James H. Wheatley

  • Patterns in Thackeray's Fiction

    James H. Wheatley

    Thackeray's great subject was the realization of the self; his method, the exploration of the formal causes of success and failure in the self's struggle toward fulfillment. The initial form he used to scrutinize and represent the ego was parody, a method for which he was well-suited, possessing, as he did, the kind of consciousness based on an “ear for language” and the necessary wide, literary sophistication. Although the nature and value of Thackeray's art is not limited to parody, the form was fundamental to his career as Professor Wheatley's original study reveals in tracing the skeins and patterns in the fiction of the 19th-century novelist. The author's approach is through the early imitations and caricatures which launched Thackeray as a writer; the beginnings are shown to be relevant to the later masterful major fiction.

    The “patterns” of the title are primarily fictional, psychological, and moral ones, and this study both isolates such patterns and explores the relations among them. Because Thackeray's career as a writer did not contain sudden breaks or shifts, though real changes did occur, Professor Wheatley employs a dual method in tracing these patterns. One avenue is literary biography, recording the experiments, developments, and triumphs of the artist. The second approach is that of literary anatomy: an examination and analysis of those areas central to Thackeray's work as a whole.

    Three main chronological periods are examined: the early work through The Book of Snobs (1846-1847); Vanity Fair (1847-1848); and the following novels, Pendennis, Henry Esmond, and The Newcomes, with a subsidiary study of their successors, The Virginians and The Adventures of Philip. Analytically, the opening chapters explore Thackeray's uses and extensions of parody, followed by two chapters which define various structural patterns and their thematic implications in Vanity Fair, and their relations to the elements discussed in the initial chapters. The last two chapters trace variations of these patterns in the later novels and provide a route by which an exploration of realism in Thackeray's fiction is undertaken.

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