Teaching Vanity Fair is always a morally significant experience: it prompts so much reflection on what really matters, both in the world you actually live in, and in the world you wish you lived in. One of the earliest essays I wrote for Open Letters Monthly was on this aspect of Vanity Fair — on the way that it pretends to be about its characters but turns out to be about us, and especially about what we want to see reflected back at us about our lives when it’s too late to change anything:
The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. The nurse will look in at the curtains, and you take no notice — and then she will fling open the windows for a little and let in the air. Then they will pull down all the front blinds of the house and live in the back rooms — then they will send for the lawyer and other men in black, &c. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh, how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making.
Even if we do have what we wanted most, will it have brought us happiness? And even if it has brought us happiness in the here and now, will it have been worth what we did, or didn’t do, to get it? “Everyone is striving for what is not worth the having,” as Lord Steyne says. It’s a lesson adaptable to all of us, in our various circumstances: the thing we reach for, not to mention the thing we are rewarded for, may really be a worthless chimera.
And yet how hard it is to exempt ourselves from the vanity of it all — not least here in the academy, where it sometimes seems that the systems of value and reward are as perverse and foolish as anything Thackeray imagined. Reading Vanity Fair does put things in perspective though. For instance, one thing I feel morally certain about is that on my deathbed, I will have no regrets about not having published more peer-reviewed academic articles, even if that remains the primary currency by which my professional worth is measured. Thus I will always see tenure as one thing that was worth striving for! My regrets (like my pride and my joy) will lie elsewhere.