the material and moral realities of nineteenth-century England. And this change is predicated on a fundamental shift in the concept of vanity, which here takes on a secular, concrete and brutally materialistic meaning. Vanity in Thackeray's novel is the desire to own and possess. In the rivalry with others for solid, measurable gains, men and women push their way upward, ignoring the simple affective relationships that could allow them a morally and spiritually fulfilling existence. The exceptions, like Amelia and Dobbin, either become easy prey to clever emotional manipulators or, like the much more faultless and insipid Lady Jane, do not have to fight simply because they have either inherited the much-envied rank or married into the coveted money — or both.
The forms Thackeray gives to his representation of the general clamber for the better position are grounded in the typical structures of satire: "the episodic form, the collection of stories or anecdotes, the list, the large dinner party or the group conversation, the legal brief, the projector's pamphlet, the encyclopaedia, and the calendar" (Paulson: 5). Practically the whole of this list is represented in Vanity Fair, where they replace the formal plot typically associated with the novel of the time. Instead, its backbone is shaped by two series of episodes strung around the heroines and linked on the principle of counterpoint, with only a few, though perfectly timed, crossing points. What stops the satiric structure from succumbing to its inherent looseness is the magnetism of one figure: that of Becky Sharp. Perfectly in accordance with the norm of the eiron, she superbly manipulates the whole range of the existing conventions, inverting them to her own benefit. Becky's actions all the while expose the lack of moral worth in the world where she engineers her rise and where she manages to resurface after her fall. At the same time, Becky also appropriates the role of an alazon and thus concentrates the above-mentioned unworthiness into her own self and dramatizes it through her behaviour. As both an outsider charged with an enormous dose of energy and ambition, as well as a personality endowed with a psychological and behavioural pliancy that makes of her the ideal insider, Becky becomes the inexhaustible source of a centripetal force that unifies the narrative. And to the extent to which she and the rest of the characters are knit together by the common goal of material success and social prestige, Vanity Fair fulfills Thackeray's unquestionably satiric purpose, such as he himself explained it:
What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world . . . greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior value" (Letters II: 409).
Certainly, in choosing greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy for his targets, Thackeray does not merely adopt the typically Victorian criticism of the ills of a competitive capitalist world but rather works within a well-established tradition that dates much further back. Bunyan's echoes from The Pilgrim's Progress are strong not only in the novel's title: the prologue "Before the Curtain" makes it explicit that this Fairground is a carnivalized version of the place of abominations Christian and Faithful must go through on their way to the Celestial City. But to Thackeray, the spectacle of the people busily moving about in their self-serving pursuits has foremost importance. So, although his verdict is that "Yes, this is Vanity Fair: not a moral place certainly; not a merry one, though very noisy" (1: 1), he invites his readers to share his fascination with their performance: "A man with a reflective turn of mind, walking through an exhibition of this sort, will not be oppressed, I take it, by his own or other people's hilarity" (ibid.). Nor is his tone quite identical to Bunyan's. Thackeray's view is filtered through comedy and focused on the incongruity that marks the activities of both the subjects and the objects involved in the perpetual economic exchange. There is, Thackeray says, in this "bustling place,"
a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing, and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the lookout, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!), bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. [1: 1]
By sending satire into the realm of the comic, Vanity Fair both reverberates with Bunyan's condemnatory overtones and at the same time tames their apocalyptic fervour. This strategy allows Thackeray to cast a more discriminating eye at human folly than his predecessor: as the narrator, openly identifying himself with the author, says at the end of Chapter 8,
Such people there are living and flourishing in the world — Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless; let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main. Some there are, and very successful too, mere quacks and fools: and it was to combat and expose such as those, no doubt, that Laughter was made. [8: 96]
The dramatization of various types of comic incongruity is therefore one reason why Vanity Fair's satire, charged as it is with the indispensable strong emotional content and making ample use of direct invective and sarcasm, seems less militant than that of Bunyan. But Thackeray subjects Bunyan's conception of the Fair to yet another and more significant transformation. Christian and Faithful, the protagonists of The Pilgrim's Progress, can resist the seductive power of worldly attractions only because before them lies the promise of the Celestial City. Thackeray's Fair, on the other hand, exists without any redemptive alternative. And so far as a positive norm is at all proposed by the satire in his novel, it is recoverable only by implication. Like the negatives Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless in the passage above, the anarchic, destructive power of human folly presupposes as its antithetical opposite the attraction of simple, this-worldly moral values like trust, honesty, compassion and undemanding affection. Above all, the implied positive message insists that it is truthfulness to oneself and to others that enables one to see through the imperfections of the social order.
In the absence of the promise of Paradise, the imperative that moves the satirist of Vanity Fair is that of order in human relationships. "Charity and mutual forbearance," the narrator half-jokingly suggests, form the only deterrent against chaos, the "howling wilderness" (51: 643) that lurks dangerously close to the edge of civilization. But when external Divine authority vanishes, the responsibility of regulating social interaction falls on individuals themselves. The narrator's advice on how to fulfil this requirement is deceptively simple: "The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly, kind companion; so let all young persons take their choice" (2: 15). It is not difficult to see that there is really no choice; the easy ironical reversal articulates an injunction as strict as Bunyan's. Its benevolent, avuncular tone is a means of encroaching on the religious discourse on social relationships. But instead of God's invisible presence is the image of the mirror which functions as one of the controlling metaphors not only in this novel but in the doctrine of Victorian realism as a whole (Polhemus: 125; Miller, J. H., 1968: 35). The individual and society are irreversibly positioned face-to-face in an indivisible unity, whose preservation or dissolution leads to reward or punishment here and now, rather than later and in another realm.
What the satirist of Vanity Fair really demands from people is unsophisticated human authenticity, as well as at least some token intellect — not a scientific one but the practical commonsensical awareness that individuals are bound to the social roles that they enact in smaller or larger social units. Thackeray has often been seen as the greatest sociologist among the writers of his generation: indeed, his characters acquire their identity solely through their communion with others, "the mutuality of their very numerous and vital relations," in the words of the nineteenth-century critic W. C. Brownell (29). Participation in the "bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public" is for Thackeray an inevitability of human life; outside is an existential void. "This, dear friends and companions," the narrator says, "is my amiable object — to walk with you through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there; and that we should all come home after the flare, and the noise, and the gaiety, and be perfectly miserable in private" (19: 228).
Thackeray's secularization of Bunyan's staunchly Christian values therefore redraws and expands the field of his comic satire. In this context, the most conspicuous stylistic device is, quite predictably, verbal irony, most commonly blame-by-praise. Used consistently yet with an amazing agility, blame-by-praise functions to fuel the universalizing drive of the satiric derision because it so frequently accompanies references not only to the protagonists but also to the secondary and the minor characters making up the crowd of the Fair. The linguistic equivalent of the pictorial inversion of the world in the famous illustration referred to earlier in this study, it is chiefly responsible for the sense, so powerfully conveyed on every page of the novel, of a world that vibrates with physical, emotional and verbal life. Thus, the Misses Osborne, who openly snub Amelia, are "affectionate young women" (12: 133); Mrs. Bute Crawley, carefully working on her plot to have Rawdon married to Becky and disinherited by his aunt, is "a good-natured lady, compassionating the forlorn life-guardsman's condition" (14: 165).
Thackeray's verbal irony undoubtedly works as a device that secures the comic parameters of the satire, but it is also an effective mechanism of minimizing the distance between the readers and the characters. The reason for this is, in the first place, the easy access that blame-by-praise provides to the "reality" of the ironic conflict. But more than that, the very choice of repertoire building the "appearance" opens the door wide to the true picture of the world for it draws its resources from the discourse on behavioural patterns typical of Victorian society. Exposing them as a pretense, the conflict of meanings erodes their claim to psychological authenticity and moral superiority. Consider, for instance, Miss Pinkerton, the mistress of the Chiswick Academy for young ladies. The "Semiramis of Hammersmith," as the narrator calls her (1: 3), at first looks like the perfect embodiment of Aristotle's alazon. The repeated allusions in the opening chapter to her turban and Roman nose — emblems of her "boastful dissimulation" — serve to raise the verve of humour to the point of explosion. Nevertheless, Thackeray attacks Miss Pinkerton not so much for the incongruous airs she puts on as for her segregationalist attitude towards the girls in her institution. Her Academy is a replica of the Victorian world outside it, and each student is allocated a place corresponding to that held by her parents. Free indirect thought gives access to the economic logic that motivates Miss Pinkerton's refusal to give Becky a "Dixonary" as a farewell gift: "Miss Sedley's papa was a merchant in London, and a man of some wealth; while Miss Sharp was an articled pupil for whom Miss Pinkerton had done, as she thought, quite enough, without conferring upon her at parting the high honour of the Dixonary" (1: 6). As a shrewd economist, she makes the rich heiress Miss Swartz pay twice the normal fee, and calculates on Becky's doubling as an instructor of music without additional expense. Also, behind her farcical grandeur there lurks a true and socially active malevolence. Having kept a "file" on her former drawing-master and his daughter, she produces the crucial information against the new Mrs. Rawdon Crawley (20: 117) and so helps destroy the young couple's chances of winning the favours of Rawdon's wealthy aunt. With Mrs. Pinkerton's portrait so greatly enriched by its inclusion into the ethical and economic discourses, Becky's victory against her employer in the opening chapter of the novel becomes her first triumph, albeit on a small scale, in her spirited rebellion against the whole system. It turns the "little battle between the young lady and the old one" in which "the latter was worsted" (1: 25) into an event that appropriately consolidates Rebecca as the pivotal figure in the satire.
Yet it is again through verbal irony that Thackeray ambiguates Becky's status in the satiric framework of the novel and thus unsettles the belief that she might hold the clue to the novel's true meaning. Typically for the satiric structures, she begins as an eiron, exposing the corruption of a society inhospitable to a person without the credentials of inherited rank and wealth. The contrast between her well-deserved success and the ineffectuality of the people she manipulates highlights the differential and inclusive aspects of Thackeray's irony: what she gains through her own efforts is something else, and something more than what the world expects of her. That is why her story, rendered in consistently dramatic terms, becomes the organizing centre of the satire. As she rises in the world, however, blame-by-praise epithets become a stable part of her descriptive code and turn her into one more target of Thackeray's moral criticism. At the peak of her upward climb — her presentation to Court — she is referred to as "this angel," "our beloved Rebecca," "the virtuous Becky," "the dear girl" (48: 599-605). Satire and mirth remain well integrated throughout: the writer does not let comedy out of his grip, thus keeping the danger of the typically Victorian dogmatic censoriousness at bay. Laughter tinges the satire on Becky's social ambition even in the ingenious play with orthographic conventions. Thackeray can extract the maximum effect from his ironic ridicule by simply manipulating the use of capital letters, just as in The Yellowplush Papers he plays with the rules of spelling to enhance the impact of his social and moral satire. In Vanity Fair, he briefly launches into a castigating attack on George the Fourth, the meeting with whom is for Becky the symbolic event marking her victory in her battle to get to the coveted position (which, as an alazon, she believes she is entitled to). The satire on the King is based on the visual "enlargement" of the qualities falsely attributed to him by "polite" discourse: he is "that Great Character in history," "George the Good, the Magnificent, the Great" (48: 599)2. The effect, however, rests on more than visuality. The capital letters capture the inflections of the spoken discourse which high society has accepted as its communicative code and which Becky has mastered to perfection. Having therefore created and hyperbolized the ironic appearance by appropriating public discourse markers, Thackeray then stretches the margins of his satiric derision to embrace Becky, with the added ironic effect of the narrator's self-disparaging refusal to describe the summit of her rise:
What were the circumstances of the interview between Rebecca Crawley nee Sharp, and her Imperial Master, it does not become such a feeble and inexperienced pen as mine to attempt to relate. The dazzled eyes close before that Magnificent Idea. Loyal respect and decency tell even the imagination not to look too keenly and audaciously about the sacred audience-chamber, but to back away rapidly, silently, and respectfully, making profound bows out of the August Presence. (48: 604)
In the closing scene of the novel, the play with capitalization again comes to cast doubt both on Becky's allegedly recovered gentility and on the conventions that allow her to sustain that latest image in her new milieu. Reality and fiction become indistinguishable from each other as the grateful objects of her benevolence appear in the shape of titles of religious tracts: "Her name is in all the Charity Lists. The Destitute Orange-girl, the Neglected Washerwoman, the Distressed Muffin-man find in her a fast and generous friend" (67: 877). Conversely, with some other characters the absence of a capital letter can diminish conventional terms of social superiority: the Reverend Bute Crawley, Sir Pitt's brother and Rector of Queen Crawley, a man who dedicates his life to hunting, betting, and dining, becomes "the reverend gentleman," "his reverence" when he is involved in "solemn speculations" about his rich sister's long-awaited demise and the small likelihood of her leaving him any money (11: 124).
The regularity with which Thackeray uses blame-by-praise within the context of the phrase and sentence forms a rhythmical pattern which works in two ways, both crucial to the strategies of his satire yet anchored in irony's inclusive dimensions. On the one hand, it conditions the reader to expect and enact the reversal of meaning openly invited by this structure. More importantly, however, it bars the escape route from the polite world's discourse, inasmuch as the substitution of the hypocritically benevolent "appearances" with their opposites leads only to complicity with the malevolence of Miss Pinkerton and her social kin. As an interpretive and moral aporia, blame-by-praise functions in conjunction with another pattern that linguistically enacts the conflict and the coexistence of meanings in irony's dramatic structure. This is the paradox or non-sequitur where the presentation of an action is hybridized with the presentation of its motive or its consequence in overtly contradictory terms. Thus Cuff, the "unquestioned king" of Dr. Swishtail's school, "ruled over his subjects, and bullied them, with splendid superiority" (5: 50). When, surprisingly, he is disobeyed by Dobbin the grocer's son contemptuously known as "Figs" — he is somewhat intimidated, to the point that "he never meddled personally with the grocer's boy after that; though we must do him the justice to say that he always spoke of Mr. Dobbin with contempt behind his back" (ibid.). Or take George's sisters, who boast about their treatment of the despised Amelia: "We are kind to her," the Misses Osborne said — and they treated her with such extreme kindness and condescension, and patronised her so insufferably, that the poor little thing was in fact perfectly dumb in their presence, and to all outward appearance as stupid as they thought her" (12: 132). The narrator makes a jibe at the harmony in the Reverend Bute Crawley's household, revealing the mercenary wisdom of the person who takes the merit for it, Mrs. Bute Crawley. A woman who won her future husband over a game of cards with her mother, she subsequently "ruled absolutely within the Rectory, wisely giving her husband full liberty without. He was welcome to come and go, and dine abroad as many days as his fancy dictated, for Mrs. Crawley was a saving woman and knew the price of port wine" (11: 114). And the young Pitt Crawley, who hopes for a brilliant diplomatic career, "failed somehow, in spite of a mediocrity that ought to have insured any man a success (9: 100).
