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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vanity Fair

Thackeray took his title from a year long fair in a town called Vanity in John Bunyan's 17th century novel The Pilgrim's Progress. In that book, Bunyan attacks the pleasure of this life in place of those of the afterlife. Bunyan gives the following description of his Vanity Fair:

"Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour."

Bunyan sets up Vanity Fair as an ungoldy place that one should flee.

Thackeray describes similar activities thoughout his novel but avoids the religious tone. He accepts that man should enjoy some pleasure in this world but condemns man's overindulgence. He gives the example of roast beef:

"It is all vanity to be sure, but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because itis transitory, dislikes roast beef? That is a vanity, but may every man who reads this have a wholesome portion of it through life, I beg: aye, though my readers were five hundred thousand. Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horse-radish as you like it--don't spare it." (chapter 51)

D. J. Dooley sums it up this way:
"From the very beginning, therefore, Thackeray was doing two slightly contradictory things: censuring unprincipled picaros and admiring the ingenuity with which they kept themselves afoot in Vanity Fair, attacking the values of fashionable society and displaying its fascination." *

In other words, Thackeray forces us to empathize with Becky's orphanhood, admire her cunning, and disapprove of her actions all at the same time. Thackeray adds complexity to an issue that Bunyan saw as black and white.

* From Thackeray's Use of Vanity Fair by D. J. Dooley in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 11.4 (Autumn 1971)

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