A Novel Without A Hero

I haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, but from people’s descriptions, it appears that a major characteristic of the series is the author’s tendency to kill off any character that the reader might be getting sympathetic with.

If physical deaths were substituted by moral ones, then Vanity Fair could be called a Victorian-era Song of Ice and Fire, and William Makepeace Thackeray* is at least as cruel and relentless to his readers as George R.R Martin. Yes, the “deaths” here are not bloody – they are merely sickening moral defeats – acts of cowardice, stupidity, hypocrisy, and plain old evil that make you cringe and wonder if there is not a single honest person left in the world he is describing – but their effect on the reader is pretty much the same.

“Dear God”, you say, turning to page 400-something. “Please let the cunning, unscrupulous, cruel Becky Sharp’s wickedness be discovered and let her, I don’t know, be sent to burn in Hell or something. Please make Mrs Osborne (nee Sedley) stop being so stupid and start displaying a bit of spirit, the little doormat. PLEASE PLEASE let Captain Dobbin get rewarded for his apparently inextinguishable generosity and kindness and courage. Etc etc”

And of course none of these things happen. Thackeray is writing a ruthlessly realistic novel, not a fairytale like Jane Eyre where people with impossibly perfect characters go through dreadful circumstances and come out of their ordeals stronger, better and wiser, and the heroine gets her hero at the end.  Nah.

Plot-wise, the novel can be summed up in two sentences:

1. When will someone KILL Becky Sharp !!

2. Amelia Sedley, marry Captain Dobbin already ! What on earth is wrong with you ?!

Obviously, there’s more to this 700 page novel than that. The author’s acute observation, sarcasm (alas, some of his references are lost on us, 150 years after the novel was published), wordplay and a faultless writing style make the book almost a light read. (Well, you know what I mean). There are parts that are really funny, and others which will make the most hardened novel-reader weep. But the final message is unrelentingly dark. One and a half centuries before GRRM decided to make wild money out of this theme, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair told us that this is a world without heroes, in which decent people always lose and ‘the wicked flourish like the green bay tree’.


Bay tree.

*Yeah, Thackeray is a British name.


1 Comment

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One response to “A Novel Without A Hero

  1. This seems like an interesting book! Save me a copy please?

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