What these examples show is that the fallacious logic which creates Thackeray's recurring ironic hybrids is not just comic artifice with a function limited to the level of rhetoric. Such paradoxical statements are a textual reflection of the very disjunctions in the discourses of power that pervade the community that uses them. It is hardly surprising that G. H. Lewes found himself so deeply disturbed by the most notorious of them, Becky's "I think could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year" (Letters, II: 353)1. Although they belong formally to "telling" rather than to "showing," they are in fact miniature scenes in which the personages literally enact ironic conflicts that combine two untruths, both of which are seen by Thackeray as the ideological underpinnings of Victorian mentality and morality. Thus, neither the faces the participants in the Fair turn towards the looking-glass of their world nor the reflections it casts back to them turn out to be authentic: the virtues they profess, such as respect, affection and compassion, are exposed as mere verbal masks, but the approval and admiration they attract are shown as equally sham.
This radical incoherence of the discursive world of the Fair comes out in the very syntax of Thackeray's non-sequiturs. The illogical connectors in the examples above bring into focus the combination of a cliched language that offers tongue-in-cheek praise for the characters with actions which are true to their selfish motives but false with regard to the standards of genuine morality. This ironic conflict is often further highlighted by snaps of indirect discourse that "echo" formulaic moralistic pronouncements coming either from the characters themselves or from the social talk of the polite society they move in. The irony produced by the non-sequiturs thus serves the novel's realist aims by defamiliarizing the conventional formulae with which society "reflects" the equally conventionalized self-portraits that its members show each other. Peter Garrett's observation that "Thackeray claims for his work a negative, or relative realism: its "truth" is perceived through the displacement of falsifying conventions" can therefore be applied not only, as he suggests, to the overall parodic intention of the novel (117) but also to the satiric exposure of the duplicity, both in its verbal and affective forms, that typifies human interaction in Vanity Fair.
The effect of Thackeray's non-sequiturs becomes especially powerful when they are combined with other stylistic devices typically employed in satire — repetition and enumeration. Their cumulative effect makes the ironic conflict even more pronounced. An excellent example of this is the Countess of Fitz-Willis, who briefly appears on the stage when Becky has reached the very apex of her upward rise. The Countess, a minor personage, participates in a short narrative sequence which dramatizes the concept of worldliness and serves to expose the moral inauthenticity of English social order. The narrator begins characteristically with pretended immersion in the discourse which equates social prestige with moral worth:
Here, before long, Becky received not only "the best" foreigners (as the phrase is in our noble and admirable society slang) but some of the best English people too. I don't mean the most virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but "the best" — in a word people about whom there is no question. (51: 636)
The repetition ad absurdum of "best" builds a gradation that culminates on the pretended agreement with the ironic victim's ideology. In the final account, the concept of goodness loses its meaning, while the clash between actual fact and the ideology that proclaims the likes of the Countess as "the best" reveals society's failure to recognize moral worth. Added to the repetition and enumeration is also the overuse of superlatives which, in conjunction with the familiar ironic device of pretended defense of the victim, enlarges the appearance to grotesque proportions. The Countess's name is then almost casually dropped among the list of the august personages who form Becky's new circle of acquaintances and all of whom are presented through aptronyms. There is also the pseudo-authenticating reference to another list — the registers of British aristocracy Debrett and Burke's Peerage:
the great Lady Fitz-Willis, that Patron Saint of Almack's, the great Lady Slowbore, the great Lady Grizzel Macbeth (she was Lady G. Glowry, daughter of Lord Grey of Glowery) and the like. When the Countess of Fitz-Willis (her Ladyship is of the King Street family, see Debrett and Burke) takes up a person he or she is safe. There is no question about them any more. (ibid.)
And even when the narrator sets out to describe the Countess's actual personality in greater detail, he still ends up using the resources of the same "polite" discourse, thus baring its inner contradictions. The generalizing superlative "best" now stands in open conflict with the truth:
Not that my Lady Fitz-Willis is any better than anybody else, being, on the contrary, a faded person, fifty-seven years of age, and neither handsome, nor wealthy, nor entertaining: but it is agreed on all sides that she is of the "best people." (ibid.)
Having thus differentiated the character's physical and behavioural portrait from her socially acknowledged position of eminence, the narrator then proceeds in the same vein to dramatize the ironic conflict of meanings by bringing the Countess in textual and physical contact with Becky, only to end with the typical non-sequitur:
Those who go to her are of the best: and from an old grudge probably to Lady Steyne (for whose coronet her Ladyship, then the youthful Georgina Frederica, daughter of the Prince of Wales's favourite, the Earl of Portansherry, had once tried), this great and famous leader of fashion chose to acknowledge Mrs. Rawdon Crawley: made her a most marked curtsey at the assembly over which she presided: and not only encouraged her son, Sir Kitts (his Lordship got his place through Lord Steyne's interest), to frequent Mrs. Crawley's house, but asked her to her own mansion, and spoke to her twice in the most public and condescending manner during dinner. (ibid.)
The overall effect of the whole sequence is that of satiric exaggeration, yet it gains authority through structures that ostensibly obey the rules of argumentation, according to which a general truth is substantiated by concrete examples. The fallacious logic thus works to ambiguate and enlarge the scope of the ironic conflict: it is played not just between individual behavioral models but, more importantly, between socially sanctioned ideological fixtures and discourses, claiming for them the status of unquestionable truths while revealing their vacuity.
Throughout the novel, Thackeray relentlessly stages irony's dramatic structure in a like manner for any character, especially if he or she is a member of the crowd that elbows its way in Vanity Fair. But even the exceptions — those who seem to carry the virtues that provide the satirist's measuring rod — are not spared. There is, for instance, the almost Dickensian Mrs. O'Dowd, who looks like a reliable, if rather comic, embodiment of warm-hearted good-will and integrity. Yet she is as much of an alazon as everyone else, for her behaviour is saturated with instances of inflated self-importance. For all her kind-heartedness and resilience in the face of adversity, she is a stranger to modesty and reticence. But while her "boastful dissimulation" is the source of much hilarious comedy, Thackeray does not exclude her from his satire because he sees in her a more fundamental fault. Like Amelia, though in a radically different behavioural form, Mrs. O'Dowd is an exemplar of the blind loyalty that blurs her otherwise clear vision. She unproblematically extends her praises from husband, regiment, King and Country to her family on her father's side, the Malonys, "whom she believed to be the most famous family in the world" (27: 328). Her pet themes of Ireland, Dublin and the Malonys, as well as her recurring tag-phrases and Irish brogue define her as yet another embodiment of vanity, however harmless in her case that might be. Never doubting the rightness of her judgement, in which family and native country are one up on everybody else, Mrs. O'Dowd cuts a ridiculous figure wherever she moves, as, for instance, at the Opera in Brussels, where "she favoured her friends with these and other opinions in a very loud tone of voice, and tossed about a great clattering fan she sported, with the most splendid complacency" (29: 348).
Examples like the last one point to one of the greatest difficulties in interpreting the irony of Vanity Fair. With the maximum possible contrast as its structural principle, verbal irony provides the audience with an easy confidence that they can effortlessly lift the mask of hypocrisy that has become society's casual wear. What satire requires, however, is that the reader can then step back, or rather, rise above the object of criticism and examine it from a safe remove. The case of the seemingly sympathetic character of Mrs. O'Dowd, or of Raggles, Becky's apparently innocent victim, is typical of the way Thackeray's work fails to sustain that consoling distance. As the first-time readers were quick to observe, Vanity Fair shifts the response away from its apparent subject — the principles on which English society is structured and which determine its functioning — onto the obviously inexhaustible area of human behaviour in general. Unsurprisingly, in her otherwise applauding review of the book, Elizabeth Rigby pleaded for "a little exaggeration and improbability to relieve us of that sense of dead truthfulness which weighs down our hearts, not for the Amelias and Georges of the story but for poor kindred human nature . . . . Every actor on the crowded stage of Vanity Fair represents some type of that perverse mixture of humanity in which there is something not wholly to approve of or to condemn" (in Tillotson and Hawes: 65). Elizabeth Rigby was voicing the common accusation of misanthropy that invariably accompanied the laudatory comments on the novel's realism and its author's brilliancy of style and portraiture. As Polhemus points out (148), in spite of his pronounced disaffection with Swift's bitterness, Thackeray was in fact placed by his early readers closer to the author of Gulliver's Travels than he liked to think. W. C. Roscoe recognized the affinity in 1856: "As Swift rakes in dirt, so Thackeray in meanness . . . we know that meanness and baseness are in our own natures; but the true way to deal with them is, looking upwards, to tread them under foot, not to go scraping about with our noses to the ground and taking credit for our humility and honesty when we lay them bare" (in Tillotson and Hawes: 280). Perhaps less unambiguously than his predecessor, Thackeray, too, was claimed to have made human wickedness seem not only universal but also inescapable.
There is, nevertheless, a fundamental difference between Thackeray and Swift that needs to be recognized. It resides in the way Vanity Fair deals with human imperfection through the mechanism of satiric irony. The alleged "meanness and baseness" are here exhibited as aspects not so much of human beings as a biological species as of the habitual behavioural and discursive practices within a society wholly engaged in the pursuit of a happiness that can, as contemporary psychology has come to recognize, be defined only relationally. If some kind of essentialism can be seen in Thackeray's attitude to his satiric subject, as Rigby and Roscoe, and in the twentieth century Rawlins and Wheatley seem to suggest throughout their respective studies, it is, of course, in his equalization of human nature with vanity. Yet each person's individual vanity can only be discovered in his or her performance of a social role played in an interaction between unequals and can be expressed in the terms that are socially agreed upon. As Wheatley himself points out, "[c]ant and hypocrisy, his favourite targets, are "formal" vices, for they depend on rigidified codes of language and behaviour" (80).3 This attention to social action, both linguistic and physical, impels the narrator of Vanity Fair first to name the ironic appearance according to the vocabulary of polite discourse and then to dramatize it. Of course, supporting every claim with incontrovertible evidence is the method of the empiricist and not of the satirist; that is why Wheatley can argue that Thackeray's novel rises out of the uneasy juxtaposition between satire and realism (56-59). Indeed, recruiting its resources exclusively from socially disseminated discursive practices, Thackeray's ironic strategy works towards an end where explicit formulation of the reality cannot escape the trap of those same practices. Its rhetorical power makes such a comprehensive sweeping gesture over the discursive repertoire from which the appearance draws its expressive means that little opportunity is left for any corrective reversal that could be appropriately formulated. At the same time, the plane on which the extreme exploitation of irony's transdiscursive aspects takes place in Vanity Fair allows a new line of inquiry: on how discourses are made and on the forms that allow them to circulate and vie for power not only within the realm of social interaction, but within that of literature itself.
From the very first appearance of the novel in monthly parts, critics have been quick to recognize that Thackeray's satire in Vanity Fair turns against the very fictions, circulating in his contemporary society and nurtured within its literary discourse, which perpetuate the desire to identify with a false ideal. As Flamm notes (8), the undisguised anti-literary drive was, in fact, what Thackeray's contemporary reviewers noticed and praised about his novel. The running motif in all the first comments is well expressed by G. H. Lewes: Vanity Fair, he wrote, made a break with "the phantasmagoria of the stage and the circulating library" (in Tillotson and Hawes: 48). In the twentieth century, Kathleen Tillotson, Charles Manskopf, John Loofbourow and Barbara Hardy, among others, convincingly argued that Vanity Fair's negative truths can be properly assessed only when the novel is read as a satiric rejection not only of vice and folly but of popular fictional stereotypes as well. If, as Frye says, "one of the central themes of the [ironic and satiric] mythos is the disappearance of the heroic" (228), Vanity Fair, this "Novel without a Hero," then musters all the power of irony to sever the affective link between the world of ordinary, everyday existence and the dreamlands of fashionable romance.
The form which from the very start of his writing career Thackeray found most congenial to his campaign against the romanticizing of life was parody of fashionable styles and novels — Silver Fork, Newgate, sentimental family romances and melodrama. Compared to its predecessors Catherine, Barry Lyndon, Rebecca and Rowena and the Novels by Eminent Hands¶, the last of which ran concurrently with Vanity Fair — Thackeray's famous masterpiece contains fewer instances of what has been defined as "specific parody" (Rose: 83), whose effectiveness depends on the reader's knowledge of the parodied work. Only one passage in Chapter 6 makes overt allusions to the formulaic principles of popular fiction: "We might have treated this subject [the likelihood of Jos proposing to Rebecca] in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner . . . . But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story" (6: 60-61). From a narrowly intertextual perspective, therefore, Vanity Fair seems almost completely self-reliant, yet all the time its "general parody" — that is, ironic allusions to the discursive and rhetorical conventions of romance — catalyzes its critical energy and thus functions as the essential constituent of its narrative function.
Parody in Vanity Fair resonates with the clash between the appearance inherent in clichéd formulations and the reality of verisimilar presentation of character and action. It foregrounds the spuriousness of the heroic ideal, as in the sequence introducing Amelia: "her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes that sparkled with the brightest and honestest of good-humour" (1: 7). Commenting on this initial description of the novel's protagonist, Iser rightly argues that the clichés "achieve their purpose precisely by depriving the character of its representative nature" (107). It is difficult, however, to agree with Iser's further claim that since Amelia is the novel's heroine, the parody disorients the readers by not allowing them to identify with her (107). On the contrary: the cliches actually prompt the reader to recognize the unreality of the stereotype of "the lovely imbecile" which provided popular nineteenth-century romance with one of its chief structural and ideological fundamentals (Dalziel: 84).
A remarkable example of the way in which parody insinuates itself into the appearance of the ironic conflict between romantic idealization and non-heroic human actuality is the episode in which Sir Pitt Crawley proposes marriage to Rebecca. A member of British landed aristocracy, Sir Pitt is the grotesquely vulgar antipode of the idealized image of
the Nobleman as portrayed by popular romance. The initial glimpse of him is of a man in drab breeches and gaiters, with a dirty old coat, a foul neckcloth lashed round his bristly neck, a shining bald head, a leering red face, a pair of twinkling grey eyes, and a mouth perpetually on the grin. [7: 78]
At the appropriate moment in the proposal scene, Thackeray recalls this ludicrous portrait: kneeling before the girl as he makes her his offer, Sir Pitt "leered at her like a satyr" (14: 178). The grotesque is then swiftly raised to the highest possible sublime where it is turned into an ironic appearance. The elevation takes place alongside an expansion of the context of the irony: the narrator's metafictional comment on the scene musters the additional authority of conventional allegory to criticize the absurdity of both the objects of romantic desire — the Nobleman and the Fair Maiden — and the stereotypical situation in which romance places them and the reader:
Every reader of a sentimental turn (and we desire no other) must have been pleased with the tableau with which the last act our little drama concluded; for what can be prettier than an image of Love on his knees before Beauty? [15: 179]
The appearance is then flung back with a resounding thud to the low level where the descriptive code was initiated. The allegorical Beauty and Love resume their human forms. However, not only does the scene cancel the possibility of a happy union between them — the ultimate destination of the Love-Beauty conjunction — but the narrator goes further to support his rejection of stereotypes through a quick series of intensely perceptible, contrasting sensory impressions:
But when Love heard that awful confession from Beauty that she was married already, he bounced up from his attitude of humility on the carpet, uttering exclamations which caused poor little Beauty to be more frightened than she was when she made her avowal. . . . "So the rascal ran off, eh?" Sir Pitt said, with a hideous attempt at consolation . . . . Saying which, Rebecca went down on her knees in a most tragical way, and taking Sir Pitt's horny black hand between her own two (which were very pretty and white, and soft as satin), looked up in his face with an expression of exquisite pathos and confidence. (ibid.)
