Some of the illustrations that Thackeray produced for Vanity Fair depict characters external to the central narrative. Most notably, several representations of the narrator appear throughout the novel. The original engraved title page of the first instalment depicts 'a jester expounding on the follies of an audience living in a topsy-turvy world' (Knoepflmacher, 65). The speaker stands on a tub addressing a crowd which 'possesses the same donkey ears that adorn the jester's cap' (65). Ioan. M. Williams cites a section of an essay by Thomas Carlyle, stating that it 'attacked the emptiness of contemporary novels' (Williams, 185). Williams explains that Thackeray's Biographer, Gordon Ray, saw the jester design as a reference to the following section of Carlyle's essay (185): 'How knowest thou [ . . . ] that this my long-ear of a Fictitious Biography shall not find one and the other, into whose still longer ears it may be the means [ . . . ] of instilling somewhat?' (185). In the light of Carlyle's contemporary writing, the meaning of the jester illustration is clarified. As a title page, it invites the long eared audience to listen to the tale of an equally long eared narrator. It does not promise the narrative it preludes will be any less vacuous than the fashionable novels Carlyle apparently attacked, but the crowd of jesters reflects Thackeray's suggestion that 'a man [ . . . ] walking through an exhibition of this sort, will not be oppressed [ . . . ] by his own or other people's hilarity' (Thackeray, 'Before the Curtain'). The behaviour of the individuals among the crowd appears to be based on part of Thackeray's foreword: 'There are scenes of all sorts; some dreadful combats [ . . . ] some lovemaking for the sentimental, and some light comic business' (Thackeray, 'Before the Curtain'). The title page illustration adopts the function of selling the narrative of Vanity Fair. It gives a visual preview of the various social situations within the novel, as well as the jovial manner in which they are narrated. It responds to Carlyle's contemporary criticism by simply promising to 'instil somewhat' into its audience's long ears.
Another important image of this jester narrator appears at the end of Chapter IX. A miniature jester sits with his staff across his lap, and has removed a smiling mask to expose the comparatively subdued face of Thackeray himself. The meaning of this caricature is elusive. Ioan. M. Williams warns that the 'mistake of confusing Thackeray with his narrator is an elementary one' (Williams, 183). Yet this image clearly invites the supposition that Thackeray is expressing himself through the narrative voice of Vanity Fair's showman. Dorothy Van Ghent speaks out against Thackeray's decision to 'enter the story in his own voice' as 'there is nothing to keep him from talking' (Van Ghent, 114). Van Ghent's opinion can be summarised as follows: 'What we feel is that two orders of reality are clumsily getting in each other's way: the order of imaginative reality, where Becky lives, and the order of historical reality, where William Makepeace Thackeray lives' (115).Van Ghent is particularly critical of the narrator's treatment of Amelia, which she describes as an 'unforgivable parenthesis' (115). The critic quotes Thackeray and then states her objection:
'(And I think for a kiss from such a dear creature as Amelia, I would purchase all Mr.Lee's conservatories out of hand.)' [ch.4] the picture of Thackeray himself kissing Amelia pulls Amelia quite out of the created world of Vanity Fair and drops her into some shapeless limbo of Thackerayan sentiment. (115)
Ioan. M. Williams attempts to rebut this criticism by arguing that 'the narrator and Thackeray are not to be identified' (Williams, 183). In support of this conjecture, the critic points to what the narrator reveals about himself: 'that he was young fifty years ago, that his boyhood occurred twenty five years ago, and that he has a wealthy maiden aunt and a wife called Julia!' (183). Thus he demonstrates that the narrator's biography is different to Thackeray's. Williams disagrees with Van Ghent, claiming that 'The narrator [ . . . ] is a part of the created world of Vanity Fair' (184). When we consider the caricatured jester, which has Thackeray's face, it is difficult to accept the idea that the narrator is a created character who is completely independent of Thackeray. However Williams has demonstrated that the background information surrounding the narrator is inconsistent with Thackeray's background. Geoffrey Tillotson offers greater insight into the nature of Thackeray's fictional narrator. He says that:
Thackeray's fear at bottom was of being dragged as a person into practical affairs [...] the fictional narrator of Thackeray's fiction was a means of retreating into what the most earnest or least literary readers must see as nearer to inaccessible. [Tillotson, 62]
This idea of the retreated narrator is consistent with the jester and mask image. The Jester suit and laughing mask represent the created narrator, and beneath this is the author, Thackeray. Tillotson further asserts the masking function of the narrator, when he notes that it made 'ample provisions for essential anonymity by a series of mystifications' (63). Thackeray shows his face from behind the mask because 'he knew he must not retreat too far. He wanted to continue to say and think many things' (62). The tiny tailpiece, which follows Chapter IX, is a reminder then of the way Thackeray intends the narrator to be perceived. The narrator is another character; who happens to be the showman and story teller of Vanity Fair. When Thackeray presents himself as this character, whom I.M. Williams believes 'is as finely realised as Becky Sharp' (Williams, 184), he should not be directly accountable for any flaws in the narrative commentary. In this case Van Ghent's accusation of Thackeray's 'unforgivable parenthesis' (Van Ghent, 115) is misguided. The idea of the narrator kissing Amelia does not pull her into 'into some shapeless limbo of Thackerayan sentiment (115). The reader knows that the narrator can exist in the same reality as the other characters. He enters this reality in Chapter LXII, saying 'It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance' (Thackeray, 622). It is just as acceptable for the unnamed, fictional narrator to recount his first meeting with Amelia, as it is for him to express his desire to have a kiss from her, because he does so in the character of the created showman. He is always wearing the costume and mask shown in the illustration. Had Van Ghent close read the illustrations which relate to the narrator, she would have been unlikely to make such scathing criticisms of Thackeray as a narrator. She might, however, have simply redirected them at the character of Thackeray's created showman.
Ghent. Dorothy Van, "The Omniscient Author Convention and the Compositional Centre". In Pollard, Arthur. Ed. Thackeray: Vanity Fair, The Macmillan Press ltd, Hong Kong, 1992.
Knoepflmacher.U.C, "Thackeray's Masks". Pollard, Arthur. Ed. Thackeray: Vanity Fair, The Macmillan Press ltd, Hong Kong, 1992.
Thackeray, W.M, Vanity Fair, Norton and Co, U.S.A, First Edition, 1994.
Tillotson. Geoffrey, Thackeray the Novelist, Cambridge University Press, 1963.
Williams. Ioan.M, "The Role of the Narrator". In Pollard, Arthur. Ed. Thackeray: Vanity Fair, The Macmillan Press Ltd, Hong Kong, 1992.
Last modified 30 April 2008