Monday, August 6, 2012

The Classics Challenge: August and a little more Thackeray

For this month's round of her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn asks us to post a memorable quote or two from our current classic. I'm still caught in the thrall of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which I posted about yesterday, and when I read her prompt one quote, one scene, came immediately to mind. I'm going to redact names, to avoid spoilers.

"It is not that speech of yesterday," he continued, "which moves you. That is but the pretext, X, or I have loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain. Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your feeble little remnant of love. I will bargain no more: I withdraw. I find no fault with you. You are very good-natured, and have done your best, but you couldn't - you couldn't reach up to the height of the attachment which I bore you, and which a loftier soul than yours might have been proud to share. Good-bye, X! I have watched your struggle. Let it end. We are both weary of it."

"A woman more generous than you" - "I will bargain no more" - "Let it end. We are both weary of it." I thought there was true, genuine emotion in those words - even before I learned that this scene may have echoed one in Thackeray's own life.

A second quote, from the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo:

No more firing was heard at Brussels - the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Y was praying for Z, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.

John Carey, who edited the Penguin edition that I read, calls this "the most shattering sentence in English literature . . . Nothing has prepared us for this. To remove [Z] so casually, in a mere subordinate clause, was unprecedented - sudden, callous, unreasonable and shocking, like real death." Reading his words, I felt rather callous myself, because I didn't find the sentence or Z's fate itself all that shattering, knowing how many died on both sides at Waterloo. But perhaps it's also partly from my own reaction to the character.

I'm tempted to quote some of Thackeray's confidential asides to his readers, but I'll restrain myself just to the last line: "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." It takes us back to the start of the book, when he addresses us "Before the Curtain," as "the Manager of the Performance."


  1. I'm a big fan of Vanity Fair also, and both sections you quoted are tremendous.

    I must've read the same edition as you because I remember the assessment of "the most shattering sentence in English literature"--I think it is a brutal sentence, and memorable for its brutality.

    I haven't read a bio of Thackeray, but your comment about the words you quoted earlier being resonant with his life makes me want to rectify that.

    Interesting post--thanks.

  2. Jane, from just the little I've read, he seems to have had quite an eventful & complicated life. I'm interested to learn more about him as well.

    That sentence about death didn't feel brutal to me - more like karmic justice. But that's partly my prejudices about the person in question, I'm sure.

  3. Both of those excerpts gave me chills for different reasons! You are more and more convincing me that I need to try VF again.

  4. I thought the "Let it end. We are both weary of it" speech was one of the most devastating that I have read in quite a while - and I was cheering on the speaker!

  5. Both quotes make quite an impact especially as I haven't read VF yet. Does make me want to very soon.

  6. The context gives each an even greater impact - because of course by then you're invested in the characters.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!