Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Part I)

Vanity: lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness: the vanity of a selfish life (dictionary.com)

When I decided to join Allie’s read-along of Vanity Fair, it was really on a whim as I actually had no idea what the novel was about. Right away, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor I encountered. I should not have been surprised as this work is a satirical piece; Thackeray’s commentary on 1800s English society. Gad! I like this guy! He is giving voice to what I have alluded to in other posts regarding novels set in this period: the ridiculous nature of a certain class of this society, how they amble idly through life, often living in the clouds and above their means to disastrous ends.

William Makepeace Thackeray ... is it odd that he reminds me a little of Newt Gingrich?

I admire the narration of this novel because the characters are puppets on Thackeray’s string. It reminds me of the Shakespeare quote from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” I am quite fond of Becky Sharp, although not all readers are. In truth, I am not sure why she is singled out as having the worst reputation since all of the principle players in Vanity Fair are flawed and hallow in some way, even Amelia and Dobbin. It is only a matter of to what degree.

This is a such society of contradictions. For example, the rich Miss Crawley prides herself on her liberal behavior. She tells Rebecca the following: “That was the most beautiful part of Lord Nelson’s character … he went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that. I adore all imprudent matches … what I like best, is for a nobleman to marry a miller’s daughter … I wish some great man would run away with you, my dear.” But, when her favorite nephew, Rawdon, makes that exact imprudent match and marries Becky, Miss Crawley turns her back on them both!

It is interesting reading this novel after War and Peace. Although two very different works, there are uncanny correlations between the characters of these two books. Jos Sedley and Pierre, Amelia and Marya, Rebecca and both Natasha and Helene, etc. Vanity Fair was originally published in monthly installments in 1848 while War and Peace was not published until 1869. Was Tolstoy influenced by Thackeray in some way?

Some favorite Thackeray quotes so far:

“… they hated each other cordially …”

“What a charming reconciler and peacemaker money is.”

“Yes, if a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

“I wonder is it because men are cowards in heart that they admire bravery so much, and place military valour so far beyond every other quality for reward and worship?”

“Her mamma ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her.”

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Checkin In…Bookstore Adventures…

Well, the cold, hideous winter weather has returned. I am wondering if the weather could account for so many bloggers being in a reading rut…myself included. I know that my OCD need to finish one book before I begin another is playing a role for me. I was keeping a pretty good pace with War and Peace, but am having a really hard time finding the necessary motivation to finish the last section so I can officially move on. So, tonight I decided to move outside of my box and just go ahead and start something else…something lighter (at least compared to War and Peace) to get me back on smoother reading ground: Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I picked the play up today along with Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and East of Eden (I seem to have lost my other copy and I feel a re-read coming in my future…), The Color Purple by Alice Walker and a collection of short stories including The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I was thinking about reading a “non-classic” to bring me out of this slump, but that didn’t really appeal to me either. I am hoping that snuggling up with this play in my freshly cleaned bedroom (with my stylin new curtain rods) will do the trick.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Vol 3)

Of the three volumes of War and Peace that we have read so far, Volume 3 has been the hardest for me to get through.  I felt really bogged down at times, but there was certainly value to be found here, namely in possibly figuring out part of Tolstoy’s intention in writing this mammoth novel.
“Now all the active figures of the year 1812 have long left their places, their personal interests have vanished without a trace, and only the historical results of that time stand before us.”
Tolstoy apparently went to great lengths to ensure the historical accuracy of the parts of this novel that deal with real people, places, and events from the period in which it is set…historical fiction at its finest. However, it is important to remember how Tolstoy contrasts this with his detailed forays into the lives of his fictional characters. It becomes apparent in Volume 3, through the narrator, that Tolstoy is perhaps displeased with the way history is often remembered:  with emphasis on the big names and events. He appears to feel that the millions of little people and moments (that must have come together exactly as they did for the bigger picture to exist as it did) are sorely overlooked in history. At one point the narrator says: “therefore, all these causes-billions of causes-coincided so as to bring about what happened” and then this: “an action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance.” This is why the stories of the Rostovs, etc. are so important to War and Peace. We get to see the lives of those who were NOT Napoleon or Alexander hypothetically “coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people” to create Russian history. I think Tolstoy may be trying to teach that history must be examined from many viewpoints in order to come closest to the real truth of our past. Consider Pierre in Volume II: “[he] was struck for the first time at this meeting by the infinite diversity of human minds, which makes it so that no truth presents itself to two people in the same way.” I think that this is such an important point. We think there is a universal reality, but in fact there can’t be because each person’s reality is slightly skewed by individual perception. What I can’t decide is if Tolstoy believes in free will or providence. Does he think that there is a greater power ensuring that these millions of actions happen to coincide in time to create history as we know it?
I am also beginning to see the discontent among the characters (that I complained about in the post for Volume II) as a necessary device that allows the reader to feel, more acutely, the discontent of Russia as a whole during this time of war and unrest in Europe and beyond. These characters are just a mirror to the greater whole.
I am wondering if it may be beneficial to watch the movie adaptation of this novel. Has anyone seen it? I am thinking this may allow me to connect even further to the characters. What do you think?

