The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The in Author(s): Maria Dibattista Source: PMLA, Vol. 95, No. 5 (Oct., 1980), pp. 827-837 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/461760 Accessed: 20-02-2019 20:08 UTC

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This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms MARIA DIBATTISTA

The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair

death, for there is, in fact, no corresponding evi- dence in the written text to corroborate the vi- I sual testimony against Becky. The details of the illustration-and they are designedly indistinct WH HEN THACKERAY remarked that -alone prove incriminating. Becky is Clytem- "the unwritten part of books nestra. . . wouldprimarily in her attitude, in the aggressive be the most interesting,"' he and meant, threatening stance she assumes toward her among other things, that the art of implication potential victim. is Her hand, the agent of her the most subtle of authorial decorums. At no murderous intention, is blurred in shadow, al- time in Vanity Fair is that art practiced so well lowing as just the suggestion of a poised weapon. when Thackeray retires from the stage as "Man- The caption identifies Becky with Clytemnestra; ager" of his comic history and allows Becky the illustration insists on dark equivocations, on Sharp to enact the tragic "The Triumph a shady and shadowy reality. The only verdict of Clytemnestra."2 It is a singular performance, that can be rendered is Rawdon's anguished but played "with such ghastly truth" (p. 494) thatlegally dubious earlier judgment on Becky's it leaves the spectators speechless with fright seemingly treacherous conduct: "If she's not and admiration. The scandalous identification guilty, ... she's as bad as guilty" (p. 537). of Becky, the novel's mock-heroic adventuress, Thackeray claimed that behind all his personi- with the heroic figure of the most majestic female fications "there lies a dark moral, I hope" (Pa- dissembler in the chronicles of myth and history pers, ii, 309). But the meditative Thackerayan marks the culmination of Becky's career in "I" the who at times almost abuses his authorial world of vanity. Implied in her "comic" licenserise to intrude on the narrative with moral from articled pupil to lady of fashion is commentary the remains conspicuously silent on the terrible project of Clytemnestra to psychological,her- ethical, and social significance of self against a power both envied and resented. Becky's impersonation of Clytemnestra and on The silent truth of Becky's "character" is the re- "dark moral" explicated through feminine emphasized in her second major appearance retaliatory as or "opportunistic" violence. He com- Clytemnestra. Her reassumption of Cytemnes- municates Becky's affinity to Clytemnestra ex- tra's demonic identity in the novel's penultimate clusively through the media of charade and il- illustration (see next page) haunts the read- lustration. In her two appearances as the er's imagination by ominously suggesting murderous an queen, Becky becomes pure icon, an ongoing campaign of vengeance, an undimin- unspeakable and speechless image of demonic ished talent for subterfuge, and, of course, womanhood. the The garrulous narrator's unchar- ghastly literalization of what in Becky's moment acteristic reticence in the presence of this icon of triumph was represented as an "innocent" has never been adequately remarked, much less charade. In a murderous pantomime, a explained.ter- Thackeray refuses to make the obvi- rorized Jos Sedley pleads with the "Good Samar- ous connection between Clytemnestra's rebellion itan," Colonel Dobbin, to deliver him from against the the warrior culture that authorizes the demonic schemer, while an inspired Becky bale- of her child, , and his own ex- fully looks on from behind a curtain, seemingly tensive critique of the attitudes toward women awaiting the propitious moment to strike. andThe children in the bourgeois, jingoistic, mer- illustration presents an "interesting" (in Thack- cantile culture of nineteenth-century . eray's sense) explanation of Sedley's suspicious He never interprets the material of the charade 827

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 828 The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair

The depths which are suggested by this picture, but quite as if accidentally, are the depths of Greek tragedy and, still further back, of Freud's dim, sub- human, imagined "primitive horde": the "dark leader" with his "hushed female company," and the ridiculous but furious Victorian clock "cheer- fully" symbolizing the whole. (p. 149)

I would not argue with Van Ghent's view of as the condensation of the "impera- tively aggressive" and "insanely euphoric" atti- tudes prevailing in the morally sick civilization represented in Vanity Fair. I would only expand consideration of Thackeray's appropriation of classical material to interpret this pervasive cul- tural pathology. This essay first considers the charades that dramatize the dark classical moral represented in Thackeray's historical fabling and then examines his motive for innuendo, his rea- sons for submerging his classical and Freudian intuitions of cultural pathology in the depths of his picture of Vanity Fair.


