Thackeray as Metahistorian, or the Realist Via Media

By Barnaby, Edward T. | CLIO, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Thackeray as Metahistorian, or the Realist Via Media


Barnaby, Edward T., CLIO


The writings of Thackeray provide a particularly rich starting point for an inquiry into the relationship between the novel and what Guy Debord calls the "society of the spectacle" wrought by capitalist ideology. (1) Debord describes a process of reification in modern consumer culture through which the individual is transformed into a politically immobilized spectator who contemplates society rather than attempting to act within it. This reification also takes place on the level of time and history in that capitalist culture is predicated on a shift from what Debord identifies as the cyclical time of agrarian society to the "irreversible" linear time of industrial progress. The issue on which Marxist critics have been unable to reach a consensus, however, is whether the novel participates in the process of reifying society within the logic of capitalism or liberates its readers from ideological blindness by making this capitalist transformation visible to them. The answer to this question lies partly in what Hayden White identifies as the meta-historical perspective of the novel that makes visible the ideological perspectives through which history is narrated. (2) We find Thackeray positioning the historical novel between two divergent approaches to historiographical practice in his day, namely, the subjectivity of Carlyle's Germanism and the objectivity of a more scientistic French model. In identifying and parodying these extremes in historical representation, Thackeray creates a generic vacuum that his works fill with the ironic perspective of literary realism. Providing even further depth to this appraisal of Thackeray's historical consciousness is the fact that he was somewhat of a frustrated historian himself, producing a discrete body of works about, and delivering lectures on, particularly historical subjects. Examining the function of ideology in these more explicitly historical forms of representation will clarify the novel's particular relationship to ideology, as well as the novel's tendency to overlap the territory of the historian.

Thackeray's satire of historiography in The Second Funeral of Napoleon as little more than "works of fiction" full of heroes "whom it can do one no earthly good to remember" emerges largely in response to the imported German philosophy of Thomas Carlyle, particularly Carlyle's treatise On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. (3) The occasion of Thackeray's epistolary report from France is the exhumation of the emperor's exiled corpse and its subsequent transfer to the temple in Paris that had been constructed in Napoleon's honor. The ceremonial pomp and reverence that accompanied this political gesture serves for Thackeray as visible testimony to both the shallow spectacle that is public history and the fallibility of cultural memory. Thackeray wonders whether the fashionable esteem for Greek and Roman culture would persist if, instead of what one reads in a history text, one was "to know really what those monsters were" (361). Applying this argument to the historical figures of his own culture, Thackeray observes that "many of our English worthies are no better. You are not in a situation to know the real characters of any one of them. They appear before you in their public capacities, but the individuals you know not" (360).

This distinction between a public and private persona does not exist for Carlyle. He understands the mission of historiography to be the composition of an inspiring narrative about "Great Men" whose ideas and actions influenced the course of human events and formed the cultural horizons "of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or attain" (239). Carlyle explains that "all things that we see standing accomplished in the world," namely the visual spectacle of the past, exist as the "outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men" (239). In one sense, this idea parallels the Marxist concept of superstructures that spring from the invisible undercurrents of historical process.

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