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Vol 2)

A lot happens in Volume 2 of War and Peace, which spans about six years (from 1806-1812). *SPOILER ALERT* Count Pierre Bezukhov survives a duel with Dolokhov (who was rumored to be having an affair with Pierre’s wife), consequently becomes estranged from Helene, joins the Masons, eventually decides to live with Helene again (who by this time has gained quite a standing in Petersburg society), and basically continues to bumble through life until finally appearing to fall in love with Natasha Rostov. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky suffers an injury while serving in the military, returns from the dead, loses his wife during the birth of their son (thank God there will be no more references from Tolstoy to her “little moustache”!), and eventually also falls in love with and proposes to Natasha Rostov. His father does not approve of this engagement. His sister, Princess Marya, refuses the proposal of Prince Anatole Kuragin, as she apparently realizes that he is only interested in her money and is actually keen on her companion Mlle. Bourienne. Count Nikolai Rostov finds a home in military service. However, he is called home to deal with the family’s increasingly dire financial state. He is horribly inept at this task, so his mother tries to convince him to take a rich bride to help the situation, but he insists that he will only marry Sonya. Andrei runs off abroad and Natasha spends almost a year waiting for the return of her beloved. Unfortunately, she meets Anatole Kuragin in Moscow and suddenly falls madly in love with him. She hastily refuses Prince Andrei and agrees to elope with Kuragin, who is actually already married. The elopement is thwarted and Natasha tries to commit suicide. And, of course, the French and Russians reached a truce that now seems to be on rocky grounds. Drama, Drama, Drama…I love it!

I continue to be struck by the absurdity of the courtships and relationships in this novel. All these individuals keep speaking of love, yet I do not find love in any of these associations. Attraction, sure…lust, sometimes, but how can they really love someone they barely even know? It all seems so childish to me in many ways, but I suppose that is a reflection of living in our current times where ideas about relationships and marriage have changed. Although my opinions may change as I read on, I find that Natasha is the only character that I am really fond of. In my mind, there lingers this faint resemblance between her and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind. I also kind of like Dolokhov, but everyone else sort of bores me at this point. Marya’s piousness and insistence on playing the role of martyr really annoys me. I expected so much more from Nikolai’s character and remain disappointed in that regard so far. The man pays absolutely no attention to Sonya when he is around, but still plans to marry her?? And Pierre, for all his attempts at finding himself, still remains lost and a bumbling fool. Andrei reminds me too much of Pierre in some ways, although he plays the role with much more class. Everyone just seems so needlessly restless and lost all the time. Is this a reflection of the times, the social class, their youth, or what? Despite these feelings, I still find myself wanting to know how the story ends for all of these characters…

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Vol 1)

