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THE NARRATOR, THE READER, AND AMBIGUITY

Thackeray's contemporaries equated Thackeray with the narrator,


whom they saw as omniscient; as a result, they often missed the irony,
read Thackeray's satire as his actual beliefs, and attacked him for
cynicism and worse. A more careful reading of the novel indicates that
the narrator is not consistently or even mainly omniscient. His
character constantly shifts to fallibility, to ignorance, and even to
incomprehension. His identity changes too. He is the stage manager,
introduced in "Before the Curtain"; even in this guise, his role shifts
from directing the performance, to controlling the actions of the
characters or puppets, as he calls them, to helplessly watching them do
as they wish. (So, even when Thackeray adopts the guise of the stage
manager, questions arise; is he the creator of the story, the teller, or a
hapless observer?) He metamorphoses into critic, clown, satirist,
commentator, preacher, reporter, and participant. His situation changes,
for example, from being married to being single, from having no
children to having children. His relationship to the characters shifts
from being a friend to being a hostile judge. His attitude too undergoes
breathtaking transformations, being by turns wise, sentimental,
worldly, cynical, amused, sad, inane, smug, and pleased at showing the
characters up.

This shifting in the narrator has led some readers to accuse Thackeray
of being inconsistent. This is a serious charge and would be a major
flaw in any novel. The charge implies that Thackeray lacked the skill
to create a consistent narrator, that he was too careless to create a
consistent narrator, or that he was too intellectually lacking to be aware
of the narrator's inconsistency (Thomas Carlyle, for instance,
questioned Thackeray's capacity for serious thought). The charge of
inconsistency is particularly serious because of the pervasive presence
of the narrator; he is everywhere with his comments and his reactions
and even appears as a character who has met Amelia and Dobbin. We
see the characters through his eyes and know them through his words,
though Thackeray also presents myriad other voices and views. For
these reasons, the narrator is a major source of the ambiguity--or
difficulty in determining Thackeray's intention and meaning–
throughout the novel. When are the narrator's comments and attitudes
ironic? when are they to be taken literally? and when or how often do
they express Thackeray's attitudes and values?

Not everyone concedes that Thackeray is unintentionally inconsistent.


If the narrator is seen as a fictional persona, then he does not
necessarily speak for or as Thackeray. He becomes one more character,
different in kind and in function from the other characters, certainly,
but a character nonetheless. Therefore, Thackeray is free to manipulate
him to achieve particular effects at different points in the novel.
Viewing the narrator as a persona raises another set of considerations
and assessments. Are the narrator's shifts justified by achieving special
effects, or are they confusing? Do they, in other words, add to or
detract from the novel?

The views of critics differ significantly on these issues, as the


following sampling of opinions suggests:

1. Are the shifts in the narrator a flaw in the novel?

o E.D.H. Johnson attributes the shifts in the narrator to


Thackeray's ambiguous relationship to his world.
Johnson believes that Thackeray had difficulty in
combining his satiric bent and his moral purpose, a
difficulty which resulted in confused aims:

The curious alternations of attraction and repulsion


manifest in Thackeray's handling of Becky and Amelia
characterize his attitude towards the entire world of the
novel. As a satirist, he castigates the manners and
morals of that world; as a moralist, he is more taken in
by its standards than he is presumably aware. Unlike
Fielding, he was never able artistically to harmonize his
twin purposes, because again unlike Fielding he lacked
any compelling vision of forces making for unity and
poise within the social organism.

Johnson explains that the eighteenth-century Henry


Fielding lived in a stable society with intact institutions
underpinned by a robust religious faith. But in
Thackeray's society, religion was losing its authority. In
Johnson's view, one result of this loss was that love as a
generalized form of brotherhood and charity no longer
held society together but existed only as a bond between
individuals.

o Arnold Kettle, on the other hand, attributes the difficulty


in determining Thackeray's intention and views to his
cowardice, "from a desire to expose illusions and yet
keep them."
2. Are there positive ways to view the narrator's shifts?

o Harold Bloom calls Thackeray's narrator "that supreme


fiction" and sees the point of view as one of the
strengths of the novel. Many readers see the narrative
shifts as part of Thackeray's subtlety, a device whereby
he indicates the difficulty, if not the impossibility of
arriving at the whole truth. If determining the truth is
problematic, then making judgments becomes an issue;
in this view, the narrator's shifts challenge our right to
judge since we are all corrupted, in some way and to
some degree.

o Kathleen Tillotson believes that the narrator's


commentary serves other purposes. It bridges past and
present. Furthermore,

Without Thackeray's own voice, the melancholy and the


compassion of his attitude to Vanity Fair might escape
us. It is needed merely as relief, from a spectacle that
might otherwise be unbearably painful. And not only
morally painful, but mentally impoverished. The
characters, the best as well as the worst, are almost
without ideas; the intellectual atmosphere of the novel is
provided by the commentary.

By presenting the narrator's comments and reactions as


well as the characters' feelings and reactions, Thackeray
gives the novel a richer, more complex, and subtle
texture.

o Juliet McMaster believes that the narrator's


commentary, which she calls alternately inane, snug,
cloying, or cynical, forces the reader to react, thereby
giving the characters a kind of life and making them feel
like autonomous beings.

You will have to decide these issues for yourself based on your reading
and understanding of the novel.

THE NARRATOR AND THE READER IN VANITY FAIR

Just as the narrator's identity shifts, so does the reader's identity. The
narrator addresses a succession of different readers–e.g., a supercilious
clubman, a lady, women in general, "you"–to whom he attributes
specific attitudes and whom he characterizes as behaving in certain
ways. Behind these fictional readers there are the actual readers of the
novel. What do you see as the functions of the fictional readers
addressed by the narrator? And what is the relationship between the
fictional readers and the actual readers, that is, between them and you?
For example, do they create a bond between you, the actual reader, and
the narrator? or a bond between you, the actual reader, and the
characters? Are your feelings and your judgment about the characters,
their actions, and their world affected by Thackeray's use of fictional
readers? When Thackeray addresses "you," is he addressing the actual
reader, or is the "you" a fictional persona? or is the identity of "you"
sometimes the actual reader and sometimes a fictional persona?

DISCUSSION OF VANITY FAIR

Thackeray, Vanity Fair. pp. ix-170


Overview of Thackeray and Vanity Fair
The Narrator, the Reader, and Ambiguity
Day 1 The Structure
Themes
Characterization
Thackeray's Illustrations: A Discussion
Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Day 2 Amelia
Attitude Toward Women
Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
Day 3
Waterloo
Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Day 4 Becky's Innocence
Society
Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Day 5 Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
Album of All the Vanity Fair Drawings

September 25, 2005

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