From Nicholas Dames's Introduction to Vanity Fair
What kind of a novel is Vanity Fair? Given the bewildering variety of responses that it has elicited since its publication began in January 1847, we might assume that at no time since Thackeray's serial first gained public notice has the answer to that question been obvious. To the novel's first readers, Thackeray's aim seemed puzzling. G. H. Lewes, one of the Victorian period's most able critics, wondered whether Vanity Fair was too embittered to be truly humorous, and too uniformly skeptical to be effectively satirical; Charlotte Brontë, however, dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray, whom she had never met, and in the process compared the effect of Vanity Fair to that of a Hebrew prophet admonishing the kings of Judah and Israel. That dilemmawhether Vanity Fair is the work of a moral satirist, or a worldly cynic retailing gossip for the diversion of his audiencehas haunted efforts to understand Thackeray ever since. In our own time the pendulum has swung closer to the latter sentiment, thanks in no small part to the efforts of more recent novelists and critics to discredit Thackeray's method; E. M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (1927), compared Thackeray's interruptions of his narrative to that of a bar patron offering to buy you a drink in return for some attention to his not quite lucid stories. There have, however, been intriguing testimonies to the contrary. The Trinidadian historian, social critic, and activist intellectual C. L. R. James attested to reading Vanity Fair regularly starting at the age of eight, learning the workings of the British class system while feeling their persistence in his own West Indian milieu; as James later commented, it was to Thackeray, even more than to Marx, that he owed his vocation.
Worldly cynic, righteous prophet, tiresome companion, proto-Marxist social anatomist: the appellations are as contradictory as they are vivid and plausible. What unites these disparate accounts of the novel's effect, however, is their attempt to describe its voicea narrative style that speaks in a manner utterly unlike the usual Victorian novel. Vanity Fair is Thackeray's masterpiece, his most ambitious and colorful effort, full of characters and scenes memorable in a way his later work could only occasionally recapture; but its most important element, the fact of its presentation that accounts at once for its brilliance and its undeniable difficulty, is the voice of its narrator. Amid a babble of distinctive accentsBecky Sharp's light, cutting wit, Jos Sedley's ponderous inanities, William Dobbin's plain, gentlemanly eloquencethe narrator stands out as the most continually entertaining, and continually protean, of voices. The voice of Vanity Fair's narrator is its great contribution to the history of the English novel, while being nonetheless the most difficult of the novel's aspects to describe fully or accurately. Without the pyrotechnic virtuosity of Dickens's style, or the measured gravitas of George Eliot, Thackeray's narrator speaks with a mixture of tones that might perhaps be the most distinctively modern among the styles of the Victorian novel.
Most evident of all this voice's traits is its undeniable worldliness. As the narrator frequently advertises, he (for this voice is always a male one) has seen the insides of gentlemen's clubs, society dining rooms, auction houses where the effects of bankrupts are sold, foreign courts, respectable and not-so-respectable theaters, boarding schools, tourist hotels, coaching inns, even the chambers of servants. A Londoner, evidently, this narrator can know even the secrets whispered in female drawing rooms; "every person who treads the Pall Mall pavement and frequents the clubs of this metropolis," he blandly announces, "knows, either through his own experience or through some acquaintance with whom he plays at billiards," as much as one need know about the kind of disreputable female who dresses too showily in public and who women refuse to meet. True to his worldly awareness, Thackeray's narrator refuses to spell out the full implications of his descriptionhow might these women earn the money to afford those dresses?preferring instead to let implication, and a knowing smile, do the work. The innocent and ignorant, "the apprentices in the Park" or "the squire's wife in Somersetshire, who reads of their doings in the Morning Post," will remain uninstructed in this curious aspect of metropolitan society. As for the narrator and his readers, surely they know enough without being explicitly instructed. "Men living about London," we are told, "are aware of these awful truths." We are in the hands, therefore, of a discreet and rather jaundiced narrative voice, acquainted withand perhaps already tired ofall the restless machinations of urban strivers. Vanity Fair is a novel full of scandal, including fraud, petty deceit, extramarital complications, and (possibly) murder, but these putative outrages to Victorian notions of social decency are never narrated as surprises. Instead, Thackeray presents them to us with a half-amused, half-disgusted species of boredom, as if to say: Surely you weren't so naïve as to pretend this wasn't the case?