This sequence might be taken for sheer farce if Sir Pitt were not a figure originating not just in Thackeray's antiliterary endeavour but in his social criticism as well. The Baronet's entrance on the scene of the novel hs earlier in the novel provoked the narrator into a sarcastic invective against a social structure that not only tolerates but actually upholds the supremacy of a corrupt and degenerate landed gentry. In this open denunciation of inherited status, the stylistic features — the encyclopaedic list of personal and social characteristics, the overt negation, the sarcasm — unmistakably signal satire:
Vanity Fair! Vanity Fair! Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettyfogging; who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul: and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers courted him, and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue. [9: 102-03]
Textually, the proposal scene places Sir Pitt at its focus, but through the deft blending of the social and the literary targets of his irony, Thackeray manages to include Becky into its scope as well. This happens in spite of the fact that throughout the sequence she successfully mimics and herself parodies the stereotype of the romance heroine. Yet, for the first time in her life she has miscalculated and, by marrying Rawdon rather than his father, has made the greatest mistake in her life. Correspondingly, for the first and only time in the novel Thackeray shows her capable of fear and unable to hide it: "Rebecca started back a picture of consternation" (14: 178). But even as she regains her presence of mind, she already moves into the realm of satire, for her panic originates not so much in the fact that she has misplaced her bets as in her disappointment that she cannot marry this particular nobleman, horny and black like his hand as he may be. It is notable that all the men over whom she chooses to cast her net — Jos, Sir Pitt, Rawdon, Lord Steyne, and even her disreputable consorts from her Continental period — cut physically or mentally grotesque and repulsive figures. Yet Rebecca "reads" them as mere emblems of the kind of life to which she aspires. Although in manipulating their feelings she is indeed "a very clever woman" (10: 111), her hubris makes of her another alazon.4 Unlike Amelia, she does not derive her notions about society and its ways from fashionable romance, yet she too, despite her callous pragmatism, succumbs to the mechanics of conventionalized desire. Like Amelia, who weeps "over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid" (1: 8), Becky in the proposal scene sheds "some of the most genuine tears that ever fell from her eyes" (14: 178). And because it is her own "fashionable" novel that her tears fall over, she is subsumed under the satirist's condemnation.
Parody in Vanity Fair functions as the controlling force not only of individual dramatic scenes but also of the narrative design as a whole. Vanity Fair, like indeed all of Thackeray's mature novels, occupies a unique place in English fiction up to the eighteen-fifties (and largely after that) in that it excludes the principle of suspense. This fact alone provides evidence of Thackeray's conscious and consistent anti-romantic realist aesthetic, which, starting with his earliest novel Catherine, he applied with the militancy of a dedicated warrior. His very reliance on individual character and personal history as the only justification of narrative logic reflects a conviction that truth involves rejecting providentiality as the governing principle of human existence.5 But narrative in Vanity Fair is not conceived as a simple negative statement: its substance or "texture," as Loofbourow has shown (23 ff.), is made up of various combinations and permutations of the elements familiar from the structures of criminal and chivalric romance and popular melodrama. What is more, parody supplants the missing narrative links in the novel: sequences of sentimental day-dreaming align the first parts of the two contrasted heroines' stories, while the physical disparity and the psychological sameness of the male objects of their desire — George and Jos — serve to debunk the convention itself. Marriage — the traditional ending of romance — comes before the novel has even reached its middle, and enables the writer to explore the various forms of dysfunctional relationship between the partners. Also, in Thackeray's ironic remodelling of conventional narrative patterns, cause and effect relationships, whose strict logic and transparency build the plot of fashionable fiction, take a different shape. They are often camouflaged, as in Dobbin's acting as "the messenger of Hymen" (the title of Chapter 20) when he is in fact engineering an unhappy marriage, or they are simulated, as in Becky's producing George's letter when Amelia, all by herself, has already found the strength to call Dobbin back and to bring about the "happy" ending.
Plot, George Levine says in his discussion of the Victorian realist novel,
as the bearer of desire, is the means by which the extreme — or the "orgasmic" — enters narrative, and in the quest both for truth and for civilising morality which the novel was attempting to confirm, the extreme was banished with plot. The monstrous, domesticated by Austen, exorcised by Scott, is, in Thackeray, transformed into banality. [146-47]
"Banality" aptly defines the ideological tenet towards which Thackeray orients his parody as a strategic narrative form in Vanity Fair. Romance as a whole, and in particular the fairy-tale pattern adopted by nineteenth-century popular fiction, is a palimpsest whose signs have not been completely obliterated in this novel. They keep cropping up as ironic echoes in the allegorical images of Love and Beauty from the episode discussed above, in the gold and glitter and the stately coach in the opening paragraph with their reminiscences of the Cinderella story, but mostly in the selection and the arrangement of the narrative material. Becky musters all her charms to tame her Beasts and almost succeeds. Amelia sleeps her youthful days in expectation of her Fairy Prince George, who soon arrives on the scene. But above all, it is Becky's career that suggests an analogy between her struggle against the powerful social mechanism that seeks to exclude her and the motif of a battle against superhuman or supernatural foes which is a staple element of the fairy-tale.6 And while her victories enhance her stature, her ultimate fall becomes even more shattering to romantic desire, especially since the only monster she succeeds in vanquishing turns out to be the degenerate weakling Jos Sedley.
The intertextual frame thus motivates the narrative rhythm: what to Ermarth (21-22) seems like a purely paratactic arrangement of the narrative units in Vanity Fair, is in fact a constant ironic reversal and subversion of the ideological constituents of romance. Thackeray does not merely, as Kathleen Tillotson asserts, turn "away . . . from heroes and heroines, from the conventional ending, from the . . . professional parts of novels'" (235). He engages his fiction in a constant dialogic relationship with conventions that extend from literary stereotypes to fossilized ideological patterns. And by doing this, he positions his ironic conflicts of meaning firmly within discourse, using them as a strategy to investigate and assert ordinariness as the defining characteristic of the real.
As already pointed out, many twentieth-century critics have noticed that there is more to the whole configuration of relationships between what Vanity Fair presents as reality and as appearance than can be covered by the consideration of the writer's satiric and parodic intentions and their execution. The very outset of the novel announces a radical expansion of the field of the neat antiphrastic opposition, set by verbal irony, between moral and ethical polarities and by the comedy so fundamental to Thackeray's satire. The statement with which the Manager of the Performance begins his "Before the Curtain" opens up additional perspectives: the emotion, he says, that overcomes him at the sight of his own spectacle is one of "profound melancholy" (21). The sad tonality announced here is the same that permeates the famous ending of the novel: "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or having it, is satisfied?" (67: 878). This tonal frame sets and sustains the associative link with the novel's other obvious intertextual source apart from Bunyan: the Book of Ecclesiastes. The closing words of Vanity Fair practically repeat the Biblical Preacher's generalizations: "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Eccl. 1: 14) or "For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yeah, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity" (Eccl. 2: 22-23). Yet Ecclesiastes supplies Vanity Fair with only the theme of philosophic irony. Its development, as few critics have failed to notice since the book was first published, is a source of tension, relativism and even nihilism. Lougy (64) and Ermarth (21), for instance, have claimed that Thackeray asserts the absolute supremacy of a fickle Fate that holds the characters in a tight grip, denying them the gratification of personal development or fulfillment. Furthermore, assertion that all human effort is transitory and contingent in fact the rejects the moral certitude and the corrective impetus of the reality of satiric irony. Thus the salient presence of madness in Vanity Fair as "an essential rather than accidental attribute of the human condition" (Lougy: 66) indicates a fundamental conflict between the satiric and metaphysical aspects in the very concept of vanity. In social terms, the novel presents madness as a norm, yet in psychological terms it is an aberration. Aligning his voice with that of the Biblical preacher, the narrator — and here it would be safe to say, Thackeray himself — seems to project an ironic outlook as "infinite absolute negativity" which undermines the very process of meaning-creation, at the same time supplying the ironist with a protective shield against the destructive impact of his reality.
In the novelist's hands, however, the existential problematic is not only a theme but also the origin of a discursive strategy which employs irony to enrich the meanings produced by satire and gives rise to some of the most striking effects in the novel. As already pointed out, Thackeray's satiric irony cuts into the very principle on which capitalist society is built — that of the free market where everything and everybody turns into a commodity. What the novel lashes against is not just the effect of the endless competition for material goods and a higher social status, but also the absolutization of money as the supreme ruler of human life. Philosophic irony, on the other hand, offers a counterbalance, yet it does so without recourse to a transcendent God. Instead, the measure of all things that it offers is Time. Time is indeed the only absolute in this work where everything else is subject to the arbitrariness of the market. That is why history — the passage of time seen in its human dimensions, both public and private — best exposes all human vanity.
Historical narrative in Vanity Fair organizes itself around the relational and inclusive dimensions of ironic meaning: with time, everything becomes something else and something more, but is never wholly eliminated. Thackeray's "puppets" do not change intrinsically, but as they grow old, they become less destructive to themselves and to others, the excesses of their desires less sharp-edged. George's love letter reappears after fifteen years but it has lost its power to wound or to heal . . . the emotionally mature Amelia, who has learned the lesson of humility, has already written to Dobbin, asking him to come back. George's presence in her life has been exorcised by herself (Becky's help comes belatedly), and time cured Dobbin, too, of his blind devotion, so he takes Amelia with a sober awareness of her weaknesses. Even for Becky, who alone in this novel seems impervious to time, retrospection lays bare the truth: "Becky, who penetrated into the very centre of fashion, and saw the great George IV face to face, has owned since that there too was Vanity" (51: 637; italics added). What Jean Sudrann says of Thackeray's earlier Barry Lyndon is quite applicable to Vanity Fair too: "He has written a novel which, through its vision of the human condition as man's life in time, diminishes the urgency for the punishment of evil perpetrated by individual men while at no time does it ask us to excuse or condone the moral flaw" (363).
The ultimate destination of personal history is death and, as Knoepflmacher points out, death in Vanity Fair is "the only true vanquisher of vanity" (82). Its vision blunts the differential edge of satiric irony; pathos, rather than comedy, Bruce Redwine notes (659-660), suffuses the narrator's language in all the death scenes in the novel. The memento mori motif, constantly kept in view by the perspective of philosophic irony, supplants satire's antitheses with the all-comprising difference between "then" and "now," but at the same time emphasizes their mutual relationship. The interdependence of past and present serves as a major internal norm of the narrative rhythm in Vanity Fair. In a digression in Chapter 19, apropos of the imploring and hence self-humiliating letters written by Becky's unfortunate father and by Becky herself and kept by Miss Pinkerton for future use, the narrator introduces and then ironically qualifies the meanings inherent in the two temporal coordinates: "Perhaps in Vanity Fair there are no better satires than letters," he says,
Take a bundle of your dear friend's of ten years back — your dear friend whom you now hate. Look at a file of your sister's! how you clung to each other till you quarrelled about the twenty-pound legacy! . . . . Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while! There ought to be a law in Vanity Fair ordering the destruction of every written document (except receipted tradesmen's bills) after a certain brief and proper interval. Those quacks and misanthropes who advertise indelible Japan ink should be made to perish along with their wicked discoveries. The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else. (19: 178)
The passage reveals one of the central assertions of philosophic irony in Vanity Fair, repeated in the stories of each of its protagonists and recognized by those who are shown approaching death: time does not heal the spirit but enforces the painful recognition of its past errors, thus taking on the role of the supreme ironist.
Thackeray's philosophic irony endows all selfish pleasures and ambitions but also all material possessions with a double mode of existence: in the context of satire, they are the reality that the world of the Fair recognizes but also hides behind a mask of Christian virtue. Contrariwise, from the cosmic perspective of memento mori, they are merely an appearance, a semblance of happiness. Genuine fulfillment of the self is only partially possible and comes only to those who can, at least to some degree, recognize the temporality of individual experience. It comes to Dobbin, though a final ironic twist qualifies even this one victory over the standards of the Fair: "seizing up his little Janey, of whom he is fonder than anything else in the world fonder even of his "History of the Punjaub," or to Amelia, who has to live with the knowledge that she is no longer Dobbin's idol: "Fonder than he is of me," Emmy thinks, with a sigh (67: 877). To those like Sir Pitt Crawley, who lack the inner resources to face the Death's head early enough, all-presiding time brings a farcical second childhood: "For this was all that was left after more than seventy years of cunning and struggling, and drinking, and scheming, and sin and selfishness a whimpering old idiot put in and out of bed and cleaned and fed like a baby" (40: 515).
The infusion of the existential problematic with irony also affects Thackeray's handling of material detail in Vanity Fair. One of the main reasons why this novel is even to this day perceived as unquestionably and thoroughly realistic is that it is based on the strict and consistent referentiality of its particularities. Action and character are always firmly located, temporally, topographically and geographically, in an environment built out of precisely selected and clearly ordered details — the bench right next to the door of the Brussels ballroom, where George in Chapter 19 hurries to leave Amelia and from where she can observe the goings-on between her husband and Becky, but fails to notice the billet-doux in the bouquet; the ribbons of the eponymously known Miss Horrocks, whom the gardener catches in his orchard "eating peaches in a sunshiny morning at the south wall" — an infringement on his property that results in his own dismissal and eviction (39: 502). The same Ribbons/Miss Horrocks acts as sentinel to Sir Pitt's room and meets visitors at the door of the housekeeper's room "which commanded the back entrance by which they were admitted" (39: 503). Temporality acquires specific representation in the "scarce three lines of silver in [Amelia's] soft brown hair" which Dobbin notes as he sees her again after his ten-year absence (58: 742). These and numerous other details are placed with the accuracy of the graphic artist that Thackeray had initially planned to be. The world of Vanity Fair is indeed a whole made out of "pen and pencil sketches," as the novel's original subtitle was, where chronology is constructed out of changes in material reality brought about by time. It is this double temporal allegiance that makes this reality more than just a prop in the dramatic scenes where it is referred to. In Thackeray's version of Vanity Fair, the significance of things becomes, as Barbara Hardy rightly points out (96), "suspect" since they are expressive of the values of the Fair rather than of human needs. But their status as commodities liable to become objects of fetishism is also infused with a temporality that nourishes the historical drive of the narrative. Material things are treated as possessions that appear, disappear, and reappear, like Jos's portrait or the little desk, Becky's present from Amelia. They change hands like the Indian shawl which Dobbin has given Amelia as a gift and which, as the very last resort, she sells for twenty guineas in order to buy Georgy books as a Christmas gift — the books, as the narrator says, "extant to this day" (46: 586). Or like Becky's jewellery, with which her maid Fifine absconds the night after the catastrophe. While time does not affect the materiality of objects, it changes people's relationship with them. The onward movement of time is marked by the transformation of "having" possessions to "losing" them. And because the marketplace commodifies not only objects but people as well, the human reality is also subject to the effect of temporal instability where past, present and future engender meanings that enter in ironic relationship with each other. In the context of satire with its emphasis on the present moment, objects and people are either reified — that is, turned into seemingly immortal fetishes or idols — or commodified and put on the stalls for sale. Philosophic irony, on the other hand, gives them life in time, so that although their essence, and hence their denotation, remains the same, they undergo a connotative change. As a result, Vanity Fair constructs a highly motivated mimesis of empirical reality: its details, especially the material ones, are always related to individual, and therefore t ransitory, desire.
