Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness

By John R. Reed | Go to book overview
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TWENTY-ONE Pendennis

PFNDENNIS is a story of growth. That is a simple way of describing the narrative. A more sophisticated description might call it a story of moral growth. But both of these descriptions are far too simplistic and misleading to be of any real help, though most attempts to categorize the novel as part of the Victorian Bildungsroman tradition depend to a great degree upon such simplifications. For Thackeray moral growth was complex because all issues of morality were complex. And if discovering vanity in others could be the modest equivalent of punishment in his novels, discovering vanity in oneself could be the means of self-forgiveness and "salvation." Morality is not simple in Thackeray's fiction because good and evil, virtue and vice are not as distinct and separable as melodrama and much of the literature of early and mid-Victorian literature would have it seem. The complexity of Thackeray's approach is indicated early in the novel, when the narrator announces that if hardships of various sorts produce their corresponding virtues, "so the very virtues, on the other hand, will generate some vices." 1 The narrator has in mind Mrs. Pendennis' vice of family pride rooted in her otherwise virtuous nature. Such a weakness does not stop with its owner; it spreads its insidiousness abroad. Thus virtuous women may, by one fault, occasion disorder for many other persons, even those they most love. Mrs. Pendennis, for example, loves and pampers her only child, Arthur. "This unfortunate superstition and idol-worship of this good woman was the cause of a great deal of the misfortune which befell the young gentleman who is the hero of this history, and deserves therefore to be mentioned at the outset of his story" ( 3:18).

This brief passage already hints that whatever errors he may commit, Arthur Pendennis is not entirely responsible for them. Nonetheless, he must learn to accept responsiblity for all that he does, a process that involves his discovering what he is. Having been taught to think of himself as special and gifted, he is poorly equipped to uncover his own faults. And it does not help to have his van


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