Strings Attached in “Vanity Fair”

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a romp, a performance, a puppet show told in sixty-seven chapters. The intruding narrator intermittently makes his presence and his control of the story known.

He anticipates and apologizes: “But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia…;” “…indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short….” (p. 11, Penguin Books 2004 edition)

He admonishes: “How is this? Some carping reader exclaims.” (p. 125)

He challenges: “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer….” (p. 251)

He abdicates: “Why was she so violently agitated at Dobbin’s request? This can never be known.”  (p. 252)

He assumes: “I doubt, I say, that Becky would have selected either of these young men….”  (p. 587)

He lectures: “…so an uninitiated man…had best keep his opinions to himself whatever they are.” (p. 589)

Subtitled “Novel without a Hero,” Vanity Fair has a heroine: Becky Sharp. She’s clever and spirited, self-centered and good-hearted, a wife and mother who is careless with her husband and child, a good friend to Amelia, the other heroine. The narrator is kind to Becky, looks out for her: “She has her enemies. Who has not? Her life is her answer to them. She busies herself in works of piety.”

A plethora of characters and events are packed into this novel: the narrator moves things along in quick summary or explanation, or drops back behind the action, but never for long. He comes directly into it: “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.”

He’s omniscient (except when he feigns ignorance), but he’s also a character. He’s an entertainer. He’s the puppeteer, manipulating the story; and, as in watching a puppet show, readers are at times unaware, at times keenly aware, of the strings.

Lesson: Try it. Learn from it.

Writing an intruding narrator is a lot harder to pull off than it may seem. You may start strong, humorous, but not be able to maintain that level throughout the long form of a novel. Or the voice may divert attention from the story in an annoying way or become so intolerable the reader closes the book. Or you may write an acclaimed piece of contemporary metafiction.

The advantage of trying it is this: Once you’ve written that kind of narrator intentionally, you will probably be able to spot your own intrusions and residue of author’s notes more easily in your work when they aren’t desired.

Lesson: Use it incidentally for narrative control

You may decide to use a bit of intrusion in your work for narrative control. Ann Patchett does this in Bel Canto when she steps out of the story for a time bridge and begins again—So to rejoin the story a week after Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party ended seems as good a place as any.

This jumped out at me the times that I’ve read Bel Canto. But it fits with the established narrative voice—omniscient, distant to close-third person point of view—fully in control, no nonsense (won’t waste our time), comforting, and wise.