"Particulars," Levine says in The Realistic Imagination, "are the instrument of disenchantment" (153). Andrew H. Miller also notices the dialectical content that infuses Thackeray's world of objects, its inscription into a "dynamic of desire and disenchantment" (26). The very matrix of Thackeray's plotless novel is provided by this dynamic, with its downward psychic direction. This is all the more remarkable when we realize that in spite of its impression of profusion and variety, the world of objects in Vanity Fair is made by surprisingly few classes. It is built almost exclusively of things that serve as exchangeable commodities, like the diamonds Becky hoards or the Indian shawl which Amelia sells, or as status symbols, like the stately coaches whose presence punctuates and underscores Becky's upward rise and subsequent fall. It is their connotative potential as symbols of change that charts the work's narrative geometry, initiated as early as in the opening paragraph and infused with a powerful architectonic potential:
While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate, and as he pulled the bell, at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognised the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room. (1: 3)
In no more than three sentences, the passage manages to make Amelia's and Becky's departure from Chiswick Mall an event of overpowering physical concreteness. It comes forth through the insistence on the calendar and the clock, on sizes, shapes, numbers and primary colours. These details set up a code which, at every moment further on, authenticates the time and the place of the events described. But the very choice of particularities indicates that their function is more than mimetic, for they represent recognizable status symbols and so initiate the satiric pattern of the novel. At the same time their subsequent rhythmic recurrence turns them into coordinates in the two contrasting lines of narrative progression, with their contrapuntal distribution of climaxes and anticlimaxes. For Amelia, the blazing gold in the light and the coach starts an ironically inverted Cinderella story that will bring her down from the riches she now takes for granted to the rags from which she is rescued only by the serendipitous return of Jos, grotesquely transmogrified into a Fairy Godmother. Conversely, in Becky's case the ignominious departure from the Academy with its "great iron gate" is the beginning of her enactment of a heroic myth, an upward rise culminating in her entry into the much statelier Gaunt House and subsequently into the Royal Palace, where she arrives in Pitt's emblazoned family coach. The final collapse of Becky's dream takes place amidst the rumble of Lord Steyne's barouche in Rome: the grotesque vulgarity of Madame de Belladona, Lord Steyne's new mistress and Rebecca's satirically inverted doppelganger, offers a fitting anticlimactic ending to the myth of worldly success that she has believed in. The opening paragraph also sets up a contrast of light and darkness which, too, condenses narrative possibilities that will be developed later on. Steeped in the opening passage in June blaze and the sunshine of her affluent cosseted youth, Amelia will sink to the darkness that "fell down on the field and the city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart" (32: 406). Conversely, Becky, the "girl of whom no one took any notice" (1: 9), will be invariably placed in a brightly-lit environment — up to and including the discovery scene, when Rawdon, returning to his house on that fateful evening, sees that "the drawing-room windows were blazing with light" (53: 675). Flowers, too, will surround Becky as signifiers of her seductive power and emblems of victory: the "bow-pot" she does not get from Chiswick Mall is more than made up for by the bouquets her admirers heap on her wherever she goes. The natural, potted red geraniums in Miss Pinkerton's windows will find their mock-pastoral, parodic echo in the sentimental song "The rose upon my balcony" which Becky sings at Gaunt House (51: 651). By contrast, the bouquet George does not buy for his wife in Brussels marks the moment when Amelia realizes the reality of the breakdown of her romantic dream of love and marriage.
In a letter to David Masson Thackeray voiced his objections to Dickens's aesthetic principle of using symbolism to elevate the emotional response: "in a drawing-room drama, a coat is a coat, and a poker is a poker; and must be nothing else according to my ethics, not an embroidered tunic, nor a great red-hot instrument like the Pantomime weapon" (Letters, II: 772). Thackeray's objects are indeed always functional in a pragmatic sense, yet because in Vanity Fair they are commodities, they take on a symbolic value for those who own or desire them. "For the characters in Vanity Fair," writes Andrew H. Miller, "the profane world is not sanctified; objects acquire a libidinal content rather than a religious one and derive their "power," or significance, from being desired . . . Fact and value, object and meaning, are related subjectively in Thackeray's world, according to discourses of solipsistic pleasure" (36). Like Johnson's "Dixonary" from the opening chapter, in this crassly materialistic universe of selfish desire, satire, parody and cosmic irony embed houses and horses, coaches and cushions, parasols and poodles, bouquets and books, glitter and glamour, into social and discursive practices, and to the ideologies that underpin them.7 That is why objects in Vanity Fair become also the points of orientation in the novel's intricate system of contrasts, and especially in that between the two protagonists.
Becky and Amelia are never allowed to stand in the same relation to the material expressions of desire, though they begin from the same point. What is true of Becky during her stay with the Sedleys is valid for Amelia too: both build castles in the air, "with a husband somewhere in the background" (3: 26), though Becky places in hers diamond necklaces, while Amelia fills it with flower-gardens and rustic walks (13: 148). But once the marriages are a fact, the two girls' paths diverge not only in spatial and social terms but also with regard to their respective attitude to and conduct in the material world. Amelia's individuality, as Hardy notes, largely depends on the fact that she "stands apart from the mercantile values" (101): her form of vanity expresses itself in worshipping things of no practical worth but with a high nostalgic content — George's sash, the piano she mistakenly thinks of as "George's piano," the portrait of her husband, even Georgy's composition on Selfishness. Becky, on the other hand, is a fetishist of commodities that seem to have no history. The only true relics she preserves, out of sheer amusement, are George's billet doux and Jos's portrait — and they are, to refer to Hardy again, only parodies of genuine relics (102).
But the material necessities of everyday existence are also involved in the contrast between the girls' opportunities and their realization, a contrast proceeding from Ecclesiastes' skeptical denial of absolute happiness — or its opposite. Thus even the most ordinary of objects can initiate a dramatic irony whose edge cuts into the central narrative and ideological structures of the novel. The objects around which the two heroines build their girlish daydreams stand in a contrast whose apparent purport is to emphasize the distance between sentimentalism and pragmatism. This assertion, however, is ironically qualified as the narrator extracts every ounce of its dramatic potential to reveal that each character's fixation on ideological absolutes prevents her in a like manner from seeing the relation between the imagined objects and the man they are dreaming about. Had Amelia been less blind to George's pampered prodigality, which is obvious to everyone but herself — had she realized that two thousand pounds are nothing to him and that rustic walks and village churches are not his setting — she might have assumed some control of their relationship. Instead, she mechanically builds the news of his disinheritance into her romantic dream of "sharing poverty in company with the beloved object" (25: 302). Had Becky's fetishism of status symbols not blinded her to the emotional growth of her husband, she might have averted her disaster. Had Amelia paid more attention to her father's mental degradation and shown some responsibility for the family finances, she might not have had to lose Georgy. Yet, as the narrator says, lost opportunities are necessary "doubtless in order that this story might be written" (16: 192). "Are there not little chapters in everybody's life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?" he earlier facetiously queries the reader (6: 61), seemingly using his reference to the dramatic ironies of everyday life to undercut the implications of his philosophic irony. Yet his joke is serious, reflecting a fundamental premise of every ideology — that it is most effective when it is most invisible, that if unquestioned and mechanically followed, what seems like common sense assumptions only consolidates people's vulnerability to the powers that be and prompt them to repeat their errors. Pushed by her respective ideological blindness — her vanity, in Thackeray's terms — each heroine's story shows her to be guilty of errors of omission that become errors of commission. In this sense, the charity sale in the final tableau of the novel, with its hints at a general philistine acquiescence to existing conventions, is a fit conclusion to each of the two stories whose contrapuntal relation to the other reveals a formal identity too. The concluding episode not only brings the protagonists together but also irradiates the strands of parody and satire with the Biblical preacher's skepticism on human desire. Despite their powerful vitality, people ultimately emerge into the light of Thackeray's philosophic irony as puppets, stuck in the repetitive patterns and sequences of behaviour and unable to set themselves free from the traps of their constricting beliefs and aspirations.
Discursive Versatility: The Heroines
To say that Becky lacks the capability to oppose conventions is probably a rather unusual way of defining Thackeray's most famous heroine, usually admired for her courage, resilience, and independence of spirit. It fits, of course, Amelia — traditionally regarded as the passive non-heroine who, unconscious of the historical and social facts around her, lives in a realm of pure fantasy. Yet it is Becky who comes to identify herself with the society she initially despises, while Amelia manages to see through at least some of her romantic illusions. This paradox underlies the frequently voiced dissatisfaction with the way the narrative of Vanity Fair deals with its two protagonists. The expectations that they should stay in the positions affixed at the outset by the binary opposition of satiric irony fail, for many critics, to materialize. Becky's controversial function in the novel's moral aesthetic has put many readers and critics on their mettle. Early and mid-twentieth-century critics like Lord David Cecil, Arnold Kettle, Dorothy Van Ghent and A. E. Dyson see her as the true heroine of the story, the only one endowed with the talent and intellect needed to raise one above the standards of the Fair. They and others treat the negative traits in her character and the harm she does to others as the consequence of the disadvantages of her childhood and her lack of real opportunities in a conservative social structure. To quote A. E. Dyson, "Her anti-social qualities are at least as much the effect of the world's dealings with her as their cause" (18).8 Due to her courage, vitality and wit, Dyson typically holds, Becky pays back the degenerate world of the aristocracy and the blindly ambitious middle class in their own coin. She is therefore commonly regarded as the organizing centre of Thackeray's social and moral satire, a picaresque eiron in her own right. In the words of Bruce K. Martin, "she is cast as the nemesis of vanity, determined and able to survive by preying on the conceit of others" (Martin: 41 also Dyson: 41).9 Becky fails, says Russel A. Fraser, another of Becky's champions, "because she is too clever" (144). Fraser is one of the many, including Walter Allen (179), who discover fundamental inconsistency and deliberate injustice in the way Thackeray handles his heroine, blaming him for his distortions of or downright lies about a personality that, objectively, commands the reader's admiration.
Certainly, Becky has also had her detractors, and they have been no less vociferous than her fans. Their argument is that Thackeray is consistent in his presentation of her from the start. According to Iser, Thackeray makes it clear that Becky is guilty of a fundamental error of judgement, both of herself and of the worthiness of her goals (110). John Tilford in his "The Degradation of Becky Sharp" puts forward the view that through her Thackeray impressively makes his moralist's assertion "that evil is deceptively appealing, but that as its ugliness will inevitably transpire it cannot flourish forever" (608). Using as his evidence the comments that surround her throughout the book, Tilford concludes that Thackeray is steadfast in his negative attitude towards Becky. Tilford's view is shared by John Hagan, according to whom Thackeray is unsympathetic to Becky, he does not shift his attitude and any impression that he does so is based on the critics', and not the writer's, fallacious reasoning. Unlike Becky's defenders, who see her as triumphant as ever at the end of the novel, Hagan believes she gets her just deserts:
The very fact that [Becky] is happy at the end of the novel — that she has come to no moral self-awareness and suffered no remorse — is only the final proof for the reader of the completeness of her corruption. She has become a supreme example of how wicked a heart may lie behind the most attractive facade. (487)
Although seemingly more transparent and therefore less often discussed in such detail, Amelia's presentation and function in Vanity Fair has also raised varying and even contradictory interpretations. For those who do not put Becky's "badness" to question, Amelia looks too flaccid and uninteresting to act as her foil. At the same time, there are others who treat her as a psychological entity in her own right, proof of Thackeray's insight into the variety and complexity of human character. She has thus been described as the victim of her passive temperament, a slave to all kinds of conventions, or as a good but silly woman. Her greatest "handicap," according to Dyson, is "her lack of any real intelligence or talent or of the courage and will-power needed when life turns sour" (16). Similarly, Mark Spilka defines her as "much more an effect than a cause. An imperceptive woman, she feels rather than thinks her way through life" (206). By contrast, some critics have blamed Thackeray for excessive fondness for his heroine and for lavishing praises on her which her dramatic presence does not deserve. Distinguishing between what Thackeray shows and what he tells the reader, Spilka accuses the novelist of creating a "dramatic fraud" (207; also Greig: 108-109). Certain attempts to place Amelia in some psychological category have led to the naturalization of her deficiencies: for Taube, she is "a naturally passive personality re-enforced by education that did nothing to develop any sense of independence" (2). Trying to explain her, Taube (3) and Dyson (24) even venture a medical diagnosis: in the words of the latter, she is an "incurably neurotic woman, destined to unhappiness whether things go well for her or not" (Dyson: 25). The contrast between the two heroines has thus received an essentialist treatment: normality is seen to be embodied in Becky with her "robust mental health" (ibid.). Even when critics have paid due attention to the historical and cultural context of Amelia's conception as a character, the result has often been further dismissal. Thus Katharine M. Rogers, who analyzes her in the light of Victorian conventions of womanhood, makes a sweeping generalization that refutes its own premises: Amelia, she concludes, "consistently displays the innocence, humility, submission, and uncritical devotion which belonged to the Victorian ideal of womanhood, as well as the love, altruism, compassion, and gentleness which will always be valued" (1374).
Against this background of continual critical debate, it is hardly surprising that Thackeray's alleged sentimental weakness for his protagonist has been seen as the cause of a general dislocation of his aesthetic constructs from the moral framework of the novel. Amelia, Rawlins argues, "however much we may dislike her, must be a heroine — she is so recognizably at the centre of a dramatic structure of definably good and bad plot developments . . . Amelia comes forward as an alternative [to the complete cynicism of Becky's world] and fails" (30, 32; also Lubbock: 94). Against such a view and taking into consideration the parodic orientation of Thackeray's characterization, Sister Corona M. Sharp proposes a much more valid claim: Thackeray's consistent use of allusions to popular heroines illuminates Amelia's chief characteristic: her "emotional immaturity. Hence, although the narrator manages a semblance of sympathy, it seems the evidence in the beginning as well as at the end of the novel points to an ironic attitude of pity mixed with ridicule" (328).
