Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vanity, vanity

All is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 1:1).   Such a cheerful sentiment.  On the one hand, the universe is so vast, that all our human concerns are just a speck, not even a hill of beans.  And yet we still need to find some meaning for the time we do spend here on Earth.  The way most religious people square this circle is by saying there is a personal God with infinite knowledge and insight who will take the time to care for each of the millions (now billions) of humans and furthermore judge each of us for what we have done and accomplished while alive.  For agnostics and atheists, this seems unlikely, and they must muddle along, often drawing on humanist principles, but assuming that there is no ultimate purpose to their lives.  (It's somewhat interesting that the phrase "This, too, shall pass" is not in the Bible.  One could certainly argue that it could be derived from Ecclesiastes in a (very) general way, say from "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).  This post suggests some other possible origins, though interestingly does not list Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, though again it would be more of a paraphrase than a direct quote.  I might mention in passing that Ecclesiastes seems to me to contain more than the normal share of contradictory passages.)

Before this post gets too philosophical, I will mention that it is going to center around my thoughts on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which I finished up a short while back.  Still, there is a clear linkage, since Thackeray has in mind the concept that the good and the wicked will not receive their just rewards in this life time, and while this may seem puzzling or unfair to many, it is the way of the world.  (It would only be in the afterworld that this gets sorted out.)  Thackeray also draws on the idea of the wheel of fortune, since individuals (and indeed families) can go up and down in terms of their material comfort and whether or not they will be received in society (intimately linked as Thackeray points out at length), but their elevation or decline has nothing to do with their inherent goodness but with their cleverness (but even moreso their luck).

While Thackeray was probably not the first to really dwell on parents dying and the attendant fussing over wills and legacies, this is incredibly pervasive throughout the novel, with several characters left out of wills and the impact this had on their fortunes sketched out.  But taking the long, long, long view, it doesn't really matter, since the heir and the disowned son both will arrive at the same place (though the poor do tend to die much sooner).

"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)

I have trouble believing Thackeray completely holds with this philosophy, since it makes all human endeavors, particularly writing about such endeavors, pointless.  He may hold a more intermediate (and fairly jaded) view that there is no point in being overly proud, since one's position is so largely due to luck (and in particular one's luck in being born to a particular set of parents).

I think it is probably fair to say that Thackeray is among the least moral of the Victorian novelists, since good people do not ultimately prevail.  They may or may not, but it is largely due to circumstances beyond their control.  And the wicked are not necessarily punished, which is fairly radical for English novelists of this period.  I'd say that Middlemarch (even though written over 20 years later) is still more sentimental (and judgemental) than Vanity Fair.  I didn't particularly like Middlemarch, so I am certainly biased, but I'd say that while there are a number of key elements that Eliot borrows from Vanity Fair (issues surrounding bequests and couples finding themselves ill-matched), Vanity Fair is by far superior in its handling of them.

Let me back up to possible influences on Thackeray's world view.  The most common metaphor that Thackeray uses in the introduction and throughout the novel is that the characters are puppets that the author has been manipulating for the amusement of the reader.  It doesn't have any higher meaning and the play doesn't necessarily have a moral.  This seems a bit of a callback to Shakespeare's Prospero, but it may be ever more closely tied with Jacques's speech in As You Like It: "All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages."

I will stop here and say that while I liked the Oxford edition of Vanity Fair, since it had Thackeray's own illustrations and pretty good notes,* it was extremely annoying in that 1) the Introduction SPOILED the entire plot of the book (which I thought was incredibly rude) and even the footnotes weren't much better what with their foretelling what would come later and 2) there are two paragraphs that have been misplaced (by a couple of pages) for centuries, but the notes only mention this and the book wasn't reset, which seemed unduly prissy.  So if you get this edition and haven't read the book before, save the Introduction for the end.  I wish I had.

To that end, do not read on if you don't want MAJOR SPOILERS.

It may be that Thackeray is one of the first English novelists to cast doubt on the happily ever after aspect of marriage.  I'm sure that some of the Gothic novelists had their heroines marry monsters, but the idea that two normal people get married and then become estranged seems a bit radical for English literature of that time (I could be off of course).  The first chapters of Vanity Fair came out just before Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were accepted for publication, so it probably wasn't a huge influence on those novels.  Maybe there was just something in the air at that time.  It is interesting that while George Eliot definitely picks up on some of Thackeray's themes, Jane Austen's fiction is in some ways more conservative (once the marriageable females have found their mates, the curtain drops -- maybe I am oversimplifying a bit...).

Back to Vanity Fair, it doesn't take too long for the reader to grow weary of  Amelia's air-brushing of the past, selectively forgetting how badly George had treated her in Belgium.  If anything, it is astonishing how long it takes William Dobbin to get sick of being in the friend-zone.**  (And who would have thought that Thackeray would have been so eloquent in describing the friend-zone: "He had placed himself at her feet so long that the poor little woman had been accustomed to trample upon him. She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.")  If for nothing else, this delving into unrequited love, as well as the commentary on people who marry for love versus more mercenary schemes, guarantees the novel's importance in English literature.  (Nonetheless, both Amelia and Dobbin are less interesting to read about than many of the other characters.)