Leo Tolstoy
1828-1910
I had read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina some time ago and having loved it, decided to purchase his War and Peace. For over a year, this 1,215 page monstrosity has stared at me menacingly from my shelves, too intimidating to actually be read. Thankfully, Allie’s read-along has finally ended the stand-off between War and Peace and I. Despite all the confusing Russian names, the intermittent French, and the extensive footnotes, I have begun to feel at home in this novel. I am reading from the 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I would highly recommend. Before beginning, I tabbed the list of principal characters and the notes section at the back for easy reference. After finishing Volume 1, I feel as though I am more comfortable with the period of the Napoleonic Wars and, perhaps more importantly, can easily identify each character regardless of which name is being used for them at any given time. Tolstoy’s prose is decidedly easy to read and understand once you find your rhythm. In particular, I was dreading the “war” sections, but I even found some enjoyment here – though not as much as in the other story lines.
While reading the military scenes in Volume 1, I was struck by how Tolstoy had invoked in me a much different perception of the ideas of military and war than that which I usually hold when thinking of these ideas in the context of our modern society. As Shinshin asks, “… what the deuce makes us go to war with Bonaparte?” I refer back to the idea of a certain boredom lingering within a certain societal class that I introduced in my second post for The Woman in White. Although I know it is a little more complicated, it seems to me that in days gone by, war was sometimes waged simply because royalty had become bored and needed a distraction and that many men joined the military for exactly the same reason. You know that old adage: “What should we do today?” “Well, I suppose we could take over the world, Sire.” Tolstoy’s depiction gave me the nagging impression that battles and military service were merely a sport of sorts, while a position in today’s American military is more a true position – a job, a career. The injured, young Rostov seems to echo this sentiment at one point: “He looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family. ‘And why did I come here?’ he wondered.”
I have to say, I really admired Tolstoy’s description of how Pierre found himself suddenly and inexplicably married to Princess Helene, after becoming Count Bezukov. I almost feel the need to quote the narrative from Volume 1, part three, I and II in its entirety because I am so in love with these parts of Tolstoy’s writing. I found that he has somehow managed to perfectly articulate this feeling that I have often felt when reading of courtships and marriages of this time, a feeling that I had not previously been able to put into my own words, a feeling that the idea of a relationship had somehow taken on a life of its own with those around it and had unfortunately swept a dumbfounded couple off to a destination that they could not remember traveling to. Even now, I find it hard to really pinpoint that feeling I am alluding to. I just know that Tolstoy has captured it.
After something as simple as reading a party invitation that mentions Helene, we find Pierre thinking the following: “[he] felt for the first time that between him and Helene some sort of connection had been formed, recognized by other people, and this thought at the same time frightened him, as if an obligation had been laid upon him which he could not fulfill, and also pleased him in an amusing supposition.” And at the party, “She turned, looked straight at him with her shining, dark eyes, and smiled. ‘So you never noticed before how beautiful I am?’ Helene seemed to say … and at that moment Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must be his wife, that it could not be otherwise … how it would be and when, he did not know; he did not even know whether it would be good (he even felt that it was not good for some reason), but he knew that it would be. That night while going to sleep, Pierre felt a “terror come over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.” Then a month and a half later at another party, Pierre knows he is expected to propose: “And how did it all happen? So quickly! Now I know that, not for her alone, not for me alone, but for all of them, this inevitability had to come about. They all expect this so much, they’re so certain it will be, that I cannot disappoint them.” And then, in the end Pierre never proposes at all, but simply allows Prince Vassily to just announce it for him and another month and a half later is married. I guess this just really spoke to what I sometimes find to be the absurdity of marriages in novels from the 1800s.I am excited to continue on…not because of mystery and suspense that is reeling me in like with the other two read-along novels, but because I long to know more about the characters we have met.

January Read-A-Longs…

Information about Allie’s read-alongs:

“There will be two times to post on the following days:
  • January 14-17, 2011: This post will focus on the first half of the book (roughly 190 pages, or chapters 1-15)
  • January 28-31 2011: This post will focus on the second half of the book (roughly 190 pages or chapters 16-27)”
“There will be two times to post on the following days:
  • January 14-17, 2011: This post will focus on the first half of the book (roughly 300 pages or so)
  • January 28-31 2011: This post will focus on the second half of the book (roughly 300 pages or so)”
“We will have four posts covering the following:
  • January 15, 2011: The first check-in will focus on volume 1. In my edition it is about 295 pages.
  • January 31, 2011: The second check-in will focus on volume 2. In my edition it is about 306 pages.
  • February 12, 2011: The third check-in will focus on volume 3. In my edition it is about 332 pages (the longest section).
  • February 28, 2011: The fourth check-in will cover volume 4 and the 2-part epilogue. These sections are about 282 pages in my edition.”