Viewed from the vantage point of irony, all these conflicting interpretations appear to privilege the neat antithetical relationships one expects from its use in Thackeray's satire. With her cleverness, energy, and artistic talent, Becky offers a seemingly perfect fit with the role of an eiron and Amelia, who blindly devotes herself to selfish idolatry, looks like an ideal alazon. Or both should be interpreted as the targets of Thackeray's dismissal of erroneous patterns of behaviour, so that any change of authorial attitude ought to be regarded as a breach of faith with the reader who expects a stable perspective. Still, as most critics of the later twentieth century have realized, Becky's amoral attitudes are as unsettling as Amelia's identification with the Victorian homely virtues, and fail to match the antiphrastic oppositions of satiric irony. Polhemus rightly points out (135-136) that the arguments adduced by Rebecca's supporters rely in fact on an irrelevantly anachronistic standard which derives from modern concepts of unfettered womanhood. Conversely, a subliminal masochism in the human psyche distances Amelia from the reader's sympathies. "Amelia," he says, "naggingly reminds us of that wide sheepish streak in ourselves that asks to be fleeced and that eschews the taxing effort it takes to quit the herd mentally" (138). Indeed, much more easily than Becky, Amelia slips into the position of a target of satire, with the consequence that the complexity of her character and her function in the novel tend to be underplayed by many critics.
Yet, a careful look shows that both heroines keep evading conventional moral and literary categories and the binary oppositions they presuppose. And this is not, or not only, due to Thackeray's own ambiguous personal relationships and complicated psychological life, as has been claimed, but to irony's nature: it rejects the dogmatic assertions that stem from rigid ideological affiliations. What Thackeray does with his protagonists is not so much to fix them in the positions determined by satire and philosophic irony — he uses his heroines to reach further, to the place where the two paradigms originate. Peter Garrett's opinion leads in this very direction: the two figures, according to him, "function first of all as registers of experience, instruments for establishing a characteristic relation to the world" (105). To arrive at this understanding, however, the interpreter must embark on a transdiscursive and transideological journey &mdasah; the same that the ironic narrator himself undertakes. The two heroines must be "read" as participants in the ironic conflict of meanings and as determinants of the process, again aptly defined by Garrett as the "construction and deconstruction, of formulating, breaking down, and reformulating binary oppositions" (113). In other words, Thackeray's ironic strategy involved in his character construction and presentation must be seen as reaching out not directly to the non-verbal world but to the discourses that formulate its "truths." Such an approach undoubtedly imperils the stability of these "truths" and the success of the artistic endeavour — but these are the risks faced by any ironist.
Becky Sharp's Transdiscursive Journey
The discursive versatility that characterizes Becky's presentation in Vanity Fair can be found in a sentence, which, in a typically Thackerayan manner, condenses the whole repertoire of ironic strategies in the writer's handling of his heroine. After the memorable scene of Becky's defiant rejection of the Dixonary, the narrator joins the two main protagonists in the Sedleys' coach. His eyes first fall on Becky herself:
When Miss Sharp had performed the heroical act mentioned in the last chapter, and had seen the Dixonary, flying over the pavement of the little garden, fall at length at the feet of the astonished Miss Jemima, the young lady's countenance, which had before worn an almost livid look of hatred, assumed a smile that perhaps was scarcely more agreeable, and she sank back in the carriage in an easy frame of mind, saying, "So much for the Dixonary; and thank God, I'm out of Chiswick." [1: 13]
The apparent function of the sentence is purely referential — this is the first time when the narrator gives a close-up of Becky's expression as a metonymical representation of her emotional state. But it is also densely iconic of the whole narrative geometry and descriptive repertoire of Vanity Fair. In the first place, its very structure reflects the novel's characteristic anticlimactic drive: the cumulative periods peak on the sinister combination of "hatred" and "a smile that perhaps was scarcely more agreeable" to fall off into the frustrating casualness of Becky's action ("she sank back") and the simplicity and directness of her spoken words. More importantly, the lexicon of the sentence comprises the key elements of the descriptive code the narrator will henceforward be using to characterize his protagonist. What is more, the sequencing of these elements performs an ironic double gesture: it offers, and then rejects, a positive evaluation of an event which reveals the character's permanent traits.
The vocabulary of the sentence also breaks loose from pure reference. It reverberates with the ironic antitheses that define the status of the two protagonists in the satiric framework of the novel. The adjective "heroical," for instance, echoes the parodic deposition of Amelia from her status of conventional heroine in Chapter 1, where the narrator plainly announces that "she is not a heroine" (1: 7). But although it belongs to the repertoire of mock-heroic comedy which provides much of the novel's texture (Loofbourow: 60-61), the adjective "heroical" also announces the descriptive code of triumphant invasion of alien territory, of war and battles, that punctuates Becky's story. The word "act" thus fits into the main pattern of contrast, for it sets off Rebecca as a doer, one who challenges Chiswick Mall's claim to authority, while Amelia, as depicted in Chapter 1, remains suspended on the horns of her emotional dilemma: "between her two customs of laughing and crying, Miss Sedley was greatly puzzled how to act. She was glad to go home, yet most wofully sad at leaving school" (1: 8). There is also the rejection of the gift that is, from Becky's perspective, not only humiliating but also valueless: as Hardy (104-5) and Miller (41) point out, the manner of receiving and offering gifts is one of the intersubjective gestures that serve to contrast the two protagonists throughout the novel. In Becky's system of values, Jemima's gift is gratuitous and by discarding it, she announces her choice to join the world of quantifiable and exchangeable goods. By far the most significant details in the sentence, however, are the "livid look of hatred" and the "smile that was scarcely more agreeable." They set up the vantage points from which the two protagonists make diametrically opposite claims on the reader's response. Becky's "hatred" contrasts with the love that will guide Amelia through her life. Taken together, the two descriptive details combine into an antithetical pair with the first description of Amelia, whose face "blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes that sparkled with the brightest and honestest of good-humour" (1: 7).
Although they register only a momentary appearance, the particulars of Becky's expression initiate the ironic play of differences that typifies Thackeray's presentation of his protagonist throughout the novel. They lead away from the discourse of action, courage and justifiable rebellion that sheds a positive light on her and put into view a sinister aspect in her portraiture, one that is soon consolidated in the ensuing conversation between the two girls. In this short dialogue, Becky emphatically uses vocabulary replete with allusions to hell and murder. The Academy for young ladies is for her "the black hole" and, as in an incantation, she says, "I wish [the whole house] were in the bottom of the Thames, I do; and if Miss Pinkerton were there, I wouldn't pick her out, that I wouldn't" (2: 14). That her outpouring is not the typically adolescent release of anger but comes from a deep-seated attitude becomes evident in her reaction to Amelia's reproaches for harbouring "such wicked, revengeful thoughts." "Revenge may be wicked, but it's natural," answered Miss Rebecca. "I'm no angel" (ibid.). Becky's self-definition through the naturalization of the diabolic establishes the other major descriptive code in her characterization. It opens up an interpretive avenue that leads from the single instance to a consistent linguistic pattern used by the narrator throughout the novel and, ultimately, to the Victorian discourse on women.
The interplay of the discourses on heroism, money, and women, illustrated in the sentence above, is not a relationship that Thackeray sets up artificially, nor does it function within some abstract sphere. "Heroism" in this novel is a concept with concrete social, psychological and historical dimensions. Throughout, Thackeray "tropes" Becky's progress in society as a military campaign against a formidable enemy force, analogous to that of Napoleon. The metaphorical link is backed, especially in the first half of the novel, by the fusion of the protagonists' private histories with the public history of the Napoleonic Wars and the battle of Waterloo.10 As critic H. M. Daleski points out, this expressive medium with its recurring war imagery sets Becky up "as a soldier of fortune" (142); Amelia, on the contrary, features as a victim, "overwhelmed by the slaughter"(145).11 Thackeray's appropriation of the military discourse as the comic imitation of a conflict between individual will and traditional repressive authority is indeed a major factor in engendering the sympathetic response to Becky shared by so many readers and critics. Yet, this strategy is also calculated to trigger the emotional reaction associated with irony, as the narrator makes evident in his jocular play upon words in "If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine" (30: 369). The pun draws its effect from its immediate context, Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, but mostly from the overt and persistent allusions, both verbal and pictorial (in Thackeray's illustrations), to Becky as a female conqueror. A comic version of Napoleon, the eiron of world history, she therefore easily slips into the image of a fighter for freedom and independence, who, as Fraser aptly puts it, "mocks and discomposes, at least for a time, her own time and the sphere which she has made her own" (145).
But from the very start, Becky's textual presence aligns the military imagery with a different lexicon and semantics, which builds into a composite image of a sinister inhumanity. Unlike the use of the heroic discourse on war, the pattern of demonization is stripped from comic colours. Its beginnings can be spotted as early as in Chapter 2, where the narrator, in a truly empiricist manner, examines all the aspects of her background. Setting up the argument of "nature" against "circumstances," he finds that her behaviour is governed less by the disadvantages of her family and social environment than by innate envy, hatred, and malice. These are the characteristics that, once she is out of Chiswick, motivate most of her relationships, and significantly those with Amelia, Rawdon, and her son. It is true that the narrator sometimes speaks of her good-natured disposition, but, as has been noted (Hagan: 490), such references do not effectively neutralize the negative slant, as most of them occur in circumstances where her interests are not threatened. Sustained by frequent mentions of her green eyes, as well as by the pervasive imagery of serpents, poison, cold brilliance and sharp (like her name) objects, the description of her "hard-heartedness and ill-humour"(2: 15) metamorphoses into a whole allusive series that culminates twice: first in Chapter 51, with her role of Clytemnestra in the charade at Gaunt House, and second, in the lengthy description in Chapter 64 of the sirens "writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping among bones, or curling round corpses" (812).
Sirens, as well as their pictorial translation of them as mermaids, belong to an imagistic repertoire favoured by Thackeray, versed as he was in Classical literature (McMaster, R.D.: 33; Loofbourow: 61). By the mid-nineteenth century, both images had become conventionalized, but, as has been pointed out (Reed, 1975: 57), the literature of the period makes consistent use of Classical and Old Testament allusive material specifically to build the portrait of the destructive woman. Thackeray does this neither mechanically nor superficially, though, since he dramatizes the conventional representation. Becky thus becomes embedded in the semantic field of death and destruction not only directly, through the overt analogy within the abovementioned commentary but chiefly through her association with the satanic Lord Steyne. From his diabolic appearance, through his admiration for her as "an accomplished little devil" (52: 663) to the titles of "Viscount Hellborough, Baron Pitchley and Grillsby" (64: 829) which Thackeray jokingly smuggles into the "obituary" of his death, Steyne's status in the novel is that of a messenger of the underworld and a magnetic force that draws Becky into its domain. Throughout, therefore, the demonic allusions and associations categorize Rebecca in terms of a dangerous otherness. Ironically undermining the positive association between her and Napoleon, they define her as a social and national menace just like the French Emperor: "in those days, in England, to say "Long live Bonaparte!" was as much as to say, "Long live Lucifer!" (2: 14).
Yet, since Becky is undoubtedly one of those persons "living without God in the world" (Letters, II: 409), eliminating the higher truths of Heaven, she eliminates those of Hell as well. In a novel whose life is firmly grounded in substantial, measurable, earthly vanities, her link with the underworld is refracted through the Victorian discourses on women and on money. These powerful male-produced discourses dissolve the polar opposition between the two heroines, assiduously sustained by the narrator's loud and sugary praises for Amelia. The stylized angel-devil antithesis therefore begins to function as an ironic
appearancein conflict with an ideological reality, which resides in the sameness of the attitudes that originate in and link the abovementioned discourses. This has been noted by Robert Polhemus, who points out that both protagonists represent "masculine condescension to, and fear of women" (129). As Nina Auerbach, Nancy Armstong, Susan Kingsley Kent and Kimberley Reynolds with Nicola Humble, among others, have shown, the notorious representations of woman as "angelic" or "demonic" are projections of one and the same Victorian concept of woman as a danger to social order. Behind the seeming conventionality of the religious imagery which envelops so many of the Victorian pronouncements on and fictional characters of women lies the purely secular understanding of femaleness as a functional and social disease. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the nineteenth-century medical discourse on female sexuality. An anonymously written "study" published in the influential medical Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology in 1851, for instance, formulates the "norm" of healthy femininity in the following terms:
If we look at the position which woman holds in creation, and the ends which she has to fulfil the design of the Creator, we see at once that love necessarily constitutes the moving spring of a large portion of her actions, and assimilates itself with almost every motive. Upon her devolves the great duty of perpetuating the human race; and in fulfilment of this duty her feelings oscillate between man and the offspring she bears. Her "desire" is to her husband; but, in common with every female animal, her feelings are concentrated upon her tender offspring; and thus it happens that, during the whole of the period in which the reproductive functions are in activity, love of one kind or the other is the ruling passion, and so her whole nature is imbued with love. (34)
It is not difficult to find in this a rigid code of a-sexual behaviour (Reynolds and Humble: 15) dominated by concepts such as duty and love — the same that provide the texture of Amelia's portrayal in Vanity Fair. But the use of animalistic language in the passage also shows the regulating and repressive drive of the discourse on women. It clearly delineates "wild nature" as woman's domain, thus presupposing that "culture," the area governed by man, should be imposed on her by force. What this amounts to is that even ideal femininity is defined as an aberration from the norms of civilization and therefore dehumanized. It is a critical paradox that in the twentieth century the same ideological slant towards women can be found in the pronouncements, cited above, of critics like M. Taube and A. E. Dyson, who diagnose Amelia as "neurotic" and therefore relegate her to the area of female pathology. But it is equally difficult to see Becky as the embodiment of the healthy norm, as these critics claim: in fact, as Robert Lougy rightly states, through her "Thackeray is describing a particular sexuality, one that is perverted and employed in the service of death" (70).
