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Ortega y Gasset and Thackeray: An Unlikely Conjunction

Ortega y Gasset and Thackeray: An Unlikely Conjunction

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Published by Adam Fieled
A deconstruction of Thackeray's character Becky Sharp from "Vanity Fair" with Ortega y Gasset's literary theories.
A deconstruction of Thackeray's character Becky Sharp from "Vanity Fair" with Ortega y Gasset's literary theories.

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Published by: Adam Fieled on Jul 18, 2013
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09/05/2013

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AN UNLIKELY CONJUNCTION: ORTEGA YGASSET AND THACKERAY
Jose Ortega y Gasset reports, in his
 Notes on the Novel 
, that “the imperative of the
 
novel is autopsy”(296).
Ort
ega y Gasset’s notes themselves perform a kind of autopsy onthe novel, which is seen to be in decline, potentially moribund. Ortega y Gasset’s notes
are prescriptive
 — 
he demonstrates an angle of approach that he feels can take the novelwhere it needs to go. The angle that Ortega y Gasset argues for is a movement away fromaction, adventure, and plot-dependency, and into detailed analyses and contemplativeevocations of characters, who
he calls “personages.”
The movement away from plotorientation and towards character orientation entails a diminished awareness of outwardcircumstance;
Ortega Y Gasset says, “what…pleases is not so much the fortunes of the
 
 personages, as their self-
 presence”(296).
Ortega y Gasset uses the analogy of Impressionist painting,
how it conveys “existence in the present tense”(297), as well as
the detail-rich technique of Proust and Dostoyevsky, to convey his points. In the idealnovel that Ortega y Gasset imagines
, “action…ought to be reduced to a minimum”(305)so that “we are liable to remember….only the personages themselves”(308).
Ortega yGasset ornaments these
essential ideas with the thought that “density” and “sluggishness”
should both be desirable textual characteristics, in order that a proper amount of character-data can be conveyed. This information can lead us to a contemplativeappreciation of personages, rather than a mere surface-consonant engagement with actionand adventure, such is we find in pop culture narratives.
Vanity Fair 
might seem like an unlikely candida
te to exemplify Ortega y Gasset’s
  prescription. It is, after all, a comedy of manners, with an interesting and intricate plot-
line that moves us briskly from one scene to another. Whatever “density” we might see in
this work might come only from its extreme length. However, perhaps alone among the personages we meet in
Vanity Fair 
,
Becky Sharp exudes a magnetism, an intense “self 
- presence
,”
that can linger long after the book is read, and serve as a synecdoche for the book as a whole. Her status as a personage in the book might be said to overshadow thestatus of other characters, and her character is painstakingly revealed and displayedthroughout the length of the book. She gives us food for contemplation, of the sort thatOrtega y Gasset discusses, and the memorable nature of her appearances in the book would tend to bear out Ortega y
Gasset’s claim that “we are liable to remember…only
 
the personages themselves”(308).
The birth of the character from the death of the author?Why does Ortega y Gasset make this claim? The novel, to him, is a place, a
“hermetically sealed universe”(308), where
(ideally) we contemplate ethics, human passions, and motives. W.M. Thackeray certainly gives us an abundance of ethical,motivational, and passion-related material in his rendering of Becky Sharp. What isessential about this rendering, and how it dovetails
neatly with Ortega y Gasset’s theory
,
is that Becky’s
character is not always manifest in grand flourishes; often, it is theminiscule things she does, in polite company or in the domestic milieu (as an anti-Victorian non-angel in the house), that give her character its memorable piquancy. Early
in the novel, upon leaving Miss Pinkerton’s academy, Becky is offered a finger to shake
(in that day a condescending gesture); instead of acquiescing
to her superior’s wishes,“Miss Sharp only folded her own hands with a very frigid
smile and bow, and quite
declined to accept the proffered honor”(7).
 