While I totally accept that Becky Sharp is street-smart, she does make some very poor decisions, with marrying Rawdon Crawley before the inheritance is settled surely being the worst.  It was also extremely foolish to leave Rawdon in debtor's prison while she carried on with Lord Steyne.  Nonetheless, I could see these decisions being organic to her character.  What I don't believe is that she would decide that Major Dobbins, having proved himself a worthy adversary, is worth her intervening in his and Amelia's affairs.  She seems very much the type that would harbor a deep grudge against him.  Even though her relations with Amelia have been more positive, she still doesn't strike me as the type of person who would have gone out of her way to add to Amelia's store of happiness.  Thus, it is very hard for me to credit that turn of events where she shows Amelia the letter that proves once and for all that her husband was a creep not worth mourning.  (Is it just me, or does it seem unlikely she would have been able to hang onto that letter -- to say nothing of the painting of Joseph! -- despite the upheavals after Rawdon and she separated?  For that matter, how does Amelia hang onto her small piano, despite the family having to sell off their silverware?)  This is unfortunate, as it really wouldn't have taken much for Thackeray to achieve the same end but to have Becky reveal the letter in a much more malicious fashion, lording it over her just out of boredom, rather than doing it in order to propel Amelia into a decent match with the noble Major.  (I suppose there is a bit of selfishness in her motives in that if her previous compatriots keep hanging about (trying to marry Amelia) it will spoil her chances with Joseph, but this still seems out of character.)

I'd say there are a few more major plot holes towards the end as Thackeray was trying to wrap up this novel.  I simply can't fathom why Joseph wouldn't leave with Major Dobbin if he was so scared of Becky.  There is also no reason why Dobbin couldn't return the next day to try to convince Joseph to leave, so that seems like a real dropped thread.

Perhaps the strangest bit of all is how the reader is introduced to Becky running a charity gift stall at the end of the novel.  I really do think it is quite radical that Thackeray ends the novel without Becky paying for her sins, but this new role seems so completely out of character that I don't find it plausible.  There are so many other things she might do to show she is back in genteel society, but I think this would bore her to tears.  That is probably my greatest single fault with the novel (with Thackeray's casual racism being the second). The second half drags a bit and could have used some more editing (to clean up a couple of the issues I just noted), though on the whole I did enjoy it.  It is certainly an important novel, so I'm glad I finally got around to it (though I am not terribly likely to read the entire thing again).  I am wondering if its length is the main reason we read Meredith's The Egoist instead of Vanity Fair back in our 19th Century literature course when Vanity Fair seems to be more influential (and certainly funnier).  I have quite a few more Victorian era novels I plan to read, though this may be the last one I felt I really had to read to round out my education.

* One thing that the notes have made me take stock of is how little I know about Roman literature.  Apparently, Thackeray was smitten with Horace and particularly the Odes, and he quoted them extensively.  My impression is that the English (with their love of Empire) were generally more drawn to the Roman authors and the American Great book tradition was much more into the Greeks.  While the UM syllabus may not have been entirely traditional, as far as I can recall, the only Roman texts that showed up were Virgil's The Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphosis.  Somewhat shamefully, I've never cracked The Aeneid, though I did read Ovid (the Humphries's translation).  I've decided to commit to rereading Homer and then going through Virgil by 2018 at the latest (I'll probably just stick with my Fitzgerald though I might at least dip into Sarah Ruden's version).  Somewhere along the line I'll also look into the newish Raeburn translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis.  I'm not quite sure how much deeper I want to go into Ovid, though Prof. Green has made translations of the poems of eros and the poems of exile.  I'll try to get through Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, Juvenal's Satires, Horace's Odes and Epistles and perhaps The Golden Ass by Apuleius.  That will probably be more than enough to cover the basics, and then it would be back to the Greeks.

** I've run across a few people who feel just talking about the friend-zone is sexist, since it implies that women should all give it up to men for the asking.  I don't believe it implies anything like that, but it does point out the unfairness of women that intentionally (or even subconsciously) try to keep men (who want to date them) around but have no intention of changing the relationship to a more romantic one.  It also doesn't apply to opposite sex friends when it is purely Platonic on both sides.  I let myself get sucked into the friend-zone many, many years ago, and I finally stood up for myself a la Major Dobbins and the relationship dynamics did change a bit.  Sadly, I wasn't able to get as much satisfaction as he did, though on the other hand, I wasn't strung along for 10+ years either.

The Oxford notes suggest that Thackeray really did not like mixed-race individuals coming over to England because he had an illegitimate half-sister (Sarah Blechynden) who was half-Indian.  Unfortunately, this animus spread into other areas of his life, and Thackeray was a supporter of the U.S. Confederacy and slavery(!) when most of his compatriots had denounced the practice.  Apparently the racism, which is only a very minor strain in Vanity Fair, becomes more and more pronounced in his later novels, so I'll be giving them a pass.

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