Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Thackeray and the picaresque world
by Zygmunt, Lawrence Charles, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2010, 342; 3408680
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation argues that the entirety of Thackeray’s early work, culminating in Vanity Fair, forms a single artistic endeavor in the tradition of the picaresque, a genre properly understood as coaxing readers into adjudicating practical ethical dilemmas. What I call the “ethical picaresque”—not a subset of a larger picaresque genre, but a new, less list-driven conception of the entire genre—addresses the challenges of Thackeray, one of the Victorian era’s more critically intractable and anomalous writers, more productively than previous scholarship. The picaresque follows the many troubling activities of transgressive yet imperilled characters, and recruits readers to parse the quotidian ethical dilemmas that arise over long series of different situations and circumstances.

Thackeray’s reputation rests on Vanity Fair, but because its true richness emerges only alongside the vast second tier of his work, I first examine the critically neglected magazine pieces that envelop the novel within a larger fictional universe. Thackeray’s periodical writing is all set in the same expansive, contiguous world, filled with recurring characters—disproportionately connivers and swindlers—and interwoven events, and this previously unnoted continuity lends itself to the iterative logic, interpretive challenges, and ethical quandaries of the picaresque.

Only after exploring this uneasy, disorienting expanse and the uncertain, equivocal voices employed to define it can I proceed to Vanity Fair, properly prepared to demonstrate that Thackeray’s unstably narrated first novel continues the world, and the picaresque endeavor, of his magazine work. With its plentiful malfeasance and ambiguous motives, Vanity Fair undermines conventional assumptions about decent behavior so thoroughly that readers continually face the essential challenge of the picaresque: bringing nuanced judgement to a book that requires an ethical vision, but does not provide its own.

To emphasize Thackeray’s uniqueness among his immediate peers, I conclude with a fourth chapter that returns Vanity Fair to Victorian context and compares picaresque’s reliance upon its readers’ ethical discernment with the more ideological, forensically staunch fiction that characterizes the 1840's. Authors such as Gaskell, Disraeli, and even Dickens make cases for their convictions with a resoluteness alien to Thackeray’s portrayal a world of filled with ethical confusion.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Veeder, William
Commitee:
School: The University of Chicago
Department: English Language and Literature
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 71/07, Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: British and Irish literature
Keywords: Genre, Magazine fiction, Picaresque, Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair, Victorian, Victorian novel
Publication Number: 3408680
ISBN: 9781124051109
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