- The Gentle Pessimism of William Makepeace Thackeray [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Makepeace Thackeray
by Long, William J.

In fiction Thackeray stands to Dickens as Hamilton to Jefferson in the field of politics. The radical difference between the novelists is exemplified in their attitude toward the public. Thackeray, who lived among the privileged classes, spoke of "this great stupid public," and thought that the only way to get a hearing from the common people was to "take them by the ears." He was a true Hamiltonian. Dickens had an immense sympathy for the common people, a profound respect for their elemental virtues; and in writing for them he was, as it were, the Jefferson, the triumphant democrat of English letters. Thackeray was intellectual; he looked at men with critical eyes, and was a realist and a pessimist. Dickens was emotional; he looked at men with kindled imagination, judged them by the dreams they cherished in their hearts, and was a romanticist and an optimist. Both men were humorists; but where Thackeray was delicately satirical, causing us a momentary smile, Dickens was broadly comic or farcical, winning us by hearty laughter.


To one who has been trained, like Dickens, in the school of hardship it seems the most natural thing in the world to pass over into a state of affluence. It is another matter to fare sumptuously every day till luxurious habits are formed, and then be cast suddenly on one's own resources, face to face with the unexpected monster of bread and butter. This was Thackeray's experience, and it colored all his work.

A second important matter is that Thackeray had a great tenderness for children, a longing for home and homely comforts; but as a child he was sent far from his home in India, and was thrown among young barbarians in various schools, one of which, the "Charterhouse," was called the "Slaughterhouse" in the boy's letters to his mother. "There are three hundred and seventy boys in this school," wrote; "I wish there were only three hundred and sixty-nine!" He married for love, and with great joy began housekeeping; then a terrible accident happened, his wife was taken to an insane asylum, and for the rest of his life Thackeray was a wanderer amid the empty splendors of clubs and hotels.

These two experiences did not break Thackeray, but they bowed him. They help to explain the languor, the melancholy, the gentle pessimism, as if life had no more sunrises, of which we are vaguely conscious in reading The Virginians or The Newcomes.

Early Years

Thackeray was born (1811) in Calcutta, of a family of English "nabobs" who had accumulated wealth and influence as factors or civil officers. At the death of his father, who was a judge in Bengal, the child was sent to England to be educated. Here is a significant incident of the journey:

        "Our ship touched at an island, where my black servant took
        me a walk over rocks and hills till we passed a garden,
        where we saw a man walking. 'That is Bonaparte,' said the
        black; 'he eats three sheep every day, and all the children
        he can lay hands on.'"

Napoleon was then safely imprisoned at St. Helena; but his shadow, as of a terrible ogre, was still dark over Europe.

Thackeray's education, at the Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, was neither a happy nor a profitable experience, as we judge from his unflattering picture of English school life in Pendennis. He had a strongly artistic bent, and after leaving college studied art in Germany and France. Presently he lost his fortune by gambling and bad investments, and was confronted by the necessity of earning his living. He tried the law, but gave it up because, as he said, it had no soul. He tried illustrating, having a small talent for comic drawings, and sought various civil appointments in vain. As a last resource he turned to the magazines, wrote satires, sketches of travel, burlesques of popular novelists, and, fighting all the time against his habit of idleness, slowly but surely won his way.

Literary Labor

His first notable work, Vanity Fair (1847), won a few readers' and the critics' judgment that it was "a book written by a gentleman for gentlemen" was the foundation of Thackeray's reputation as a writer for the upper classes. Other notable novels followed, Henry Esmond, Pendennis, The Newcomes, The Virginians, and two series of literary and historical essays called English Humorists and The Four Georges. The latter were delivered as lectures in a successful tour of England and America. Needless to say, Thackeray hated lecturing and publicity; he was driven to his "dollar-hunting" by necessity.

In 1860 his fame was firmly established, and he won his first financial success by taking charge of the Cornhill Magazine, which prospered greatly in his hands. He did not long enjoy his new-found comfort, for he died in 1863. His early sketches had been satirical in spirit, his first novels largely so; but his last novels and his Cornhill essays were written in a different spirit,--not kinder, for Thackeray's heart was always right, but broader, wiser, more patient of human nature, and more hopeful.

In view of these later works some critics declare that Thackeray's best novel was never written. His stories were produced not joyously but laboriously, to earn his living; and when leisure came at last, then came death also, and the work was over.

Works of Thackeray

It would be flying in the face of all the critics to suggest that the beginner might do well to postpone the famous novels of Thackeray, and to meet the author at his best, or cheerfulest, in such forgotten works as the Book of Ballads and The Rose and the Ring. The latter is a kind of fairy story, with a poor little good princess, a rich little bad princess, a witch of a godmother, and such villainous characters as Hedzoff and Gruffanuff. It was written for some children whom Thackeray loved, and is almost the only book of his which leaves the impression that the author found any real pleasure in writing it.

Henry Esmond

If one must begin with a novel, then Henry Esmond (1852) is the book. This is an historical novel; the scene is laid in the eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne; and it differs from most other historical novels in this important respect: the author knows his ground thoroughly, is familiar not only with political events but with the thoughts, ideals, books, even the literary style of the age which he describes. The hero of the novel, Colonel Esmond, is represented as telling his own story; he speaks as a gentleman spoke in those days, telling us about the politicians, soldiers, ladies and literary men of his time, with frank exposure of their manners or morals. As a realistic portrayal of an age gone by, not only of its thoughts but of the very language in which those thoughts were expressed, Esmond is the most remarkable novel of its kind in our language. It is a prodigy of realism, and it is written in a charming prose style.

