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Free Study Guide-Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray-Book Notes
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HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair in the year 1847, which comes under the Victorian Age of literary history.

During his times, the romantic impulse seen in the novels of the latter half of the previous century was dying out. It was an era of new ideas. Physical science was advancing with the creation of railroads. Science and technology together testified to man’s adventure and achievement.

The Industrial Revolution had already created waves in the society and the state of England was in a flux. The 1840’s are considered as the cusp years where everything was on a threshold of change. As the aristocracy was loosing its hold, the parvenu class was on the rise.

If progress was one Victorian watchword, freedom was the other. With the passing of Reform Acts, democracy seemed a more and more possible reality. Humanitarian impulse, scientific progress with experimentation and democracy were the most important factors, which shaped the literature of this period.


It was an age of realist, social novel, and Thackeray was one of the great forerunners of this genre. Thackeray set his novel in the early decades of the nineteenth century, during which the romantic impulse was at its height. The novel was also true to history for it included the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. It is also important to note the historical background of the period the novel is set.

Vanity Fair depicted the first two decades of the century, when fashion was led by the profligate Prince Regent and England was under the double tension of the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

The new wealthy business class was represented by the Osbornes and the Sedleys, whose code of ethics mainly identified with respectability and prosperity; the country gentry in the Crawleys, who ranged from opportunism through stupidity to downright depravity, and the then dominant aristocracy in Lord Steyne, intelligent but utterly unscrupulous.

In the arena of economics a money economy was giving way to credit economy, as is evident in the life style of Rawdon and Becky who ‘Live Comfortably on Nothing A Year.’ Even Sir Pitt questions what was the point in being a Member of Parliament if that did not prevent him to repay his debts. This is central to Thackeray’s social criticism of his own times as well. A critic, Craig, remarks, "Thackeray’s novel shows the terrible irresolution and precariousness of a society in which market values and moral values are discontinuous and separate. The ghostly paradigm upon which human nature plays in Vanity Fair, is the credit economy which in Thackeray’s time finally developed from a money economy." In such a world, bankruptcy hovered like a vulture over a corpse.

This was the historical background of Thackeray’s novel set in ‘the teens’ of the nineteenth century.

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