"How many great [men] rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums...? When we read...that one or other owes six or seven millions, their defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money...or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my ladies' dejeune; or the poor devil of a tailor whom [the man] patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth and more to get the [customized clothing] ready... When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed; as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls hither."
Quick...where is that from? The New York Times? The Wall Street Journal? Some progressive blogger on the Internet?
It's a passage in Vanity Fair and it was written in the 19th century.
I read the above passage and nearly dropped my coffee cup. Obviously, I cheated when I reposted the section here. I removed the language that would date it or place the passage in England, but 99 percent of the quote is complete.
Astounding. The more things change the more they stay the same.
I've been on a "classics" reading kick. The difference between college and 10 years after is frightening to contemplate. I know for a fact that had I read Vanity Fair in college, I would've given up 100 pages in and gone with the Cliff Notes. But here and now, I'm utterly transfixed. It's like reading Dynasty in book form (I hated Dynasty, but I adore this book) and Becky Crawley (nee Sharp) is basically Alexis Carrington's evil twin sister.
I actually had no plans to read the book, but when the movie came out I kept reading the plot summary. While I have no interest in seeing the movie, the reviews where the book was mentioned made me think I might enjoy it. So, it was with great trepidation that I invested in the 800-plus page book and began reading.
Jeez, no wonder why the public was hooked when Thackeray was releasing chapters in dribs and drabs to a subscribing (and adoring) public.
The satire here is much more subtle than Jonathan Swift's. There is the surface, which is the soap opera that unfolds in the pages, and then there's the deeper complaint: What kind of society tolerates such abuse by the upper classes solely on the basis of blood and family connection? And even more interesting, is the criticism on how the monied classes (even if they came from 'umble beginnings themselves) have no compunction about abusing people they perceive as "beneath them." And, as a final point, how can two selfish creatures like Becky and her husband Rawdon manage to swindle their way through the upper classes and still get away with it?
In truth, the back-to-back chapters 'How to Live Well on Nothing a Year' and 'The Subject Continued' is maybe the best dissection of any society that values wealth, power, and family connection above all else, whether it's 19th century England or 21st century America. The sensibility and outrage in these chapters are so modern in that you could swear Al Franken was whispering in Thackeray's ear as he wrote it.
What's truly hilarious about the whole business is that Becky is actually not very good at swindling people. An awful lot of people see right through her and she's not fooling almost 95% percent of the people she encounters. The key, however, is the 5% she does fool: people with money and power and the right kind of family. However, sooner or later, even they catch on about her--usually because Becky overplays her hand--and bit by bit manage to cast her out of their lives. This is ultimately what will hurt Becky in the long run. At least, that's what I guess will happen. I'm still mid-way through the book, but already some her past actions have (justifiably in some cases, unjustifiably in others) come back to haunt her.
However, as for those who don't trust her from the get-go, almost all of them are people no one will listen to: servants, tradesmen, soldiers with no family "name," and other women. Only one in this group, Dobbin, comes from good family and money, but he also tends to shy away from confrontation and so deals with Becky by simply keeping his exposure to her as small as possible.
Another person who dislikes Becky straight away in the indomitable Mrs. O'Dowd, who is married to the head of Dobbin's regiment. What's interesting is Thackeray sets her up as an object of derision. She is a loud, rude woman who is insanely outgoing; believes her Irish countrymen are the best in the world and her family the greatest in all the lands; who literally pussy-whips her soldier husband; and wears ridiculous clothing as if trying to attract more attention than is her due. Yet, when the chips are down, her husband is truly a great soldier, they truly have a happy marriage, and the woman is genuinely a great lady underneath all the bluster. She is courageous and loyal and even with the canons going off in Waterloo some 10 miles distant, refuses to leave town or her friends unless her husband sends word that she is to flee for her safety. And even then, you suspect, that she would bodily carry her friends out of town if she was told to leave.
Reading the book, I can now understand what horrified critics about Vanity Fair the movie. In the modern adaption, Becky Sharp is set up to be a "feminist." Unh, as someone who considers herself a feminist, can I just say, please don't help me in this way? Becky is a pretty awful person, pretty on the surface, but ugly where it counts. Is she living in an unjust and unfair society? Yup. There's no excuse for that. While the external circumstances do stack the deck against her, she consistently hates back and chooses (in many ways) to go the easy route. She goes for the short-term gain and one-upmanship, rather than scheming to improve her lot over the long run. As is pointed out in the book time and again, it is possible to land in comfortable circumstances through the use of honesty, cleverness, and hard work, provided you're not aiming for that tony address in Vanity Fair next door to all the other fine folk of the land.
In truth, these late-life discoveries of classic literature are somewhat embarrassing. I read them now with an older eye and I just know that had I read them even five years ago, I couldn't possibly appreciate what they were trying to say. I'll say it again: we are making a horrible mistake in forcing high schoolers and college students read these books. They don't have the life experience to realize the deeper universal truths that hide behind the 19th century language and stilted social conventions of the time.