It is part of the controlling conceit of Thack- eray's novel to present history as an extended sequence of performances ("puppet shows") enacting a moral so dark that to illuminate it Becky, clutching what appears to be a sharp weapon, listens to a terrified Jos converse with Colonel Dobbin. fully might be politically or spiritually perilous. (Thackeray's illustration, Vanity Fair [London, 1848], Thackeray literalizes his controlling metaphor in Ch. lxvii; reproduced by permission of the Morris L. the chapter "in which a charade is acted which Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists, Princeton may or may not puzzle the reader" (p. 484). University Library.) But the apparent decision to clarify his meta- and illustration as a didactic of the mul- phor is cunningly compromised by the riddling tiple vanities of familial, social, and political nature of the charades. ambitions. Nor does he elaborate the myth of As a form of verbal "play," charades are de- Clytemnestra into a cautionary tale or homiletic signedly opaque. They attempt to communicate parable. He merely displaces it into a network aof hidden meaning, usually symbolized by a sin- images that compose, in Dorothy Van Ghent's gle word that assumes fetishistic properties be- words, "the face of a gorgon of destiny."3 cause its meaning and form are shrouded in an Van Ghent skillfully traces the cultural de- often guilty secrecy. In charades the word is di- rangements adumbrated in the novel's theme videdof into its constituent sounds-the words "the fathers" to a classical and Freudian intui- within the word-and each component is drama- tion of "the monstrous nature of man." Selecting tized. The audience, reader, or spectator must for comment the "incidental" image of the then recombine these "floating signifiers" to dis- chronometer "surmounted by a cheerful brass cover the whole word, whose original and pri- group of the sacrifice of Iphigenia" that sum- mary significance is again dramatized at the end mons the Osborne clan to its evening ritual of the charade in the tableau of the Whole. Al- meal, she remarks: though charades appear to play freely with

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms Maria DiBattista 829 meaning, their "real" meaning is predetermined Vanity Fair's Gaunt House. The charades begin in a word that cannot be replaced by, or with mis- an oriental tableau depicting a Turkish dig- taken for, another word. In the best charades, nitary and voluptuary examining the "wares" of those combining verbal wit with social or an emo- Eastern slave trade. Despite the exotic decor tional "fact," the secret word representing evoking the an alien, barbaric milieu, the initial Whole denominates not only a sum greater moments than of this charade announce a universal, its constituent parts but the exact reverse not of a historically localized, cultural pathology: those parts. Such a feat of verbal reversal sexual and bondage, enslavement, exploitation, and transformation is illustrated in Jane Austen's victimization. As a Nubian slave makes his by Mr. Elton's charade for "courtship" obeisant salaams to "my lord the Aga," the fash- or in Charlotte Bronte's by ionable the audience responds with a "thrill of terror charades for "Bridewell," puzzled out by andRoch- delight," a spontaneous demonstration of ester's fashionable guests.4 Bronte's charades, feeling that betrays an "exquisite" and volatile like Thackeray's, are particularly cunning sexual in fantasy of demonic virility that lies peri- communicating their ghastly truth. As ironic lously close to the surface of the audience's "civ- wordplays, the charades reveal the private ilized" and consciousness. unsuspected torment of Rochester and his mad,The icons of sexual imperialism that abound imprisoned wife, Bertha Mason, through in pub- this charade implicate the spectator-audience licly enacting the word's two syllables, in in tab-the , not of association, but of attitude, as leaux that seem especially grim given the Becky'sinno- second appearance as Clytemnestra sug- cent surfaces of "Bride" and "well." gests. Thus the Nubian slave's obeisant salaams Charades, then, are never totally gratuitous to the Kislar Aga eerily recall and comment on forms of entertainment. They constitute a mode the attitude of the idolatrous and slavish Amelia, of verbal double-dealing that involves and often who, on her wedding night, prostrates herself be- implicates the actors or spectators-sometimes fore her master, George Osborne. And the audi- both-in the social or psychological reality dra- ence's "thrill of terror and delight" echoes matized. Charades are dumb shows "to catch the George's own exquisite sensation as he gazes on conscience of the king" by playing out a delib- the "slave before him in that simple yielding erately concealed evil, an ignored social danger, faithful creature" and feels his soul thrill within or an obscure external menace or private horror. him, the "Sultan's thrill" in sexual mastery and The incriminating potential of charades is em-"the knowledge of his complete power" (p. phasized by the disguises and roles adopted 187).5by In exposing the secret fantasies of sexual the concealing-revealing performers who enact appropriation masquerading as "lawful matri- them. Thus Thackeray identifies the characters monial pleasures" (p. 284), Thackeray attempts in the first series of charades-Colonel Crawley his subtlest, perhaps most damaging penetration as Agamemnon, Becky as Clytemnestra-but into the dark and tumultuous instincts underly- their social identity dissolves, although not com- ing the civilized structures of sexual conduct and pletely, into the drama they enact without being the social institution of marriage. technically guilty. Characters thus assume roles The aestheticizing of these sadomasochistic in a play whose meaning is made transparent yearnings is represented in the ensuing sequence through them but is not necessarily made trans- of the tableau when the entreaties of the beauti- parent to them. Their assigned roles are charged ful slave girl asking to be returned to her Circas- with a characteristic Thackerayan innuendo sianand lover are contemplated as composing an equivocation; to repeat the judgment of Colonel attitude of "beautiful despair" (p. 493). The Crawley, these performers, if not guilty, are "obdurate as Hassan" only laughs at her senti- bad as guilty. And the same may be said of those mental notion of the Circassian bridegroom, in complicity with them-the audience of mockingthe the slave girl's "Arcadian Simplicity" in charades. believing that love, not power, determines the It is the emotionally felt presumption of per- destiny of women in the markets of Vanity Fair. sonal or cultural guilt that pervades and shad- The tableau, which contrasts the "genteel" fic- ows the apparently "innocent" entertainments tions at of disinterested love with the sexual im-