Becky's "profile" is actually constructed out of the "pathological symptoms" of what in mid-nineteenth century became known as "moral insanity." Victorian medicine and psychology claimed to have discovered this female "condition," allegedly caused by the malfunctioning of the reproductive organs. The same study quoted above describes women suffering from it as "irreligious, selfish, slanderous, false, malicious, devoid of affection, thievish in a thousand petty ways, bold maybe erotic, self-willed and quarrelsome" (34). Throughout the novel, Becky's zone is marked by pragmatic egotism and imperviousness to affection-based relationships. She exhibits even the thievishness symptomatic of her "pathology." Thus, having spotted her rummaging through Amelia's drawers, the Sedleys' servants suspect her of having pinched her friend's "white ribbings" (6: 70). To finance her life in high society, she effectively steals Briggs' legacy. The sumptuous attire she arrives in for her presentation to Court includes the Crawleys' old lace and brocade which she has purloined from Pitt's house in Great Gaunt Street. With the same ease of heart she appropriates husbands, brothers, and sons, including her own brother-in-law. And in spite of her seemingly invulnerable good-humour, her lack of affection for her husband and her son is Thackeray's heaviest weapon against her. Cast in the mould of such a "pathology," which is further aggravated by the demonic allusions, Becky's sinking into moral and sexual degradation, when, expelled from English society, she turns first into a demi-mondaine and then possibly into a part-time courtesan, is only too predictable. Following this logic, it is quite legitimate to assume that she does murder Jos Sedley for his money. So, in spite of the assertions of critics such as Walter Allen, Lord David Cecil, and Russel Fraser, all of her "crimes" including murder appear to be quite "in" her discursive character, even though from a present-day perspective they may be inconsistent with the other characteristics that the discourse of heroism attributes to her.
The appearance of heroism in Becky's character is ironically destabilized even further, as the implications of her abnormality widen to include the discourse of money and finance. Loofbourow's assertion that "literal event gives no clue to Vanity Fair>/span>'s expressive tensions" (79) is certainly not backed by Becky's story, to which Thackeray gives the shape and the language of a business career. Her campaign against the System begins in her childhood, when her first victories are over money: "Many a dun had she talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good humour, and into the granting of one meal more" (2: 29). Her stay at Miss Pinkerton's establishment is dependent on questions of debts and financial obligations. Thus, when the Semiramis discovers the young curate's infatuation with her apprentice, she "would have sent her away, but that she was bound to her under a forfeit" (ibid.). The first confrontation between the two women is effectively an argument about how much Becky is worth. Becky sticks to her price: "I am here to speak French with the children — not to teach them music, and save money for you" (2: 31). Interestingly, even at this early stage, Becky decides on a tactic which does not involve cash: "Give me a sum of money ‰¥Ï and get rid of me or, if you like better, get me a good place as governess in a nobleman's family" (ibid.).
From that moment on, every one of Becky's daring moves involves cash-free economic exchanges. For example, having won "a most timely supply of ready money" from George, Rawdon grumbles: "It will hardly be enough to pay the inn-bill." "Why need we pay it?" says Becky (25: 232), and her rhetorical question encapsulates her attitude to the ready-money economy. Her "performance for profit," as Barbara Hardy has shown at length, compromises her art throughout, but it also shapes her career as a risky business enterprise founded on the exchange not of real but of symbolic capital for goods and services. And Becky, with her "dismal precocity of poverty" (2: 29), has very early learned the value of symbolic capital. Even as a young girl, she begins to hoard her "assets" by perfecting her artistic abilities on her own and by going "through the little course of study which was necessary for ladies in those days" (2: 31). At every step of her advance in society, she uses her artistic talent and sexual allure as the security that can bring her more credit in the shape of usable commodities. Even when she boxes her son's ear, she does so in front of Lord Steyne, himself no lover of mothers and children, with the clear awareness that this will increase her value. The relatively little ready money she acquires remains in her little desk — she never invests it to enlarge her business since, as Polhemus observes, she "acts out the mentality that holds that diamonds are a girl's best friend" (132).
But as Becky moves on in society, she becomes bolder and "borrows" more and more — exploiting the fact that her chief creditor, Lord Steyne, with his inherited, unexpendable wealth, can afford to estimate her "security" much higher than it is really worth. G. Armour Craig's opinion sounds quite valid here: "The ghostly paradigm on which human nature plays [in Vanity Fair] is the credit economy which in Thackeray's own lifetime finally developed from a money economy" (98). Yet, Craig's claim that Thackeray's silence on what Becky really offered Lord Steyne shows "the terrible irresolution of a society in which market values and moral values are discontinuous and separate" (98) certainly does not apply to the heroine herself. For Becky, who has astutely grasped the principles on which the Fair works, they are one. So, when her business venture collapses and the narrator hybridizes his voice with hers to present her version of the catastrophe, the climax comes with the word "bankruptcy" — a term easily attributable to Becky's vocabulary. With this word, the discourse of money embraces the concepts of perverse femininity, aggressive, amoral "heroism" and intellectual energy, introduced in the preceding three parallel phrases:
"What had happened" Was she guilty or not? She said not; but who could tell what was the truth which came from those lips; or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? All her lies and her schemes, all her selfishness and her wiles, all her wit and genius had come to this bankruptcy. [53: 494]
The discourse on money, which fittingly ends the passage, explodes the tension between the contradictory aspects of Becky's presence in Vanity Fair. Rather than embodying Thackeray's repulsion from abstract evil or his fantasy identification with a rogue, the textuality constructing her character uses its expressive resources as a nexus between the two. But even after the discovery scene, Thackeray makes dramatic use of this type of material. For while the events marking her upward rise lead towards her undisputed demonization culminating in the description of her as a siren, the pattern of her actions after the discovery scene places her in another part of the domain of finance — day-to-day expenditure, whose control the Victorians considered a woman's duty. This is something Becky is quite unused to, since during her married life she has steered Rawdon's "earnings" from his gambling — the family's only steady income — towards mollifying the more insistent among her creditors. Now she does have a regular supply from Rawdon, but Rebecca is a bad home economist. What is more, the account of her decline into poverty ironically qualifies the earlier "truth" about her financial astuteness regarding the safety of her symbolic investment. Although she still manages to exchange what is left of her symbolic capital for credit, she takes up gambling because this activity most closely matches her inability to exist without business risk:
She never refused the champagne, or the bouquets, or the drives into the country, or the private boxes; but what she preferred was the ecarte at night, — and she played audaciously. First she played only for a little, then for Napoleons, then for notes; then she would not be able to pay her month's pension; then she borrowed from the young gentlemen; then she got into cash again, and bullied Madame de Borodino, whom she had coaxed and wheedled before; then she was playing for ten sous at a time, and in a dire state of poverty; then her quarter's allowance would come in, and she would pay Madame de Borodino's score: and would once more take the cards against Monsieur denRossignol, or the Chevalier de Raff. [64: 596]
Both the strict sequencing and the use of modality in the passage enact the pattern of the kind of life, based part on addiction to risk and part on necessity, that makes up the conventional stereotype of the credit capitalist. Interestingly, it casts another ironic perspective on Becky's greed for the external symbols of status and glamour: it reformulates and intensifies the contrast between her and Rawdon, without exonerating the latter from the ethos of economic exchange. Unlike his wife, Rawdon plays in order to secure and pay in ready cash, which is for him a gentlemanly duty.12 In the heat of Becky's campaign for a place at the top, he worries about the money they owe to Raggles, their landlord and a former servant at the Crawleys' household. And when he finds the banknotes Becky has been hiding in her pocketbook, his first impulse is to clear the family's debts to those who have behaved to them in a similarly gentlemanly way — his brother and Briggs. Unlike his wife, therefore, Rawdon remains impervious to the seduction of credit capitalism. But this is not a recipe for success: his growing alienation from Becky's world is due not only, as Lougy suggests (61), to Thackeray's discovery in him of the long sought-for moral norm, but also to the extinction of his whole species. In the new realities, the mixed economy of the brave and affectionate hereditary soldier-aristocrat and gambler cannot survive and he must be sent off to Coventry Island and to his death.
Rawdon's exclusion from Becky's area of interest and her growing distaste for him, however, can serve as an ironic comment on her behaviour mostly because Thackeray includes him in the most powerful antithetical structure in the novel — the one between artfulness and artlessness. For from the very first, this soldier has only one asset apart from his dyed mustachios — he is completely ingenuous, and it is Thackeray's detective power regarding human character that enables him to see beyond what Rebecca and the world consider sheer stupidity. Similar to Dobbin, Rawdon has a true and loving heart that he wears on his sleeve, as the chapters devoted to his early married life and to his fatherly devotion show. That is why he crosses generic boundaries and from a comic figure he is transformed into the nearest that this novel allows to a tragic hero. Characteristically, Thackeray exploits this distinction between the appearance, on the basis of which he and Dobbin are judged by the inhabitants of the Fair, and the reality — their capacity for feeling for dramatic purposes. Both Becky's and Amelia's moments of defeat are prepared for and motivated by their inability and unwillingness to distinguish between surface and depth, and in both scenes the men defeat them by merely speaking the truth. And if, as Lubbock claims, Thackeray shows poor theatrical skill in the discovery scene (101), and even less in the Amelia-Dobbin last confrontation, it is not because his devices are crude but because he has by now become less interested in the conflict of personalities than in the conflict of the values they stand for.
The transideological and transdiscursive dynamics of Becky's presentation in the novel therefore place her at the centre of the Victorian discourses of power — those on heroism, money,love, and, most significantly, on women. None of them alone can define her: the ironic play of differences that she engenders keeps her always as an "other," yet at the same time the inclusive dimension of Thackeray's irony makes her the point of convergence and the centre of meaning. Herein lies the source of the complex and contradictory impact she makes on the readers, but also of the weight she carries in the novel's realist agenda.
Amelia Sedley: Power in Discourse
Unlike Becky, who is both artistic and artful, Amelia is repeatedly said to be artless — she emblematizes thenVictorian concept of "natural," if excessive, love, but in her case sentiment is indistinguishable from sentimentality. As already mentioned, her term of the antithesis is an element of the parody of romance and its stereotype of the ideal heroine. Especially in the first half of the book, the narrator enters her mind with the express purpose of revealing her total immersion into the discourse of love. But love and womanhood are explicitly formulated through the male perspective. Woman is "the kind, fresh, smiling, artless, tender little domestic goddess, whom men are inclined to worship" (12: 108); and George's heart melts at Amelia's "prostration and sweet unrepining obedience" (20: 183). Amelia uncritically accepts this view and during her courtship with George, relies solely on terms borrowed from its language:
She thought of him the very first thing on waking; and his was the very last name mentioned in her prayers. She never had seen a man so beautiful or so clever: such a figure on horseback: such a dancer: such a hero in general ... He was only good enough to be a fairy prince; and oh, what magnanimity to stoop to such a humble Cinderella! [12: 113]
The passage fully illustrates the extent to which romantic fiction misrepresents reality by seeking to translate it through the patterns of the fairy tale. The very disbalance between narrative and represented speech creates an ironic clash of meanings: although it is given the whole thematic and textual weight, Amelia's behaviour, predicated on the abovequoted self-debasing principle, becomes dissociated from positive, constructive action and remains circumscribed within the limits of the romantic dream. Yet to read Amelia's story solely in the light of a warning against the harm of reading sentimental novels, as the narrator himself jocularly suggests in Chapter 18, would be reductive. Amelia's greatest fault is not that of creating unproductive fictions or "building castles in the air," which, as Iser suggests, serves to distance the reader's sympathies from her (109). It is certainly true that, as all critics agree and as has already been indicated in this study, Amelia is Vanity Fair's main vehicle of Thackeray's satiric dismissal of the excesses of romantic imagination. Love, however, is seen in the novel not as a private, self-sufficient reverie, nor are Amelia's sentimental dreams of happiness with George, as Iser claims, "dependent on the circumstances of the moment" (109). Her lack of realistic standards of judgement is actually rooted in her mechanical acceptance of a convention that poses as "common sense" — that is, her inability to dissociate the specific nature of her relationship with George from the Victorian ideology of man-woman relationship. Amelia's unreflecting adoption of a position of inferiority thus gives the novel's concept of love its social dimensions: as Barbara Hardy aptly comments, in the world of Vanity Fair love "cannot be free, or pure, or intact; it must be circumscribed and shaped by the society into which it is born and in which it dies or half-dies" (161).
The narrator also makes it forcefully evident that Amelia refracts her sentimental desire through the prism of the major socially-oriented characteristics which the discourse on femininity attaches to female desire — duty and self-sacrifice. It is because Amelia reads them as dogmatic absolutes and enacts them literally that she so easily fills the role of an ironic target. But as with Becky, once the concepts building the Victorian discourses of womanhood are undermined, the gates open to the influx of other powerful discourses. When living by the precepts of duty and self-sacrifice fails to bring her into the marital heaven promised by the discourse on women, Amelia begins to define herself and her desire through the language of crime. Thus, after receiving old Osborne's letter which announces an end to the engagement and forbids all communication between her and George, she takes the news as "the mere reading of a sentence — of the crime she had long ago been guilty of — the crime of loving wrongly, too violently, against reason" (18: 167). Interestingly, first the narrator, in an ironic "echoic mention," and then Miss Osborne both use a qualification that not only supports Amelia's self-definition but expands its implications from the private to the public sphere, with its hypostasis of order as an immanent positive value: Amelia, they say, does not have "a well-regulated mind" (12: 114, 23: 210). This formulaic pronouncement engenders inferences that have to do with madness, disorder and anarchy. The narrator even "quotes" a Mrs. Smith whose declaration on Amelia's continuing love brings to light the mixture of the ethical and the criminal discourses: "Such criminal impudence Mrs. Smith never knew of" (169).
Thackeray's keen eye for the principles on which Victorian society actually works observes in Amelia another typical feature: for her, the distinction between crime and sin is totally blurred. That is why the textuality of her presentation begins to draw in the discourse of religion as well. Consequently, it is only natural that after George's death she should begin to access experience and distance herself from what she interprets as her previous wrongdoing through the mediation of imagery related to god and sainthood. So, while the narrative builds up the tension in Chapters 46 and 50 until it reaches the scene of Amelia's renunciation of Georgy, the brief entry into her mind at the very climax of the dramatic sequence shows that she has remained as dependent on received notions as before:
The sentence was passed. The child must go from her to others — to forget her. Her heart and her treasure — her joy, hope, love, worship her God, almost! She must give him up; and then — and then she would go to George: and they would watch over the child, and wait for him until he came to them in heaven. [50: 458]
This passage almost iconically reveals the direction Amelia's reasoning follows, away from the objective assessment of the situation and into quasi-religious sentimental effusion. The metaphoric "sentence" this time plays on the pun in the chapter title "Struggles and Trials" and the climactic sequencing explodes on "her God, almost!", exemplifying the way her thoughts veer away from rationality. Nearly hysterically, Amelia immerses herself into a verbal medium which she uses as a shield against the onslaughts of the real. This opens the gap between the pathos that the scene should legitimately elicit and the ironic criticism it actually evokes. At a time when such a response is least expected, just as in the "Vagabond Chapter" and Becky's failure to arouse affective identification, the reader's withdrawal of sympathy signals the power of Vanity Fair to enforce a varying, complex experience of its characters. Amelia does not, as earlier critics expected, provide a standard of judging Becky: in a more devious yet more effective way, she engages the reader into the often painful process of facing the ordinary, everyday reality of human imperfection and the way this reality is inscribed in its discourses.