Ortega y Gasset wants “long looks at…personages…in all the wealth of thei
lives”(298). He wants a kind of “lingering” effect. This vignette
s which Thackeray offer cannot help but linger in our minds, for a number of reasons. We have tacit rules being thwarted, in a comedy of manners
 — 
Becky refuses to follow the convention of humoring a superior. Thus, Becky Sharp immediately stands out as a character bothwilling and able to thwart convention. An incident like this signifies
Becky’s “outlaw”
status, her quality as a unique personage in
VF 
. Yet it only takes one well-constructed,
detailed sentence to convey this data. Thackeray’s use of language
is very skillful,
“dense” in the sense that Ortega y Gasset wants a novelist’s language to
be; for example,
“quite” gives a much more distinct flavor, an impression of agency and
volition to
Becky’s action that would not be there were it omitted.
Ortega y Gasset does make a
 point that “dramatic interest is a psychological necessity”(305). So, this initial revelation
 
of Becky’s character does not happen in solitude, while Becky h
erself is in acontemplative posture, but in a scene that is both modest (no grand flourishes) and subtlydramatic (as most scenes are wherein social mores are transgressed).
It is true that Thackeray’s treatment of Becky Sharp in
VF 
is somewhat unique.
She is “revealed” more often and with greater panache than other characters. We getmore than the “good long look” that Ortega y Gasset prescribes, and, where Becky
 
Sharp and the “things” that make up her life are concerned, Thackeray certainly “turns
 
rom the conventional signs to the things themselves”(297). Thackeray loves to “linger”
 on Becky, and everything she does is invested with meaning. When we see how
“Rebecca sprang about the apartment…with the greatest liveliness, and had peeped into
 the huge wardrobes, and the closets, and the cupboards, and tried the drawers that were
locked…”(71), we are seeing an action which can interest us on both a superficial level,
 and as grist for contemplation. Becky Sharp can be imagined as an archetypalrepresentation of ambition, or curiosity, vanity, or bravery, rapacity. Her complexity
makes all her actions, even seemingly modest ones like snooping through someone else’s
 drawers, significant
. We are seeing what Ortega y Gasset calls a “construct(ed) human
 so
ul”(315). As Ortega y Gasset asks of the novel form itself, we may feel “surrounded
 
 by (her) on all sides”(311
). What gives Becky her sharpness, in the context of 
VF 
, is thatshe does things instinctively that others would or could not do. To use a Freudiancliché, she is a walking Id. Her 
amorality becomes the “wealth of her life” that
Ortegay Gasset mentions, even, paradoxically, when it reduces her to poverty. It is a wealththat may or may not be appreciated by her; the real wealth, the contemplative wealth,is for us, the audience; and the contemplative duration of this wealth is extended.Ortega y Gasset emphasizes personages over plots, contemplation over action,density and atmosphere over adventure. As a densely-detailed personage worthy of contemplation, Becky Sharp would seem to be what Ortega y Gasset might prize mostabout
VF 
. There is one final detail worth mentioning. Ortega y Gasset equates the inner 
density of a novel with “high pressure”(303). This brings to light another aspect of B
eckySharp worth exploring and contemplating
 — 
the manner in which her intense energy
strains people and situations to the breaking point. Though married, we see Becky with “ascore of generals now round Becky’s chair, and she might take her choice of a d
ozen
 bouquets when she went to the play”(350).
 
Becky’s intensity is matched by the intensity
 of the reactions she elicits. She is both magnetic and repellent. This is one reason whyher social interactions often have an unusual tinge. In a comedy of manne
rs, Becky’s
 overt charisma and anti-charisma make her seem almost like a visitor from another story.
Becky’s “self 
-
 presence” pleases us because she is so manifestly unlike everyone else in
 
VF 
. We may not grieve when she falls from grace, because she herself does not grieve.We may get pleasure from everything she does. She gives us everything that Ortega yGasset could want from a single character 
, and is in a sense “pimped” to us by the author.
 
Ortega y Gasset’s prescriptive suggestion for novels and nov
elists
 — 
an emphasison character and contemplation
 —may have been fulfilled by Thackeray’s rendering of 
 Becky Sharp in
VF 
; this novel is, however, from a bygone era, while Ortega y Gasset isspeaking to a more recent audience. If someone wanted to create a Becky Sharp for our day and age, challenges would present themselves
 — 
how to create a figure both in and
out of our society, an “outlaw” who knows the rules by heart; h
ow to convey the piquancy of mores transgressed, of ambition fit to burst; how to represent magnetic and

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