Monday 20 June 2016

A Master Class in Unsatisfactory Endings from William Makepeace Thackeray

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

So ends Thackeray’s 1847-8 Vanity Fair, a novel that defies our desire for happy endings and near resolutions. When we think about novels we may divide them into two categories, those with tear-jerking endings and those with endings that satisfy in their neatness in a way that is rarely replicable in real life. Or we may reject unhappy endings entirely and agree with Oscar Wilde’s joke: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’

The final illustration in Vanity Fair
Yet, after nearly 900 pages, Thackeray’s ending doesn’t subscribe to either of these models. As in many Victorian novels, we are presented with a picture of domestic serenity after preceding drama—the Dobbins and Crawleys live side by side with hope of further marriage ties between the younger generations. But the complete happiness we have longed for with readerly naivety is not forthcoming. Rebecca will not be punished, Amelia will remain insipid, even when freed from the tyranny of her dead husband’s memory, and the fair will play on, with its falsehoods and frivolities, even if we abandon the particular characters we have toyed with.

Nowhere is this dissatisfaction more obvious than when in comes to Dobbin. Vanity Fair is ‘a novel without a hero’ but the Major has all the qualities we might associate with such a character. He is a military man of outstanding morals, a loyal lover and a just friend. He protects Amelia for years without hope of her reciprocating his feelings and the culmination of their relationship in a marriage (and child) is the ending we are encouraged to look forward to.

The ending is there, the marriage comes to pass and the child is forthcoming so why isn’t this resolution as happy as we had hoped? Dobbin’s kindness, constancy and frequent romantic gestures do not win his bride. Instead he can only woo Amelia when he recognises the folly of wanting her at all:

“Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love.”

Our desire for a happy ending is shown to be as delusional as Dobbin’s unrequited love. Instead of the passionate climax we have hoped for we are given a marriage based on the submission of one party and the tolerance of the other. Dobbin loves the child (little Janey) now more than anyone (presumably Amelia included) and, even then, she is only slightly more important to him than a history book.

Ending such a sweeping novel is hard, and, with masterful skill, Thackeray chooses to draw attention to the device’s artificiality while wrapping up all loose ends. If you’re writing an ending it might be worth thinking outside the binary of happy/sad and interrogating the possibilities of the unsatisfactory ending. After all, it’s always good to leave your readers wanting more…

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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