Thursday, April 27, 2006

Vanity Fair discussion: Chapters 1 – 10

In which we follow Becky Sharp from Chiswick to Russell Square, then to Queen’s Crawley. Dive into the comments and share your thoughts on the book so far!

Again, I’d ask you not to reveal anything that happens beyond the tenth chapter. If you haven’t read all ten chapters yet and you wish to avoid spoilers, you may want to wait until you have before going to the comments.


Dwight said...

OK, where to start? It is easy to see some of the themes developing in the book.

Vanity: this one’s easy since it’s in the title. I found it useful to re-read the post regarding the source of the term Vanity Fair after every few chapters, as well as Thackeray’s prologue “Before the Curtain.” They help lay out what underpins the whole book. Selfishness is rampant and in almost every character, as well as a strange self-satisfaction. But the selfishness is presented more matter-of-factly than with a wicked tone.

Society: status is still King. But the societal institutions don’t seem to be adding much to society in general, or those with higher status in particular. Schools, religion, government, marriage…very little looks appealing here as Thackeray adds satire to them all.

I’ll stop here with themes, although more seem to be developing, and address a few things I find interesting. I’m curious to see how the novel continues to unfold because of its serial nature. What changes in the book, differences in characters, etc. since the novel was published bit by bit.

For example, starting with the author’s declarations at the end of Chapter 8, it felt like a change in tone toward his characters. Up until now, everything had been light-hearted and deficiencies brushed aside. But (again, to me) there seems to be more satire and mocking in the next 2 chapters. Characters’ failings and deficiencies appear to be highlighted more. I’m interested to see if this holds up as we go on.

I found the allusions, and there are a lot, to be extremely helpful. There are many references to the current period (current to the book’s setting and as to Thackeray’s day), but the historical/mythological allusions added a lot to the descriptions. I think my favorite so far is at the end of Chapter 8, when describing Sir Pitt Crawley as “the reeling old Silenus of a baronet.”

Don’t forget the illustrations! They can add quite a bit to Thackeray’s descriptions as well. One early example is his constant reference to the turbaned Miss Pinkerton—seeing her caricature only heightened my distaste for her.

I’ve breezed through this, but I want to leave plenty of room for you to comment. Join in with your thoughts so far!

Dwight said...

I'll avoid the tumbleweed blowing by to add my favorite parts related to finances. There are several I like, but at the end of Chapter 9 lies most of them:

"The Baronet owed his son a sum of money out of the jointure of his mother, which he did not find it convenient to pay; indeed he had an almost invincible repugnance to paying anybody, and could only be brought by force to discharge his debts. Miss Sharp calculated (for she became, as we shall hear speedily, inducted into most of the secrets of the family) that the mere payment of his creditors cost the honourable Baronet several hundreds yearly; but this was a delight he could not forego; he had a savage pleasure in making the poor wretches wait, and in shifting from court to court and from term to term the period of satisfaction. What's the good of being in Parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?"

This is followed by the description of Sir Pitt's half-sister and the upgrade in service that the house experienced whenever she visited. Heh--classic.

Britt said...

Here's a bit near the end of Chapter 7, our introduction to Sir Pitt Crawley. It's a good example of what we seem to see a lot of in literature, where the frugal/cheap characters are also mean and stingy:

The lady addressed as Mrs. Tinker at this moment made her appearance with a pipe and a paper of tobacco, for which she had been despatched a minute before Miss Sharp’s arrival; and she handed the articles over to Sir Pitt, who had taken his seat by the fire.

“Where’s the farden?” said he. “I gave you three halfpence. Where’s the change, old Tinker?”

“There!” replied Mrs. Tinker, flinging down the coin; it’s only baronets as cares about farthings.”

“A farthing a day is seven shillings a year,” answered the M.P.; “seven shillings a year is the interest of seven guineas. Take care of your farthings, old Tinker, and your guineas will come quite nat’ral.”

“You may be sure it’s Sir Pitt Crawley, young woman,” said Mrs. Tinker, surlily; “because he looks to his farthings. You’ll know him better afore long.”

“And like me none the worse, Miss Sharp,” said the old gentleman, with an air almost of politeness. “I must be just before I’m generous.”

“He never gave away a farthing in his life,” growled Tinker.

“Never, and never will: it’s against my principle. Go and get another chair from the kitchen, Tinker, if you want to sit down; and then we’ll have a bit of supper.”

"Take care of your farthings and your guineas will come naturally" is good old frugal wisdom, nothing wrong with that! But, if I'm reading it correctly, in this case it comes at the expense of tipping someone for a service, and he says never gives away any money because it's against his principles.

It reminds me of Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park (which I just finished recently)... the characters concerned about saving money are often such selfish, unpleasant people!

Tiredbuthappy said...

At last, I can join the discussion of the first ten chapters, nearly a week late.

I must say I'm having a hard time with this book. It's hard for me to read something when there are NO sympathetic characters. Even the people (such as Amelia) who Thackeray seems to want us to like are portrayed as milk-sops, and gullible to boot.

Rebecca's mercenary attitudes are so looked down on by Thackeray, but what choice does she have? As he says, she must be her own mama, that is, she must see herself established in life. I don't like her manipulative ways, but I don't blame her for seeing what she can get out of a situation. For a governess, there's no pension fund. You go from post to post, hope you don't get raped by one of the household's sons, or the master, or one of the servants, and then fired as a consequence. If you're lucky you ingratiate yourself with a family with money and enough generosity to provide you with a small living when you're too old to work, but governesses are only needed when there are young daughters. It's not like being a housekeeper where you can work at the same house til your dotage, and thereby earn the family's loyalty.

All in all, I'm glad I'm not a young woman in Thackeray's day.

Dwight said...

“Rebecca's mercenary attitudes are so looked down on by Thackeray, but what choice does she have?”

Claire, you’ve touched on one part of the book where I’ve had trouble trying to figure out Thackeray’s intent. He definitely paints Becky’s scheming in an unflattering light. Which fits nicely into the whole “Vanity Fair” theme. At the same time he mocks those that talk about someone’s “place” in society and how they should stay at that level. (He’s making fun of their being different levels in the first place, but that’s another discussion) So he’s not against people moving up and taking advantage of the situation, but he’s also pointing out the Vanity Fair aspect of doing such a thing. So what is OK as far as Thackeray is concerned?

I think the key to Thackeray is the reason behind the actions. If Becky was pairing up for love (with either a rich or poor man), she would be painted as a completely different person. Her only love, however, is the love of Vanity Fair. Lady Crawley embodies the point extremely well, with Thackeray commenting that her heart had been dead for a long time (I’ll say no more on her here). So I don’t think Thackeray would mind her “marrying up” if she actually loved who she was wooing, but that clearly isn’t the case.

Just some thoughts off the top of my head…

Tiredbuthappy said...

yeah, he clearly doesn't like the idea of the nobility. Sir Pitt is portrayed as basically having the habits of a pig in a sty.