February 5, 2016 by TCB

[NB - this is one of a number of old posts I may or may not fish out of the old backups. We shall see.]

At various times in my life I have chosen plenty of ‘slug quotes’ to top this here Ye Olde Webbe Syte. Dear departed Hunter S. Thompson held pride of place a few times with ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride.’ I think I had a Nietzsche quote up there once or twice, the one about the abyss looking into you, probably when I was feeling even more pretentious than usual. Some Gore Vidal perhaps? I believe so, my good man, I believe so.

However on this fairly large reiteration of Ye Olde Webbe Syte I decided to go with ‘A Novel without a Hero.’ That phrase was, and presumably still is, the subtitle for Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. It took me some time to really enjoy reading Thackeray. Uncle Willie, I fear, is taught like medicine in school if he is taught at all. He is the book equivalent of Vick’s vapo rub, something that someone in authority says is somehow good for something, so being a decent sort one tolerates it with as much patience as possible.

Only much later in life did I learn the gentle charm of his books. Thackeray wrote comedies, both in the classical and modern sense. Comedy here is partly a term of art. His books are classical comedies in that they are not tragedies–everyone doesn’t die or wish they could be dead by the end. They are modern comedies in that are funny, satirical, and in the end the good guy gets the loot and the girl. Thackeray’s prose and his settings are typical of nineteenth century popular novels. That is, they are spun from cotton wool and confectioner’s sugar and castles in the air. One of the funnier things in Vanity Fair, for a modern reader, is that Thackeray explains repeatedly how luxurious a house might be by declaring the size of the carriage that could be driven through the dining room. It’s sort of like writing a book today where a character lives in a house with a ten car garage; it implies that she does not just have a nice house, but also ten cars to park in it. In Thackeray’s case, a character has not just an opulent dining room, but also a ‘four in hand’ to drive through it. With a footman or two, of course.

As much as Thackeray hews to most of the novelistic conventions of his time, he could not really write characters that are conventionally lovable. Jane Austen novels are, like Thackeray’s, filled with great prose and enviable settings. But Austen’s characters are drawn along pretty typical lines. There is the Good Girl, the Charming Father, the Humble Vicar, the Harpy Mother or the Exasperating Aunt, the Vamp who tries to steal The Man from the Good Girl and is usually Foiled by The Friend. This is not to knock Austen, I love her books too, but Thackeray was unwilling, and probably incapable, of writing characters a reader truly thinks of as a ‘hero.’

In some sense, then, every book he wrote was a ‘novel without a hero.’ But Vanity Fair goes that extra mile. Becky Sharp (Thackeray was also a brilliant namer of characters, Becky is plenty sharp indeed) starts the book as an ambitious, materialistic, covetous girl and ends it as an heiress who probably murdered her loathsome husband and kept his money. The degree to which she is happy in the book is a function of how close she is to her goal of acquiring wealth and pleasure, and little else. Becky dissembles and manipulates whenever she thinks it might be to her advantage, betraying her closest friends and helping her feckless (first) husband to cheat at billiards. While doing so she feels even minimal regret only when, on rare occasion, she gets caught.

That said, it is impossible to read the book and not cheer, in some sense, for Becky to ‘win’ in the end. For all of her failings, she is smarter, prettier, and working harder than any of the ‘betters’ she wishes to emulate or replace. She was dealt a set of cards and only tries to play them as best she can, and while doing so she is vastly more honest than everyone around her in the book. Becky is also, by a few multiples, the person one would most like to know or, crucially, bed. By far the sexiest character in the book, however potentially fatal a liaison with Becky would be, few could turn her down.

So then, the ‘novel without a hero’ might, in fact, have a hero, or rather a heroine. It just happens she is not especially heroic. In terms of the novel this is hardly an invention of the nineteenth century or by Thackeray. Academics tend to put forth Don Quixote as the first novel ever produced. Its hero is not quite right in the head, could be actually psychotic, and certainly never triumphs over anything. Anti-heroes, then, look to be as old as the novel itself. What sets Vanity Fair apart for me is how deeply, essentially unheroic every one is. But in Thackeray’s gifted hands, for us, reading about all of these unheroics is a joy, no matter how treacherous the characters and gruesome the situations. Vanity Fair is a world terribly short on heroes, yes, but still somehow saturated in glorious, flattering, even hilarious light.

On a more personal level, as I was trying to find a slug for this site, 2015 was a year in which I did not cover myself in glory. I will avoid long descriptions of the Sturm und Drang, the Blood and Gore, I had to survive last year. But it was humbling for one who is not particularly humble. It seems to me that most of us wish we were heroes (and a few of us wish we were in Thackeray novels), but the fact is nearly all the time we come up way, way short. This web site will aspire in its best moments to be novelistic, at least in the prose, but I think it is well past time to keep things cheerful and give up on the hero bit.

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