William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 – 1863) was born to a prosperous middle-class family in India His father was an English official in Calcutta. After his father’s death, when the boy was 3 years old, he was brought to England to be educated at school and later at Cambridge University. Being a student, William devoted much time to drawing cartoons and writing verses, chiefly parodies.
He couldn’t bear the scholastic atmosphere of the University, and as his ambition was to become an artist, he left the University without graduating and went to Germany, Italy and France to study art. On returning to London he began a law course in 1833 to complete his education. Soon the Indian bank where his father’s money was invested, went bankrupt, and William was left penniless. That’s why he was obliged to drop his studies to earn his living.
He took up journalism as a profession and as he himself illustrated his humorous articles, essays, reviews and short stories, they were in great demand In 1836 he married Isabella Shawe and after that their three daughters were born Thackeray’s married life wasn’t happy as his wife fell ill and the illness affected her mind Thackeray gave up his business and for a long time tried his best to relieve his wife’s sufferings and make her life comfortable, but she never regained her health. In the end an old lady began to take care of her. Isabella outlived her husband by many years.
William Makepeace Thackeray is a representative of Critical, Realism in the English literature of the 19th century. In his novels Thackeray gives a vivid description of both middle class and aristocratic society, their mode of life, manners, and tastes. He exposes their pride and tyranny, their hypocrisy and snobbishness, their selfishness and wickedness. His keen insight into human nature gives Thackeray an analytical and satirical quality which found its expression in the portrayal of his characters. Thackeray’s criticism is powerful, his satire is acute and bitter.
He is a genius in portrayal negative characters realistically. His realism is exact and objective. Thackeray develops the realistic traditions of his predecessors, the enlighteners, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding and becomes one of the most prominent realists and satirists of his age. His characters are not static, they develop as the story progresses. They are shown as natural results of their environment and the society that bred them. He depicts his characters as if he were viewing them from afar. This new feature in literature was later called objective realism.
Thackeray doesn’t believe in the possibility of reforming man, and his pessimism marks the beginning of the crisis of bourgeois humanism which is characteristic of the literature of the second half of the 19th century. The world to Thackeray is “Vanity Fair” where men and women “are greedy, pompous, mean, perfectly satisfied and at ease about their superior virtue. They despise poverty and kindness of heart. They are snobs. ” The word “snob” was invented by Thackeray in his “Book of Snobs” A snob is a person “who fawns upon his social superior and looks down with contempt on his inferiors. The gallery of snobs in the book convinces the reader that “snobbishness” was one of the most characteristic features of the ruling class of England at that time Thackeray wrote, “The society that sets up to be polite and ignores Art and Letters, I hold to be a Snobbish society. You, who despise your neighbour, are a Snob; you, who forget your own friends, meanly to follow after those of a higher degree, are a Snob; you, who are ashamed of your poverty and blush for your calling, are a Snob, as are you to boast of your pedigree, or are proud of your wealth. ” Vanity Fair” “Vanity Fair” is one of the greatest examples of the 19th century Critical Realism.
Thackeray succeeded not only in portraying his epoch but also in showing people’s life, their human nature and time movement. The subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero” emphasizes that the author doesn’t describe separate individuals, but English bourgeois – aristocratic society as a whole. Thackeray presents various people, their thoughts and actions in different situations. In the author’s opinion, there can be no hero in a society where the cult of money rules the world. Vanity Fair” is a social novel which depicts the laws that govern the bourgeois- aristocratic society. Everything is bought and sold in that society. The author compares his characters to puppets, and society to a puppet show. He attacks the vanity, pretensions, prejudices and corruption of the aristocracy (the Crawleys Lord, Steyne), narrow-mindedness and greed of the bourgeoisie (The Osbornes, the Sedleys). On the whole the author presents a broad satirical picture of contemporary England.
The novel tells of the destiny of two girls with sharply contrasting characters- Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Rebecca Sharp, an adventuress, a daughter of a poor artist, represents wit without virtue. Amelia Sedley, a daughter of a rich city merchant, represents virtue without wit. Becky’s character is depicted with great skill. She is pleasant to look at, clever and gifted. She possesses a keen sense of humour and deep understanding of human nature Rebecca embodies the very spirit of Vanity Fair.
Her aim in life is to worm her way into high society at all costs. She believes neither in love nor in friendship. She is ready to marry any man who can give her wealth and a title. Finally she marries Captain Rawdon Crawley, the son of Sir Pitt Crawley. She hoped that some day her husband would inherit a great deal of money from his rich aunt. But her hopes never came true. Flattery, hypocrisy, lies, betrayal help Becky to enter the upper ranks of society but no happiness is in store for her. In contrast to Rebecca Sharp Amelia Sedley is honest, generous and kind.
But she can’t be regarded as the heroine of the novel as Thackeray writes that she is not intelligent enough to evaluate the real qualities of the people who surround her. She is naive and simple-hearted to realize the dirty machinations of her clever and sly friend, Rebecca. The best years of her life are ruined by her unhappy love to George Osborne, her light-minded and selfish husband. Thackeray depicts Amelia’s character with subtle irony. After her father went bankrupt, she was poor and miserable, but having got some legacy from one of her relatives, she finds her place in the world of bourgeois snobs.
Thackeray’s satire reaches its climax when he describes Sir Pitt Crawley, a typical snob of Vanity Fair. He is a baronet, the owner of Queen’s Crawley, he possesses money and a title. That is how Becky described Sir Pitt Crawly: “Sir Pitt, … is an old , …vulgar, cruel and very dirty man in old shabby clothes, who smokes a horrid pipe. He speaks with a country accent and swears a great deal, … he is an old screw as he never gives any money to anybody. ” Lord Steyne is among aristocratic snobs.
He is cynical and clever, he is corrupted to the marrow He gained his title and wealth by having named a rich woman of high origin and is considered a pillar of the state. Thackeray’s style is distinguished by the fact that he often interrupts his narrative and talks to the reader about the characters. The author seldom tells the reader directly what he thinks about them His attitude is expressed either by different personages of the novel or by vivid descriptions which invite the reader to share the author’s opinion.