One must add frankly that Esmond is not an inspiring work, that the atmosphere is gloomy, and the plot a disappointment. The hero, after ten years of devotion to a woman, ends his romance by happily marrying with her mother. Any reader could have told him that this is what he ought to have done, or tried to do, in the beginning; but Thackeray's heroes will never take the reader's good advice. In this respect they are quite human.

Vanity Fair

The two social satires of Thackeray are Vanity Fair (1847) and The History of Arthur Pendennis (1849). The former takes its title from that fair described in Pilgrim's Progress, where all sorts of cheats are exposed for sale; and Thackeray makes his novel a moralizing exposition of the shams of society. The slight action of the story revolves about two unlovely heroines, the unprincipled Becky Sharp and the spineless Amelia. We call them both unlovely, though Thackeray tries hard to make us admire his tearful Amelia and to detest his more interesting Becky. Meeting these two contrasting characters is a variety of fools and snobs, mostly well-drawn, all carefully analyzed to show the weakness or villainy that is in them.

One interesting but unnoticed thing about these minor characters is that they all have their life-size prototypes in the novels of Dickens. Thackeray's characters, as he explains in his preface, are "mere puppets," who must move when he pulls the strings. Dickens does not have to explain that his characters are men and women who do very much as they please. That is, perhaps, the chief difference between the two novelists.


Pendennis is a more readable novel than Vanity Fair in this respect, that its interest centers in one character rather than in a variety of knaves or fools. Thackeray takes a youthful hero, follows him through school and later life, and shows the steady degeneration of a man who is governed not by vicious but by selfish impulses. From beginning to end Pendennis is a penetrating ethical study (like George Eliot's Romola), and the story is often interrupted while we listen to the author's moralizing. To some readers this is an offense; to others it is a pleasure, since it makes them better acquainted with the mind and heart of Thackeray, the gentlest of Victorian moralists.


The last notable works of Thackeray are like afterthoughts. The Virginians continues the story of Colonel Esmond, and The Newcomes recounts the later fortunes of Arthur Pendennis. The Virginians has two or three splendid scenes, and some critics regard The Newcomes as the finest expression of the author's genius; but both works, which appeared in the leisurely form of monthly instalments, are too languid in action for sustained interest. We grow acquainted with certain characters, and are heartily glad when they make their exit; perhaps someone else will come, some adventurer from the road or the inn, to relieve the dullness. The door opens, and in comes the bore again to take another leave. That is realism, undoubtedly; and Laura Pendennis is as realistic as the mumps, which one may catch a second time. The atmosphere of both novels--indeed, of all Thackeray's greater works, with the exception of English Humorists and The Four Georges--is rather depressing. One gets the impression that life among "the quality" is a dreary experience, hardly worth the effort of living.

Thackeray: A Criticism

It is significant that Thackeray's first work appeared in a college leaflet called "The Snob," and that it showed a talent for satire. In his earlier stories he plainly followed his natural bent, for his Vanity Fair, Barry Lyndon (a story of a scoundrelly adventurer) and several minor works are all satires on the general snobbery of society. This tendency of the author reached a climax in 1848, when he wrote The Book of Snobs. It is still an entertaining book, witty, and with a kind of merciless fairness about its cruel passages; yet some readers will remember what the author himself said later, that he was something of a snob himself to write such a book. The chief trouble with the half of his work is that he was so obsessed with the idea of snobbery that he did injustice to humanity, or rather to his countrymen; for Thackeray was very English, and interest in his characters depends largely on familiarity with the life he describes. His pictures of English servants, for instance, are wonderfully deft, though one might wish that he had drawn them with a more sympathetic pencil.

The Personal Element

In the later part of his life the essential kindness of the man came to the surface, but still was he hampered by his experience and his philosophy. His experience was that life is too big to be grasped, too mysterious to be understood; therefore he faced life doubtfully, with a mixture of timidity and respect, as in Henry Esmond. His philosophy was that every person is at heart an egoist, is selfish in spite of himself; therefore is every man or woman unhappy, because selfishness is the eternal enemy of happiness. This is the lesson written large in Pendennis. He lived in the small world of his own class, while the great world of Dickens--the world of the common people, with their sympathy, their eternal hopefulness, their enjoyment of whatever good they find in life--passed unnoticed outside his club windows. He conceived it to be the business of a novelist to view the world with his own eyes, to describe it as he saw it; and it was not his fault that his world was a small one. Fate was answerable for that. So far as he went, Thackeray did his work admirably, portraying the few virtues and the many shams of his set with candor and sincerity. Though he used satire freely (and satire is a two-edged weapon), his object was never malicious or vindictive but corrective; he aimed to win or drive men to virtue by exposing the native ugliness of vice.

The result of his effort may be summed up as follows: Thackeray is a novelist for the few who can enjoy his accurate but petty views of society, and his cultivated prose style. He is not very cheerful; he does not seek the blue flower that grows in every field, or the gold that is at every rainbow's end, or the romance that hides in every human heart whether of rich or poor. Therefore are the young not conspicuous among his followers.


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