George Levine on Vanity Fair

Unsurprisingly, eminent Victorianist George Levine writes well about “Vanity Fair and Victorian Realism” in his newly released How to Read the Victorian Novel:

In refusing the satisfactions of closure, Thackeray is implicitly affirming the importance of the realist enterprise; in rejecting the comic ending and the possibility of a satisfactory conclusion (“Which of us is happy in this world?” the book’s final paragraph asks), Thackeray is, with some fatigue, turning away from the literary forms that in fact give spine and structure to his own enormous book. Thackeray arrives at what might be seen as the ultimate attitude of the realist, something like contempt for the impossible enterprise and for the fantasies to which it aspires.

I’m reading the book in order to review it along with Harry Shaw and Alison Case’s equally new Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Austen to Eliot. So far I’m impressed with both books, though both also leave me puzzling a bit about their function. If I assigned either one as a companion in my 19th-century fiction class, for one thing, there wouldn’t be much need for me to be in the room! Case and Shaw more clearly have a student reader in mind: their language is deliberately non-technical and their tone is companionable and relaxed. (Perhaps their analysis also reads comfortably to me because Shaw was my thesis supervisor and I had the pleasure of working as the TA for his 19th-century fiction class once: the approach and the examples in many cases are familiar to me.) Levine’s text is denser and more overtly engaged with recent theoretical and critical approaches. I happily anticipate having my own ideas and habits refreshed as I work my way through both books.

When I get my hands on Philip Davis’s forthcoming Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, I think Blackwell Publishing will have met all my needs.

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