In addition, Amelia's implication in the discourses of power erodes the most obvious basis of the contrast between the two heroines' narrative codes — the opposition between action and inertia, both physical and mental. Amelia, the conventional view goes, does not act for herself as Becky does. Like Becky and the multitude of minor characters, whose rational processes amount only to scheming, she becomes the target of satire because she, too, does not think, in the sense of applying rational insight or facing the truth. Worse, she practically never says anything. Yet in the few scenes where she does speak, she exhibits surprising verbal fluency. The first of these scenes, her confrontation with Becky during the Waterloo battle, shows her a different creature from the dull speechless woman she has hitherto been:
"Are you well?" said Amelia. "I daresay you are. You don't love your husband. You would not be here if you did. Tell me, Rebecca, did I ever do you anything but kindness? ... When you were quite poor, who was it that befriended you? Was I not a sister to you? You saw us in happier days before he married me. I was all in all then to him; or would he have given up his fortune, his family, as he so nobly did, to make me happy? Why did you come between my love and me? Who sent you to separate those whom God joined, and take my darling heart from me — my own husband? Do you think you could love him as I did? His love was everything to me. You knew it, and wanted to rob me of it. For shame, Rebecca; bad and wicked woman — false friend and false wife" ... "But what have I done to you," she continued in a more pitiful tone, "that you should try and take him from me? I had him but for six weeks. You might have spared me these, Rebecca. And yet, from the very first day of our wedding, you came and blighted it. . . . You took him away. Are you come to fetch him from me?" [31: 287]
In spite of her distraught state, Amelia attacks the person she now knows is her enemy using the most successful strategy she could have chosen — through references to Becky's "otherness." Her rival now is not only a "false friend and false wife," but also a common criminal who has "robbed" her of her husband. What is more, she defines Becky as the servant sent by dark forces from another world, "taking away" her victims. Applying the same strategy of demonization as the narrator himself, Amelia gets one of her rare chances to win a victory against her rival, who "walked, too, silently away" (31: 287). Interestingly, Amelia uses the same modality as Rawdon does when, at the end of the discovery scene and during that brief moment when he is allowed a heroic status, he says, "You might have spared me a hundred pounds, Becky, out of all this. I have always shared with you" (53: 494; italics added). Amelia's use of the discourse of power is even more successful: a seasoned warrior against other women, Becky is "surprised and somewhat abashed" and fails to answer the other woman's recriminations with one of her habitual ironic counterattacks. All she can do is save face by deliberately "misreading" the episode: "Rebecca was of a good-natured and obliging disposition; and she liked Amelia rather than otherwise. Even [Amelia's] hard words, reproachful as they were, were complimentary — the groans of a person stinging under defeat" (31: 288).
The scene shows that in spite of the assertions made by the novel's narrative function about the radical difference between the two protagonists, Amelia is as fluent in the current discourses as Becky, even though she is given fewer chances to show this. Most often she uses them to establish a position of power by defending her self-reflection as a victim — a line of discursive action which she also takes with her mother, when she accuses her of "poisoning" Georgy with Daffy's Elixir (38: 359), later with Georgy himself, when she tells him he is to leave her (50: 459), and which culminates in her relations with Dobbin. On returning from India, he refuses to accept the position she has assigned him of "her husband's dearest friend," a "most kind and affectionate guardian," "so true and loyal a gentleman" (59: 546). Yet, when he bluntly declares, "It is for me to ask your pardon for being a fool for a moment, and thinking that years of constancy and devotion might have pleaded with you," she is overtaken by fear that she might lose him. Immediately, she goes on the offensive in the already familiar manner, accusing him of cruelty, neglect and possibly murder and using what has by now become her emblematic discursive strategy:
"It is you who are cruel now," Amelia said with some spirit. "George is my husband, here and in heaven .... Have you not been everything to me and my boy? Our dearest, kindest friend and protector? Had you come a few months sooner perhaps you might have spared me that that dreaded parting. It nearly killed me, William but you didn't come, though I wished and prayed for you to come, and they took him too away from me. (59: 551)
Like Becky, Dobbin is routed — though not for long, as his famous speech at the end of the novel shows. Amelia's appropriation of the language of crime, of vulnerable womanhood and of religion has turned into a variety of the hubris which Thackeray designates as vanity. Without underestimating the unfavourable factors that work against her, such as her father's improvidence and the poverty it brings to his family, as well as her social and emotional isolation, he thus makes it sufficiently clear that she fails to act as an independent and self-contained personality. What she does is reenact mechanically adopted ideological assumptions. This is certainly far from the sentimentality for which critics have often taken Thackeray to task. "Sentimentality" is in fact a discourse that Amelia exploits in order to fictionalize her life, thus reinstating the link between herself and popular romance patterns. Her implication with the discourses of power and her effective use of them undermines the very foundation of the antithetical opposition between the two heroines the claim that Amelia is "artless." Posing as the eternal victim, Amelia empties this concept of any real meaning. And if the audience's experience of her in the course of the novel is one of constant and increasing withdrawal of sympathy, it is not only because again and again her drama is revealed to be largely self-inflicted, but also because she, like Becky, does not want to resist the constricting impact of the Victorian ideological and discursive fixtures.
Nevertheless, it is through Amelia that Vanity Fair opens the rift that allows the forces of oppositionality in. Thackeray's faithfulness to the truth leads him to supply enough evidence suggesting that his heroine is actually capable of assessing and formulating her condition as it really is, even though until Dobbin's final departure she does not let her rationality acquire a distinct verbal shape. The first proof of this comes before her marriage, when she secretly reflects on the man she has chosen as her hero. Against the pressure of her emotions, her reason weighs the evidence and finds her fairy prince far from ideal:
Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. How many things had she said, and got no echo from him. How many suspicions of selfishness and indifference had she to encounter and obstinately overcome. To whom could the poor little martyr tell these daily struggles and tortures? Her hero himself only half understood her. She did not dare to own that the man she loved was her inferior; or to feel that she had given her heart away too soon. [18: 165]
Things here, we find, are called by their real names — selfishness, indifference, lack of understanding. Amelia's heart and reason speak with different voices, yet they both do speak, and it is the latter that brings her into contact with truth. As already mentioned, some critics have argued that in spite of the narrator's claim for sympathy, Amelia fails to win it because she is governed by fear and because she lacks the necessary perceptiveness (Spilka: 206). It is true that the self-derogatory language, which indicates her unconscious identification with the Cinderella image, dominates her thinking during the early days of her marriage, as shown in Chapter 25. But soon after, and in spite of her reluctance to dwell upon the relations between George and herself, Amelia again uses language to access experience directly, without any mediating discourse, even though the narrator's indirect, questioning mode leaves room for uncertainty: "Was the prize gained — the heaven of life — and the winner still doubtful and dissatisfied? . . . . Did she own to herself how different the real man was from that superb young hero she had worshipped?"(26: 240-241). Tentative as they are, given as "misgivings and fears" (18: 165), these instances of thought presentation, and especially the word "different," burst as early as this the protective bubble of sentimental, overblown qualifications and place her "romantic" and "realistic" conceptualizations of reality in an irreconcilable opposition.
More effective for the oppositional strain, however, than the moments of indirect thought presentation are the ones over which the narrator is silent. Amelia's prayers, for instance: "These, brother, are secrets, and out of the domain of Vanity Fair" (26: 243). Or when she decides to give Georgy over to his grandfather: "She could say no more, and walked silently to her room. Let us close it upon her prayers and her sorrow. I think we had best speak little about so much love and grief" (50: 460). The narrator's own explanation for his retreat is that he is deterred by his respect for the deepest moments of distress, and since Amelia is the only character who is placed in circumstances that are a legitimate cause of suffering, it is not surprising that his silences occur only in that context. This has led Jack Rawlins to doubt whether behind Amelia's solitary prayers is "anything but vanity in a pious guise" (31). However, as Peter Garrett observes, the narrator's withdrawal suggests the existence of "potential depth of feeling" (120) — something no other character outside Amelia can mediate. For a reader-oriented critic like Michael Lund, these silences function to engage the audience's response: "Into such empty spaces thus deliberately left vacant by the narrator we readers step, here filling in Amelia's unspoken distress with our own sympathetic apprehension of it" (152). Garrett similarly points to the "imaginative effort" required from the reader "to grasp what cannot be presented directly" (120). Yet there is more to these declarations of reticence than Thackeray's manipulation of the reader's response, for the narrator is not only unwilling but also incapable of giving them verbal expression. With irony and satire having already compromised all language, there are no resources left for this purpose. But acknowledging this significant lack, the narrative creates its textual function: the truth about Amelia goes counter to the narrator's claim that the public domain of the Fair comprises all of reality, and that it lends itself to representation and to critique.
There is also the problem of how to reconcile this truth with his statement that outside the Fair one can only be "perfectly miserable in private" (19: 176). Most importantly, if outside the domain of the social world there exist inexpressible truths — the positive alternatives to the discourses through which the Fair defines itself — how can they be communicated? Attempts to resolve these problems can be found in Thackeray's handling of the figure and the voice of his narrator.
Narrative Authority and the Ironic Narrator
Criticism has dealt at length with the problematics of this elusive figure which constantly changes its identities and moves freely between the world of the characters and of the readers. The days when the narrator's intrusive tactics in Vanity Fair were deemed a breach of aesthetic ndecorum are now long gone and no student of Thackeray would choose to share Percy Lubbock's, Arnold Kettle's and Dorothy Van Ghent's opposition to his meddling into the allegedly inviolable space of the story. Nor, ever since Geoffrey Tillotson's and Juliet McMaster's powerful defense, have his commentaries been treated as an excrescence or believed to come straight from Thackeray himself. Vanity Fair's narrator is, in fact, a prime example of what Edward Said has formulated as one of the special conditions for the generic conceptualization of narrative fiction: that "the truth — whatever that may be can only be approached indirectly, by means of a mediation that because of its falseness paradoxically makes the truth truer" (57). In spite of his notorious versatility and the numerous masks he dons, therefore, the Manager of the Performance, the preacher in cap and bells, the "brother wearer of motley" (19: 176), the man who has personally spoken to the characters (62: 577), is the chief agent in the construction and imposition of the global meanings in the novel, that is, of its narrative function, as well as a character in his own right, and therefore instrumental to its irony to no smaller a degree than the protagonists themselves.
The role of the narrator in Vanity Fair's ironic framework has been well-recognized by most critics. Some have seen him as a Socratic ironist: Iser, for example, argues that the aesthetic effect of the novel is produced by his strategies of creating gaps which "[stimulate] the reader's critical faculties so that he may recognize the social reality of the novel as a confusing array of sham attitudes, and experience the exposure of sham as the true reality" (112). The narrator, according to him, offers a number of alternative ways in which the characters and their actions can be judged and from which the reader must make a choice (118). Iser thus rightly foregrounds the mediating function of Thackeray's narrator on the basis of an analogical empiricist process.13 With its insistence that the narrator's appeal in Vanity Fair is primarily intellectual, while the effect of his activity is aesthetic, Iser effectively evokes an analogy between Vanity Fair and Plato's Socratic dialogues. Similarly, Juliet McMaster's excellent first chapter of her comprehensive study of Thackeray shows how the narrator's self-depreciating rhetoric in his commentaries spurs the reader on to reconstruct his own reality and from a position of self-knowledge to confront the truth about the characters and about the Fair as a whole. In a short but influential study, Sister Corona M. Sharp looks towards each of the various levels of the novel where the narrator is operative — those of character-portrayal, of the narrator-reader relationship and of his self-depreciating attitude — and also concludes that on all of them he sets up contradictions that the reader must and can resolve. For all three critics, there is a stable core of "truth" behind the array of moral and emotional postures that the narrator strikes. The approaches to Thackeray's narrator as a Socratic figure therefore rely on irony's differential aspect and foreground its satiric function. Reaching the reality is, according to them, a heuristic enterprise, a voyage of discovery with the narrator as a ludic yet reliable guide. His playfulness and subversive shiftiness indeed place obstacles and often push one into the wrong path, but ultimately his moral and artistic integrity makes the journey worth the reader's moral and aesthetic while.
Another critical perspective on Thackeray's narrator regards him as Schlegel's "transcendental buffoon." In his analysis of Vanity Fair, de Ryals argues that the presiding "I" is that of the romantic ironist, dramatizing "the irony of change" (35) and mixing with it the moralist's pose. As a Victorian version of romantic irony, Thackeray's novel in de Ryals's view contains all the necessary ingredients — the generic mixture, the self-conscious performance carried out by characters and narrator alike, the obliteration of the distinction between fact and fiction, as well as the resulting instability of the reader's own position. Like other critics, most notably Iser (119) and Jack Rawlins (13), de Ryals concludes that the true subject of the novel is the reader, but with the important difference that, according to him, the cosmic perspective of time asserts the impossibility of change (47). Although he never overtly makes the point, Rawlins also treats Vanity Fair as a product of romantic irony, since he insists that it is made of heterogeneous generic material, while the narrator "uses the surface text for an aesthetic discussion" (36).
There is much validity in the claims made by the abovementioned critics. The rejection of the appearance by means of its distancing from the reality — the differential aspect of irony's meaning — is indeed the purpose announced in "Before the Curtain," where the Manager of the Performance presents his novel as a spectacle enacted on a specially constructed stage and assigns to his readers the role of an audience awaiting the start of the show. In addition to this self-conscious emphasis on the distinction between life and art, there is also the narrator's function of creating and sustaining the impression that the two heroines and their stories stand in a relation of contrast. The use of two heroines with symmetrical narrative lines — a tactic which invites the reader to treat the novel's structure as that of moral argument and to seek its resolution based on poetic justice &mdasah; places Vanity Fair firmly in the tradition of Victorian literature, with its pronounced didacticism. Yet, the impression that the novel is built like an argument is another of the many false leads in Vanity Fair. The narrator himself jokingly undermines it at the beginning of Chapter 6 through the facetious confusion of premises and the parodic lowering of the level on which his reasoning moves: "The argument stands thus — Osborne, in love with Amelia, has asked an old friend to dinner and to Vauxhall — Jos Sedley is in love with Rebecca. Will he marry her? That's the great subject now in hand" (6: 60). Moreover, unlike Socrates, Thackeray's narrator does not claim rational reasoning and philosophical insight as the goal of his activity: "I" here is introduced to personify the world in general," he states (36: 337). Again contrary to Socrates' self-deprecating ironic dialectic, what his transdiscursive and transideological agility eventually asserts is the "truer truth" that any claim for an individual position that differs from the common one is no more than another projection of desire constituted within the available discourses. For Thackeray's narrator is only slightly superior to the world he criticizes — the only height he commands is that of the "boards," or of the tub from which he sermonizes to his cox-combed brethren.
