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Vanity Fair

posted: 7.26.12 by Jack Solomon

This summer I’ve been rereading some novels that I haven’t looked at since graduate school.  When I first read them over thirty years ago they were presented to me as literary “classics,” and, while I knew that they were first published as serial entertainment, I read them mostly as examples of high art and responded to them accordingly.

Since then, the rise of cultural studies has deconstructed the lines between “high” and “low” art, and my reading of the quondam classics has taken a decidedly semiotic turn.   Having just finished William Makepeace Thackeray’s most popular novel, Vanity Fair, I thought I’d subject it to a cultural-semiotic reading in order to illuminate certain tendencies in current popular culture.

By the time Vanity Fair came to be written in the mid-1840s, England’s transition from a feudal to a bourgeois society was well underway, and this is signified in the novel wherein such haute bourgeois families as the Dobbins, Osbournes, and Sedleys, whose fortunes derive from retail trade and finance, are leading characters rather than minor ones.  The novel itself, as Wolfgang Iser would say, was written with members of that class in mind as implied readers, and it reflects their point of view.  Typical of that point of view is the way that both upper-class and lower-class characters are portrayed in the novel.  Reflecting the still-existing love/hate attitude that the bourgeoisie hold towards the upper classes, the feudal aristocrats in the story are at once objects of desire (scenes of luxury and “fashion” pervade the novel) and of moral disdain (from Sir Pitt Crawley, Sr. to Lord Steyne, Vanity Fair‘s baronets and peers are usually moral bankrupts and cranks).  Similarly consistent with the bourgeois perspective, the novel’s lower-class characters are condescended to, appearing solely as marginal “furniture,” and often as the butts of snide comedy: two dimensional caricatures who are ridiculed for things (like the servants’ liveries) that they are forced to do and wear.  Significantly, however (I’ll get back to this), what might be called mid-level middle-class characters hardly appear at all.

The scene stealer of the whole novel has always been Becky Sharp, of course, whose social origin as the daughter of an unsuccessful artist and low-opera singer is quite murky.  Morally condemned in the novel for her loose sexual conduct, indifference to her son, and her refusal to pay her bills, Becky nevertheless has fascinated readers and audiences since she first appeared in serial form, not only for her titillation value but also because of her indomitable will-to-succeed, with success being equated with high status and fortune.

Well, all of this is basic Victorian literature stuff, so I had best get to the point.  What is striking, then, about Vanity Fair, and of so many Victorian novels, is the exclusion of a vision of satisfactory middle level life.  The bourgeois characters either rise to great wealth (the Osbournes and the Dobbins) or crash to poverty and misery (the Sedleys).  The upper-class characters are lavishly revealed in their palaces and balls, but are generally morally, and often economically, bankrupt, and in fear of hereditary diseases.  What is missing is a well-developed representation of something in between, a mid-level middle class.  We do catch a glimpse here and there of such characters (like Vanity Fair‘s Clapps or Great Expectation‘s Wemmicks), but a glimpse is all that we get.

More than a century and half later, as the mid-level middle class in America comes increasingly under socioeconomic attack, we can see something of a return to the social vision of Vanity Fair in popular culture.  For while, in the first decades after the Second World War, a vision of middle-class adequacy was reflected in pop culture (especially in the classic situation comedies of the fifties and the sixties), that began to change with the advent of the “dysfunctional” situation comedies of the eighties and the nineties, wherein that mid-level became an object of derision, while recent series like Breaking Bad and Weeds show that same class in a state of ongoing crisis.  The center is not holding.

Thus, there seems to be something inherently unstable in bourgeois ideology, an instability that is built into what we call the “American dream.”  For a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, that dream embraced a broad-based vision of middle-class competency, but inherent in that dream has always been a desire for more than that, and so, just as in Vanity Fair, the center is falling apart.  Goodbye Donna Reed.  Hello Kim Kardashian.

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