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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Thackeray's secondary fictional world : an aesthetic study of narrator and reader roles in the novels James, David Lewis


Thackeray's post-1847 novels make increasing use of a complex and indecisive narrator. The clear perspectives of Thackeray's early narrators—such as the boastful Gahagan, the cynical Yellowplush, and the sentimental Fitzboodle—are superseded by the man of many parts, who is the mature narrator of the novels from Vanity Fair to Denis Duval. This many-faceted figure keeps one eye on his reader as he moves between joyous certainty and utter bewilderment regarding his own feelings and his own fiction. He is not afraid to be fickle, and appears in many guises:—as novelist and historian, visionary and disenchanted worldling, preacher and clown. The secondary fictional world is determined by the narrator's continued changes of stance, not only towards the characters, but also towards the reader, who, too, must play many parts. In its focus upon Thackeray's secondary fictional world, this study sees Thackeray as one of a line of novelists from Cervantes and Sterne to Joyce and Nabokov. These "novelists in motley" present their fiction as an elaborate game drawing the reader into the dual process of involvement in the main story, or primary fictional world, and detachment from it. In the secondary fictional world, both narrator and reader see the primary illusion as an illusion, yet they feel also its instinctive truth, its power to quicken their responses, and its value as a mode of self-discovery. Thus, while Thackeray's primary fictional world frequently suggests the neatness of conventional patterns found in heroic myth., moral fable, or the contemporary melodrama and fashionable novels, the secondary fictional world undermines these forms, even while they are being used as probes of the narrator's consciousness. These established literary conventions are the means through which the indefinite self attempts definition. In Thackeray's secondary fictional world, the reader is made to see himself playing such parts as those of hero, villain, and lover, but he is also made to understand that his whole self consists of an infinite number of potential parts, none of which defines him exclusively. Thackeray's own vacillation and waywardness becomes increasingly obtrusive in his mature work until, in Philip and Lovel the Widower, the plot and setting are dwarfed by the vastness of the narrator, whose monologues, in a bewildering variety of tone, style, and viewpoint, dominate the novels. The sharp satire and detached social observation of Yellowplush and Titmarsh give way to the ironies of a later narrator, who is painfully involved with his creations. Thackeray's typical novels thus purposely present no conclusive form, but, rather, a medley of loose ends and unresolved conflicts, Unlike the central intelligence of the traditional novel, the Thackerayan narrator never finally sheds his illusions, never comes to see the truth about himself, and never reaches a climactic moment of ultimate vision; yet neither does he become victim of the illusion that man can live without illusions. He presents his reader not with a progression of events leading to self-discovery, but with a revelation of the forms through which the changing self becomes manifest.

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