The argument that the discourse of the narrator in Vanity Fair makes it a work of romantic irony similarly meets with obstacles. There are, indeed, many formal analogies, which de Ryals has painstakingly investigated in his study. Nevertheless, though the narrator may be a buffoon, as this critic claims, he is not transcendent. His perspective is determined by the vanitas vanitatum theme, hence his subjectivity is one he shares with all humanity. His appearance in varying but concrete social roles — as husband and father, as bachelor and an old man, as a historian and man of the world — serves to rivet his identity into the social world. The versatility of identities, the breaking of the illusion, the anachronistic leaps from the time of the action to the time of the writing and of the reading of the novel — all of these in fact work together to bring out the self-conscious awareness that the fiction is not life, but that it can mediate between life's different aspects. If any final meaning can be found in the narrator's discursive agility, it is that everything he says both is and is not true. The inclusivity of this reality is that crucial moment of comprehension which Thackeray's realism aims to produce. And for Thackeray in Vanity Fair this realization alone is an intensely personal experience, directed to the inner reality of a self which "mirrors" the world in an infinite regressive series of images.
The redirection of the final ironic meaning away from the simple differentiation between appearances and reality, or from the assertion of the unlimited power of the artist's subjectivity, becomes evident in Thackeray's decision to change his title-page illustration when the novel came out in book form. In the later drawing, the foreground is occupied by a sad-looking jester in rather shabby attire, gazing into a cracked mirror which reflects his own expression of melancholy mixed with bewilderment. All the appurtenances of the puppeteer and clown — the wooden sword and the puppets in their box — seem to have been hastily discarded; an idyllic, typically English rural landscape forms the shady background, separated from the stage by a flimsy wooden fence. Both the world of the reader's reality (implied by the buildings in the background) and the world of the novel (emblematically represented by the improvised stage) become peripheral to the clown's intense self-contemplation. Thackeray himself, therefore, offers an alternative mode in which his narrator should be treated — as a figure less occupied in the process of negotiating the rift between the truth of experience and the truth of art than in exploring the problems and discontinuities of experience alone.
The illustration pictorially repeats what Thackeray states in a famous letter to Robert Bell. Bell had protested against the "unredeemed wickedness of [the novel's] pictures" which might "corrupt [young people's] morals" (Letters, II: 503). Thackeray wrote:
If I had put in more fresh air as you call it my object would have been defeated — it is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people "desperately wicked" and all eager after vanities. Everybody is you see in that book — for instance, if I had made Amelia a higher order of woman there would have been no vanity in Dobbin falling in love with her, whereas the impression at present is that he is a fool for his pains that he has married a silly little thing and in fact has found out his error ‰¥Ï I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story we ought all to be with our own and all other stories. Good God, don't I see (in that may-be cracked and warped looking glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses wickedness lusts follies shortcomings? in company let us hope with better qualities about which we will pretermit discourse. We must lift up our voices and howl to a congregation of fools: so much at least has been my endeavour. [Letters, II: 503]
There are obvious references in this letter to the moralist endeavour of Thackeray's satire, and to the earlier illustration of the preacher in motley "howling to a congregation of fools" on the subject of vanity. The "better qualities" cannot be spoken about; they lie in areas where the writer (or the narrator of his novel) cannot tread. But the "may-be cracked and warped looking glass" both here and in the illustration attests to the belief that the artist, or his fictional impersonation, is restricted. He has no direct access to the world: total objectivity, the faithful representation of reality is impossible. The morality of his enterprise lies in offering the means whereby the audience can look at themselves and discover their common humanity. This means is narrative — Thackeray invites his readers to "read" their lives as "stories" in order to give them proper assessment. His novel can thus provoke analogies that will set up similarities and differences not between life and art, but between structures of moral and psychological experience that can be empirically created, on the basis of the historical evidence narrator and reader have at their disposal.
The awareness that structures of experience are the real subject of Vanity Fair is the underlying principle of the narrator-reader relationship in the novel. The narrator sets up an openly dialogic form of communication; he is as versatile in his modes of address as in his assumed identities. But unlike a Socratic dialogue, the proliferation of identities and of fictive personages in the commentaries turns the dialogue into a conversation between the participants in the Fair themselves. The narrator's role is not to support or, as would more often be expected, to refute their theses. The ironic use of "echoic mention" offers him the opportunity to adopt different positions vis-a-vis the attitudes expressed and the discourses that have engendered them. Called upon by the direct modes of address to interpret the ironies, the actual readers become aware that such patterns of thinking and behaviour exist in and determine their own society, which constitutes the ironist's true "discursive community."
An excellent illustration of the narrator's use of irony for the purpose of mediating between discourses comes when he introduces Miss Crawley, Rawdon's maiden aunt and the wealthiest member of the Crawley family. Miss Crawley, the narrator says,
was an object of great respect when she came to Queen's Crawley, for she had a balance at her banker's which would have made her beloved anywhere. What a dignity it gives an old lady, that balance at the banker's! How tenderly we look at her faults, if she is a relative (and may every reader have a score of such), what a kind good-natured creature we find her! . . . How, when she comes to pay us a visit, we generally find an opportunity to let our friends know her station in the world! We say (and with perfect truth) I wish I had Miss MacWhirter's signature to a cheque for five thousand pounds. She wouldn't miss it, says your wife. She is my aunt, say you, in an easy careless way, when your friend asks whether Miss MacWhirter is any relative . . . Is it so, or is it not so? I appeal to the middle classes. Ah, gracious powers! I wish you would send me an old aunt — a maiden aunt — an aunt with a lozenge on her carriage, and a front of coffee-coloured hair &mdasah; how my children would work workbags for her, and my Julia and I would make her comfortable! Sweet sweet visions! Foolish — foolish dream! [9: 90]
The irony in this "story" is seductively easy to spot and interpret, for it rests on the blame-by-praise and the non-sequitur which characteristically reflect the confusion between moral and material values typifying the mentality of the world Thackeray satirizes. But it is when the narrator buttonholes the reader, requiring a straight answer about the truth of this "case study," that the insidiousness of his tactic comes out in its full force. For the reply, whatever it might be, will be self-condemning: even if it is negative, it will align the reader with those who, like the younger Pitt Crawley, fall into the category of "pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior value" (Letters, II: 309). The narrator does not stop at the point where satire would have achieved its aim of rejecting the mercenary motives lying behind ostensible respect and affection. He sends the whole episode into the realm of dreams his no less than his reader's where it will remain intact, leaving the addressee the possibility to enjoy the "sweet vision" in the security of the unspoken. This additionally compromises the ethics of his gesture, for "sweet vision" and "foolish dreams" echo the already discarded forms of identification with romance. The only positive content of the whole digression is that of confronting the audience with a superbly detailed model of thinking and behaviour which, in its ironic tone and form alone, suggests the existence of alternative, correct modes of conceiving reality. The resulting relativity is perhaps the most disturbing effect of the narrator's transideological, and hence slippery, discursive tactic. It does indeed help carry across Thackeray's satiric condemnation of Victorian hypocrisy and Christian self-righteousness, but it extends further than that, into the very heart of Thackeray's moral and artistic endeavour in Vanity Fair the concept of truth. We see it most prominently in the narrator's and most probably Thackeray's attempts to define Becky's status in the moral and social framework of the novel. G. H. Lewes sensed that when he remonstrated against the comment which follows her thought that she could be a good woman on five thousand a year. "And who knows," the narrator says,
but Rebecca was right in her speculations — and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? . . . A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so. An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton, but put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf. [41: 392]
As Lewes rightly observed, the comment effectively asserts that "honesty is only the virtue of abundance" (Letters, II: 353) and therefore goes against the very argument put forward by the novel — that money-grabbing is the most fundamental wrong of Victorian society. In his reply Thackeray not only took responsibility for the comment but openly stated his belief that "If Becky had had 5000 a year I have no doubt in my mind that she would have been respectable" (ibid.). The replacement of "honest" with "respectable" does not remove the problem regarding the standards by which Thackeray's "rogue" is to be judged. Is she corrupt by birth, or has her poverty made her so? As I have already argued, Thackeray's answer in the book is equivocal: the only norm of assessment he offers is the mutual interrelation of the discourses that form the conceptual ground for her definition. Even in the same episode he refuses to pin himself down as to the virtues Becky has ignored. Says the narrator, "It may, perhaps, have struck her that to have been honest and humble, to have done her duty, and to have marched straightforward on her way, would have brought her as near happiness as that path by which she was striving to attain it" (41: 392). As near happiness, Sister Corona M. Sharp points out, "has the subtle force of cancelling the moral lesson in the very act of uttering it. If morality could not make Rebecca more happy than her present life, why should she bother about it?"(329). But this renunciation of the moral standpoint is not, as the critic claims, the asset of the Socratic ironist who "tears down false standards in order to build his own" (330). Thackeray's irony typically rejects the very idea of standards, even as his satire sedulously tries to assert it.
There is yet another aspect in Vanity Fair where the narrator's ironic strategies act so subversively as to endanger the premises of the whole realist enterprise. This time the problem has to do with truth not as a moral but as an epistemological category. Again, it is around Becky that it arises. In Chapters 36 and 37, "How to Live Well on Nothing a Year" and "The Subject Continued," the narrator traces Becky's machinations to establish herself at the centre of fashionable society. The text here is as "documentary" as possible: it presents the bare facts of her career as causes that lead to their logical effect — Rebecca's success. It is this factuality that foregrounds the ironic reversal of the notions of trust, honesty, and charity, all of which are deliberately ignored by the heroine. The narrator's method is so rigorously empiricist that it can easily convince the ironic interpreter that he holds the conflict of meanings — and therefore the truth — in a firm grasp. In Chapter 47, "Gaunt House," however, the narrator's cognitive monopoly falters: confessing he has no access to the great Marquis's mansion (432), he hands over the task of providing information to a certain Tom Eaves. Tom Eaves is, like the narrator himself, "omniscient" because he is a man of the world, one "who knows everybody's affairs" (433). Tom Eaves's domain is the dinner party, and the form of his knowledge is that of gossip, or calumny more specifically: he has "no other feeling with regard to his betters, but a constant and generous desire to dine with them" (436). But with his claims that he belongs to the great world while he is in fact precariously balanced on its periphery, he, too, is a boastful alazon who falls within the scope of the narrator's ironic thrusts: he is "too glad to get a bow or a dinner" from any great person (434). The narrator himself has some doubts about the truth of Tom Eaves's facts, so he presents them with a caveat: his information "may or may not be true" (434). Yet, as Becky's activities take her to the very centre of the "best" of society, the second-hand, Tomeavesian way of knowing gradually encompasses more and more of the narrative, eventually acquiring the same authority as that of the narrator.
According to critic Janice Carlisle, the effect of the inclusion of gossip as a form of knowledge in Vanity Fair is "that this potentially hazardous development implicates the reader in the process which keeps such nasty tales in circulation while it questions their reliability" (57). For Carlisle, this is one of the undoubted feats of Thackeray's narrative technique in Vanity Fair, since it tightens the experiential bond between fiction and audience. Another critic, G. Armour Craig, however, regards this use of unreliable "external" information at the expense of fair, straightforward presentation of fact, not as a potential but as an actual danger. Analyzing the way the narrative deals with the fundamental question around Becky, "Was she guilty or not?," Craig concludes that Thackeray refuses to commit himself to an answer — and to a meaning of "guilty" that could allot Becky a stable place in the novel's moral framework. In consequence, he argues, the reader who wants to decide where Becky stands in relation to his own moral standards "sees that while he wants to answer these questions, he can only conclude that he is looking at a situation before which his moral vocabulary is irrelevant" (97).
Compared to Carlisle, Craig has the better of the argument, though his conclusions need to be extended further, to the coexistence of two principles on which Thackeray builds his narrative in the last third of the novel. There is the narrator's omniscience, but there is also alongside it the Tomeavesean way of knowing, with an equal claim to totalizing knowledge. Because they can both construct coherent narratives, they compete for performative power — each can provide a logical ending to the story. And it is from the likes of Tom Eaves, whose "truths" are already morally discredited by the narrator's irony, that Becky gets her sentence and is exiled, physically and socially, from the fashionable world. Asking for the last time "Was she guilty or not?" the narrator, in another flash of blame-by-praise, declares: "We all know how charitable the world is, and how the verdict of Vanity Fair goes when there is a doubt" (55: 515). Yet Becky in "A Vagabond Chapter" acts precisely according to the image Vanity Fair has constructed for her, displaying a compliance surprising in a person that has for so long managed, artistically and artfully, to hold her own. Thus the verbal irony — and therefore the narrator's reality — dissolves in a welter of appearances with no actual counterweight. So, with the authority of his superior omniscience threatened, the narrator resorts to his last and most objectionable "trick" — to refashion, as with a magic wand, the stage-set of the performance whose manager he is, into a world where the narrator is to be trusted because he knows the characters personally: "It was on this very tour [to Pumpernickel] that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and make their acquaintance" (62: 574). The whole narrative thus becomes authenticated by virtue of the narrator's claim that he has had direct access to reality and that his "facts" are actually information passed on to him by the characters themselves. He has already slipped in an anticipatory reference to this: "I was told by Dr. Pestler (now a most flourishing lady's physician) that [Amelia's] grief at weaning the child was a sight that would have unmanned a Herod" (38: 361). After Chapter 62, however, the authentication works as more than a minor metanarrative joke. Rather than drawing the fictional world into the real one, the real world itself gets sucked into the fiction, parallel to the two opposite directions of movement taken by the narrator in the narrative space. This indeed grants the fiction the power that the realist writer seeks to assert for his art — a power enhanced by the aesthetic effect of his play with the omniscient writer convention. Nevertheless, it also erodes the very standard on which realism bases its claim to a comprehensive truth — the correspondence of the world of his novel to an ontologically distinct non-verbal reality.
The implications of Thackeray's outrageous breach of narrative conventions extend beyond the readers' awareness that the novelist is playing a game with their trust and enjoying it. By placing his narrator as a source of first-hand knowledge inside the world of his fiction, Thackeray is, in fact, creating the textual function of his narrative: it ironically inverts, and thus highlights, the conventionality of the devices whereby the realist writer creates the effect of verisimilitude. His inconsistency provides a possible solution to his greatest problem in Vanity Fair. This difficulty is not so much artistic as ethical and epistemological, and it arises both from his uncertainty, which Thackeray shares with the other Victorian novelists, about the nature and scope of the concept of reality, and from his comprehensive use of irony. Given that with its ability to identify erroneous constructions of experience irony is a way of knowing the truth about the "world beyond words," how can the ironist and the interpreter escape complicity with the invalidated meanings? What moral value does that truth accrue, since morality itself is a concept that is meaningful only within a particular discursive universe and therefore vulnerable? Where can the ironist find a discourse unscathed by irony's edge? Reaching out towards reality through first-hand knowledge, acquired by a sleight of hand, is one way out of the quandary, but, as shown above, this mode of authentication risks confusing the reader. Another is to reorient the target and search for some kind of pristine "truth" in the intimately personal experience. In Vanity Fair, where social satire, parody and the cosmic perspective govern the politics of irony, the latter remains a possibility only tentatively explored through Amelia. The real attempt to turn it into the artistic foundation of a whole novel comes with Henry Esmond, which forms the subject of the following chapter.
Last modified 5 July 2010