#BookReview: Vanity Fair – A Novel Without a Hero

Vanity Fair cover image

Cover of Vanity Fair (Illustrated) Kindle Edition (sourced from amazon.in)

The first thing that grasped me as I began the novel ‘Vanity Fair’ was the immense confidence of the author, William Makepeace Thackeray. He doesn’t just assert his confidence in every word of his masterpiece, but proclaims it boldly in the very title by calling his book ‘Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero.’

Yes, a novel without a hero! But ‘a novel without a hero’ it definitely isn’t. Those words are just a satire on the heroes of common imagination. The novel, in fact, has one of the truest heroes that I have ever come across.

What Vanity Fair means:

But let’s first understand what ‘Vanity Fair’ means. In John Bunyan’s allegorical story ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ Vanity Fair refers to a customary stop in the progress of the pilgrims. It is a never ending fair that’s held in the town called Vanity and represents all the temptations, sins, and treacheries of the world.

And that’s just what Thackeray’s masterpiece (published in 1847-48) presents before the readers. A world full of vanities where nothing is fair after all.

But before I lead you on any further, let me make it clear. This isn’t a book for all readers. It’s a long book (has more than 3 lack words), has lots of characters, and the vocabulary of a literary genius.

Still, Vanity Fair is beloved of millions of readers all over the world, and has been turned into several movie, TV shows, and radio adaptations. Here’s why:

Brilliant Characterization:

Vanity Fair is majorly a character driven book. There are three or four towering characters, handfuls of other major and important characters and a whole retinue of minor characters. Each of the characters is real and believable, be it a grudging father missing and hating his truant son, be it a school mistress seen only once in the book, be it a bankrupt stockbroker, or his heartbroken wife hating his good and selfless daughter. Each character is vivid and alive. Nobody is perfect, nobody is a total villain either.

Narration:

Vanity Fair is a masterpiece not just because of its characters, but also because of its remarkable narration. The author himself is the narrator of the story, and he boldly breaks the fourth dimension by making his presence felt again and again. He comments on the characters and their doings, he comments on the society and its ways, and he lays bare the truth behind the various vanities and falsities of the world. Here’s an example to show you how: … a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word breeches to be pronounced in her chaste hearing. And yet, madam, both are walking the world before our faces every day, without much shocking us. If you were to blush every time they went by, what complexions you would have!’

Wit and Sarcasm:

The above example would have given you some idea of the brilliant wit and biting sarcasm that the author has threaded into his story. Sometimes, his wit will make you ponder, sometimes to look within, sometimes to turn away from yourself to protect your Self from feeling ashamed, and often to break out in wide grin if not a boisterous laugh.

Plot:

Vanity Fair, as mentioned before, is full of characters. They all have their stories to tell. But in the main, there are two stories going side by side, and closely interlinked. They are woven around the two female leads, Amelia and Rebecca (Becky). Amelia is an epitome of virtue, Becky flirts with vice. Amelia is born rich but can stay happy even in bankruptcy, Becky is poor and an orphan but is capable and ready to do whatever is necessary to win herself a place in the world. War, bankruptcy, scandal, infidelity rock them about, and they both choose their paths as per the dictates of their characters. And the story moves on, fast paced and never lagging in interest, forcing the reader to turn page after page.

Becky Sharp:

Definitely one of the most memorable characters you’d ever come across in the world of fiction. She is born poor, but isn’t willing to live poor. And to rise up in fortune and society, she is willing to sink down to any depth. She can happily deceive her own best and most kind friend, cares not two cents for her only child, turns her devoted husband into a slave laughed at by all ‘her friends.’ And yet, she is far more glittering, entertaining and enchanting than Amelia, the heroine.

William Dobbin:

The title declares defiantly that it is a ‘novel without a Hero.’ And yet it presents to us William Dobbin, a gentleman selfless enough to give up his own love to his friend, and yet constant enough in this very love that even a distance of continents and decades does not allow him to waver. He’s one of those gentlemen ‘whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who can look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and the small. … his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble.’ And oh, he’s also a brave soldier who fights valiantly and earns everybody’s love and regards.

 All in all, Vanity Fair is a masterpiece and a brilliant literary classic. Not an easy read, but a very engrossing and satisfying one definitely

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