What's more, I don't think any idealistic kid is ready to receive the message: Human nature really doesn't change. You'll run into these people time and again, whether it's in battling it out with high school cliques, or people in the workplace, or in just carrying on with your day-to-day life. There will be good people, there will be selfish people, there will be people who look like winners even though they're really losers in the all the ways that count, and there will be people who look like losers and fools even though they are truly the best people you'll ever know once you get beyond the surface.
Another part of it is that I have always been enamored of 19th century New England literature, which is maybe why I've (until recently) given 19th century British literature short-shrift. A lot of it is simply regionalism. On a fundamental level, I understand Hawthorne and Melville. I've visited their graves, I've walked the streets they've walked (in Hawthorne's case, I've lived in his backyard), I've visited the Old Manse more times than I can count, and I can still see echoes of their society even in modern New England. What echoes New England's whaling past better than the modern lobster fisherman? What reveals more about New England's fascination with the supernatural than the tourist traps of Salem?
Against the geographical background of Hawthorne, Melville, and other authors of the Transcendentalist and anti-Transcendentalist schools of literature, someone like Stephen King (for all his faults as an author) was practically destined to come into being. And I guarantee that once Stephen King becomes past tense, there will be another New England author who'll take his place.
New England authors, at their core, have a hard granite that doesn't change, no matter how much wind, rain, and snow pounds against their words. They are marked by this enamor of the normal person facing off against supernatural elements. Yet, underneath the surface is still that cat-like sniff: We all know that supernatural ain't real. How many times do I need to read in a Stephen King interview where he states that every book is simply real life blown up into insane proportions? Christine isn't real. It's based on a near-accident where his son was almost run over by a car (for example). The Shining isn't real. It's based on a resort in Colorado that he thought was pretty cool.
Yet, like Hawthorne and Melville before him, King is fly papered to the supernatural. I often wonder if New England authors protest far too much for their own good.
I suppose I'm as protective of Hawthorne and Melville (and King to a lesser extent) as some Southerners are protective of Faulkner and O'Connor (two authors, I must admit, that I've never warmed to because I know I'm missing extremely important regional subtext). In many ways, my basic understanding of human nature and even storytelling comes from these two gentlemen.
From Melville and Hawthorne I learned one important fact: In many ways, people choose their own fate. Are there some things we can't control? Sure. Calamity happens, good luck reverses, and there are days when you're pretty sure the universe is out to get you. Despite that, there is an awful lot that we still do control, such as how do we react to adversity? Do we rise above it? Do we sink below the surface? In fact, it's our choices that are important, not what life throws at us.
At the end of the day, Captain Ahab chose to chase a White Whale to the exclusion of all else, something that not only sealed his doom, but the doom of all his crew.
At the end of the day, Young Goodman Brown followed the devil into the woods and chose to believe what he saw there: that everyone is as bad as the devil claims.
Hawthorne threw his characters into pretty fantastic situations. Reading his short stories, there's a constant theme: the supernatural is real and, when the supernatural invades the life of a normal person, that person must deal with it. Some fall into despair. Some fight back. No one walks away unchanged.
Melville saw nature as just nature, no hidden hands anywhere. He seems to say that humanity's penchant for assigning supernatural reasons to the bad shit that happens is nothing short of hubris. A whale is just whale and to think it something more is a stupid way to live and die.
Thackeray is so close in sensibility to Melville that it's frightening, but he goes one step further: not only is there nothing supernatural, such a possibility is not even acknowledged. It's simply the ups and downs of life and how you deal with that is what's important.
They key, I think, for all three authors is not what happens, but how the characters act and react through changing fortunes.
As for Living History, real life has kept me busy. A few long hours at work, gearing up my work-out routine, and dealing with a needy bird has me hopping.
However, I am still chipping away at the next scene. At long last, I understand why Xander can be frustrating character to write at times. It's pretty much canon that Xander will try to avoid confrontation with his friends to the point where he'll fluff it off, make a joke of it, or not mention it at all.
The scene I'm working on involves a recovering Willow trying to get out of Xander the truth of what happened with her down in the caverns. This scene is hella important to get right for several reasons:
1) It leads to Willow making an executive decision that affects everyone in the Cleveland house without their knowing it. It's somewhat on par with Xander's lie in "Becoming Part II," and yet post-S7 I can see Willow making the call for a lot of good reasons.
2) It has to show that Xander has changed enough that he will finally tell someone he loves an unpleasant truth (no matter how reluctantly) while still showing that canon unwillingness to do so. It's such a fine balancing act (and a frustrating one) that it's no wonder the BtVS writers never tried to tackle it. Usually (canonically speaking) whenever Xander tells someone an unpleasant truth, it's because he's furious and frustrated. Now I've got to write an adult version of that guy who will do it because he realizes that not doing so will hurt more. Yeesh.
3) It also has to point out fundamentally different ways Xander deals with people in his life as far as Living History goes: Faith he'll toss the unpleasant truth at without a thought (as I've written time and again). He still avoids unpleasant truths Buffy, although he dances around the margins. This conversation with Willow signals a shift in how he deals with her: from Buffy-like keep-away to a more honest way of dealing with her.
I've been working and re-working the conversation and it is coming into focus, but Xander still doesn't sound quite "right" to me. I a little more tweaking and it should be right (I think). *snarls in frustration*