Frontlist | Humour in times of Pandemic

William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair' as a Social Satire

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In one of his works, Charles Dickens wrote: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” At a time when the world is trying to cope up with a deadly pandemic that has claimed millions of lives worldwide, the quote stands true and relevant. The fight against the contagious COVID-19 can be a bit easier if there are humor and laughter around us. It would not be wrong to say that a contagious disease could be dealt in a better way if there is contagious laughter all over. When you are restricted to the four walls of your home, there is no better way to induce laughter than to read a funny, witty, and satirical book. To get you started, here is a recommendation for a brilliant satire-‘Vanity Fair’.
Written by William Makepeace Thackeray, an Indian born English novelist, ‘Vanity Fair’ was first published as a nineteen volume monthly serial from 1847 to 1848. The story is told within a frame narrative of a puppet show at a play. It trails the lives of Becky Sharp, a strong-willed, penniless young woman, and her friend Amelia ‘Emmy’ Sedley, a good-natured wealthy young woman. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the story charts the girls’ misadventures in love, marriage, and family.

What stood out in Thackeray and his works, was the realistic satire, and yet at the same time criticism for his ruthless depiction of his characters. There aren’t any redeeming qualities in the characters of ‘Vanity Fair’, and all of them are consumed by the pursuit of wealth and social mobility. All in all, it is a satirisation of the early 19th century British society. In this, Thackeray gives a vivid description of both the middle class and aristocratic society, their mode of life, manners, and tastes. He exposes their pride, tyranny, hypocrisy, snobbishness, selfishness, and wickedness.

Thackeray satirizes British society through Becky’s ambition. Becky, being an ambitious woman, obstinately pursues and does whatever it takes to be rich. In the course of the story, she is discriminated against because she is not a rich and noble girl. In her academy, while other girls sleep in their comfortable and warm bedroom, Becky sleeps in the garret. She is jealous of them for being loved by everybody. Thackeray uses Becky’s thought to satirize a society that discriminates against the haves and the have-nots. The discrimination shows that the society at that time is materialistic and money-oriented. Furthermore, it influences Becky and she too becomes a materialist.

The subtitle of ‘Vanity Fair’ is “a novel without a hero”. It indicates that in the story, no character acts as a reliable moral or emotional center for the reader. Becky, while charming, clever, and high-spirited, is disturbingly ruthless. Even Amelia, an epitome of sweetness and gentleness, is weak and deluded, unable to see the true natures of the people around her. Thus, Thackeray took seriously the function of satire: to hold up the novel as a mirror in which readers see something of themselves so they can address their weaknesses but to do so with humor so readers laugh as they recognize their weaknesses.

Today (July 18) marks the 209th birth anniversary of Thackeray. In the course of ‘Vanity Fair’, one comes across a very profound line by him, “Never lose a chance of saying a kind word.” This too stands true at present. So many of us have lost a loved one in this pandemic; let’s take a moment to remember them by uttering some kind words for them, their close ones, and their loved ones. Someplace, somewhere, this will surely make Mr. Thackeray laugh.
Source: Time of India

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