Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Mon Pauvre Prisonnier": Becky Sharp and the Triumph of Napoleon

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Mon Pauvre Prisonnier": Becky Sharp and the Triumph of Napoleon

Article excerpt

"I can hardly bring myself to fancy that anything is serious in France--it seems to be all rant, tinsel, and stage-play. Sham liberty, sham monarchy, sham glory, sham justice,--ou diable donc la verite va-t-elle se nicher?" So Thackeray complains in "The Fetes of July" (PSB, p. 38).(1) His question about the domicile of "truth" situates him in the dialectic discussed by Michael McKeon, who traces profound cultural doubts about "romantic idealism" to the rise of printed sources that published self-contradictory and bombastic claims.(2) Like The Paris Sketch Book, where the romanticized picture is undercut by the narrator's consciousness of artifice and where his use of French engages the narrator in duplicity. Vanity Fair resists the rhetoric of romantic ideology. In that novel French disrupts the flow of the text, its foreignness calling attention to questions about meaning and about issues of truth and virtue. The invasive use of French is the textual equivalent of the Napoleonic campaign: yet while French discloses itself as the language of duplicity, the lingua franca of those on the make, a "sham" discourse that commodifies human relationships, it is finally no more duplicitous nor emptied of meaning than English. "La verite" is not domiciled in England because the value-system that Thackeray associates with Napoleon has become actualized as language.

The displacement of the battle of Waterloo(3) onto language illustrates the dialogic nature of discourse in Vanity Fair. The novel is multi-voiced not only because it presents, in M. M. Bakhtin's terms, both "the direct intention of the character who is speaking, and the refracted intention of the author," but also because "such oppositions ... are submerged in social heteroglossia, ... surface upheavals of the untamed elements ... that play on such individual oppositions."(4) In other words, in Vanity Fair the historic/fictive metonymic association between Napoleon invading Europe and Becky Sharp invading society is carried over in linguistic terms; there is no dogmatic statement about where truth resides, because it is found in heteroglossia itself, the process that takes place when Thackeray's "refracted intention" of revealing social discourse to be hypocritical conflicts with the character's "direct intention" of using French instead of English to demonstrate status. While the plaint in "The Fetes of July" may be a nostalgic longing for Edenic univocality, it shows the speaker to be as linguistically contaminated as the culture he condemns; like his novel, his own discourse is disrupted by the incursion of foreign phrases, that is, it is "carnivalized."

In Bakhtin's study of genre, literature transformed by a "carnival sense of the world" displays images adapted from the "concretely sensuous forms"--actions and gestures--of pageantry and ritual. Vanity Fair participates in Bakhtin's model, with one important proviso: the carnivalization of the discourse is only marginally transformative. Rather than evoking a "universal" and "joyous laughter" that speaks of new beginnings, the disrupted text is ambiguous and cynical. Yet the carnival categories hold as the upstart Becky Sharp infiltrates society: social laws are suspended to allow "free and familiar contact among people" from all walks so that "a new mode of interrelationship between individuals" develops; opposites are synthesized in a celebration of "carnivalistic mesalliances"; and "profanation," parodies, "blasphemies," or "debasings" abound.(5) The vehicle for the disruption of hierarchies is the French language: the "low"--the French dancing-girl's daughter--becomes "high" (an intimate of Gaunt House); the "artificial"--French phraseology used to disguise poverty or vice--is taken for the truth.

One effect of carnivalization is the reinvigoration of convention by the welling up of powerful myth; as Bakhtin notes, this is the conjunction of "primordial order and primordial thinking" with the rise of "class society. …

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