Betty and Veronica are
two comic book characters in the comic Archie. The two women vie for the affection of the
titular hero, forming a love triangle. One
would think that Archie would have a more difficult choice if both women were
very similar, but no: they are dynamically different, with Betty being the
wholesome girl-next-door and Veronica is the dangerous Vamp. One need only refer to TV Tropes to see that
this is a common storytelling technique, seeing whether the hero will choose safety
or danger, good or bad, light or dark.
But as I’d like to point out in the following blog entry, this sort of
character dynamic is much older than Archie.
I’ve read a lot of
Victorian novels, and most—especially those written by male authors—have a
tendency towards saintly female characters who are so very good and yet so
very, very boring. Most of them may have
upright natures, but they are helpless to stop whatever injustice is done to
them or their loved ones.
Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It’s
a moral piece, meant to show the fallibility (the “vanity”) of every human
being in a realistic, unapologetic way.It’s also a sort of parody or farce, a self-proclaimed “puppet show”
where Thackeray is the puppet-master and omniscient of every action or thought
of the characters, on or off the stage.Above all, it is what in literary jargon is referred to as a “picaresque;”
an episodic story dealing with the various adventures of a young person
(usually a young man).It’s less coming-of-age
as the unveiled mischief-makings of the hero, who is usually rude and amoral,
but nevertheless charms the audience into liking him.
I first learned of the picaresque genre in a college
class. The word comes from the Spanish
meaning “rogue” or “rascal,” referring to the less-than-sterling character of
the protagonist. In that class we read Lazarillo
de Tormez, a short story about such a rogue who is trying to explain his
actions to the Spanish Inquisition. A
more widely-known example of picaresque might be Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer,
about a boy every reader would secretly like to have been (or at least
befriended) as a child, but whom no adult would like the responsibility of
In a way, Vanity Fair
is comprised of two plotlines that sometimes intersect. The first is for Amelia Sedley, a young lady
from the family of country gentility whose family slowly loses all its money
and influence, and whose own short-lived, disastrous marriage leaves her a
young widow grieving over the ideal memory of a man she barely knew. Amelia is the stereotypical Victorian lady,
all purity and amiability and reliance on the men in her life. Her love is selfishly selfless, in that she
wants what’s best for her young son so much that she obsesses over him, doesn’t
discipline him, and doesn’t stand up for her own rights or what she knows to be
right. I said that Thackeray portrays
all his characters as flawed: Amelia’s flaw is that she forces herself to fit
into the mold of Perfect Sacrificial Lady and Mother so much that she actually
idolizes it and her identity is consumed by this ideal.
The second plotline is
the picaresque story of Becky Sharp, a shrewd, talented, and amoral young
orphan who is classmates with Amelia at the beginning of the book. Aside from the fact that she is clever,
witty, level-headed, clear-sighted, frank, a good singer, able to speak French,
brave, and beautiful, there is nothing likeable about Becky Sharp. She’s cruel, cold-hearted, mercenary…which is
entirely uncalled for, even if she is an orphan with no money and who needs to
work or marry well in order to survive. Unlike
Amelia who is consumed with an identity that society demands she fit into,
Becky claws her way to the top with well-placed words of flattery. Her marriage to the dragoon Rawdon Crawley is
just as scandalous as Amelia’s own marriage, and both of these unions are met
with disapproval and disowning. Yet
Becky has a knack for bouncing back from misfortune, and flirts and flatters
her way back into everyone’s good graces.
Like Hardy had to derail the independent Bathsheba Everdeen with
uncharacteristically foolish decisions, Thackeray has a hard time keeping the reader
from downright liking the incorrigible Miss Sharp, and so has to add that she’s
a terrible mother--and possibly worse--just to keep us from
cheering her on quite so much.
Though Margaret Mitchell
apparently denied it with vehemence, in my opinion there is no way that Vanity
Fair did not have some sort of influence on the writing of Gone With the
Wind. There is far too much resemblance in the characters of Becky and
Amelia to Scarlett and Mellie, as well as the whole “two women caught on a
battlefield” scenario which appears in both novels. If you have read Gone With the Wind or
at least watched the movie, I’ll simply say that you have some idea of the story
of Vanity Fair, without completely giving away every twist or turn of
In conclusion, I agree
with Thackeray’s subtitle. There is no
hero. All the characters, even the
faithful Dobbin and the “innocent” children, are flawed by vanity, pride,
instinctive neediness or greed, and selfishness. There is no hero in this novel, just as there
is nobody perfect in real life. I would,
however, suggest that there might possibly be a heroine. It simply depends
on your point of view who that heroine might be.
I love classics.
They are probably my favorite “genre” of book to pick off the shelf,
though of course classics can’t be defined into one particular genre of
romance, suspense, mystery or tragedy.
Yet no matter how many classics I read—the centuries-old stories lauded
by contemporary and modern audiences and critics alike, written about by
scholars, argued by academics, and force-fed to students—I always eventually
return to Lloyd Alexander.
I had already read all of Jane Austen’s novels, David
Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, several Shakespearean dramas, Jane
Eyre, and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories before I picked up my first
Lloyd Alexander YA novel. But for a shy,
introverted bookworm such as myself, it was akin to meeting a best friend.
Lloyd Alexander’s novels for children and teens are almost
always action-adventure books. Often the
main character is a young man who must come of age through a series of misfortunes
that usually lead him to meet a despicable Villain (often a corrupt bureaucrat
abusing his authority) and helped by at one or two Comic Relief sidekicks and
one feisty Heroine with whom he falls in love.
These characters are sometimes a bit caricatured, but in
the world Alexander creates—somewhere between a heightened reality and a book
of fairy tales and fables—they are definitely vivid and alive. The reader easily identifies with the
emotions and problems of the main heroes.
And then there is always Alexander’s distinctive sense of humor. And beyond the formula of these novels there
is usually something deeper, a theme that is taught in a non-preachy way.
The Iron Ring is one such story. Set in a pseudo-Indian world of talking
animals, a caste-ridden society, and principalities that struggle amongst each
other for power, King Tamar of Sundari is our young, idealistic hero. When he shows hospitality to a fellow-king—the
rude and condescending King Jaya—he finds himself forced to prove his dharma and defend his dignity…by
gambling away his life in a dice game.
The next morning he wakes up, and none of his advisors or servants
remember Jaya’s visit. Tamar is almost
convinced it was a horrible dream…until he notices an Iron Ring on his finger,
a symbol of what he owes Jaya.
Because he is a man of his word, Tamar sets out to Jaya’s
kingdom, unsure if it really exists. On
the way many side-adventures threaten to distract or keep him from his goal: he
becomes embroiled in a blood-feud between brother princes, he rescues the
impudent Monkey King Hashkat from the King of Snakes, Shesha, and finds himself
enthralled by the beautiful and unconventional cow-tender Mirri, to name a few
of his adventures.
The common thread running through every episode is Tamar’s
strict code of honor, his strident clinging to dharma, which in the book is explained as the rules of nature for
every being’s station in life. For the monkey
Hashkat, for example, he is only following a monkey’s dharma when he is tricky and thieving, while to a human king like
Tamar trickery and theft are completely against his lot in life. The problem with Tamar’s attitude, though, is
that he allows social expectations to guide him more than his own moral
compass: it is only when he has lost everything that he thought was true about
himself that he can finally know what kind of person he is, and is freed to
follow what is good and right rather than what is expected of him and his