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 830 The Triumph of Clytemnestr a: The Charades in Vanity Fair perialism of a rich and decadent culture, is re- It is clear that Thackeray harbors no intrinsic solved through a sudden and completely illusory respect for "the romance and the sentiment of deus ex machina. The repressed takes its revenge sacrifice" as an expressive vehicle of heroic on the oppressor, as the Kislar Aga, the black womanhood, for it is precisely such idealizations eunuch of the oriental harem, brings in a letter, that secure Amelia's bondage.6 The narrator's a ghastly joy transfiguring his face. In an ecstasy voyeuristic penetration into the dark chambers of revenge, "grinning horribly," and ignoring theof the feminine psyche that house such senti- Pasha's cry for mercy, the Kislar Aga pulls out ments a unmans him, and he retreats, in a kind of bowstring. The denouement of this revenger's willing "blackout" of his aroused consciousness, tragedy is eclipsed in a sudden and decorous from the pitiable spectacle by recalling, uneasily blackout that hides the "dark deed" from public and rather comically, the sexual symbol of his view. difference and his exemption from such torture The orientalism of this charade may shield the -his beard. Such unnerving glimpses of secret audience from the dramatic immediacy of themartyrdom, unwitnessed victimization, and eunuch's murderous revenge. Yet it also pro- "Gothic" savagery are appropriated by the first vides more than a distancing backdrop against component of the charade word-"Aga," a cul- which all contagious fantasies can be played outtural symbol of sexual barbarity infecting private without fear of censure. The oriental setting life and expanded into public and political accumulates into itself all Thackeray's previous forms. suggestions in the novel that beneath England's The second charade retains the Eastern back- treatment of women-hypostasized in the Vic- ground, but the suggestion of violence has been torian cult of angelic womanhood-abides suppressed an and transformed into a peaceful unregenerate barbarity, a "Turkish" lust tableau.for The eunuch has resigned himself to im- mastery: "We are Turks with the affections potent of passivity, and Zuleikah, the despairing our women," the narrator had earlier remarked pastoral lover, is now perfectly reconciled to her of the "poor little martyr" Amelia, "and have victimizer, the Hassan. There is hardly any ac- made them subscribe to our doctrine too" (p. tion in the scene. Instead, interest centers on the 169). Through Amelia, the angelic figure of self- imposing figure of an enormous Egyptian head, sacrificing, self-effacing womanhood whose from which issues a comic song composed by "gentle little heart" obeys "not unwillingly" such Mr. Wagg. The dominating figure alludes to the despotic doctrines, Thackeray is forced to exam- Ethiopian king Memnon. According to Lem- ine the psychology of female martyrdom. The priere's Bibliotheca Classica, Thackeray's fa- slave girl in the charades is only a public symbol vorite source for classical material,7 Memnon's of Amelia's private enslavement to a whole sys- heroic death was commemorated by an enor- tem of cultural imperatives. When the narrator mous statue that possessed "the wonderful prop- attempts to "peer into those dark places where erty of uttering a melodious sound every day, at the torture is administered" to such willing vic- sun-rising, like that which is heard at the break- tims, he sees a sight so pitiable and incriminating ing of the string of a harp when it is wound that he breaks out into a hysterical apostrophe up."8 The statue and the legend it symbolizes to subjugated women that combines compassion emphasize the metamorphic properties of vio- for their plight with relief at his own masculine lence. Memnon was killed in combat with exemption from their "long and ignoble Achilles in defense of Priam's Troy. His mother, bondage": Aurora, was so disconsolate at the death of her son that she pleaded with Zeus to grant her sacri- O you poor women! O you poor secret martyrs and ficed child an honor that might immortalize him. victims, whose life is a torture, who are stretched on racks in your bedrooms, and who lay your heads Zeus complied, and from the funeral pyre of down on the block daily at the drawing-room table; Memnon there arose a flight of birds, the every man who watches your pains, or peers into Memnonides. The myth is composed of several those dark places where the torture is administered motifs involving scenes of violent, yet ultimately to you, must pity you-and-and thank God that stabilizing metamorphosis: the metamorphosis he has a beard. (p. 552) of Memnon's bloody death into the seasonal re-

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms Maria DiBattista 831 turn of the Memnonides in ritual commemora- desultory: two bagmen play a of cribbage, tion of the Ethiopian monarch; the transforma- a chambermaid warms up the beds and wards off tion of violence into an artifact of civilization; the bagmen's advances. The scene ends to the the translation of grief into art, suffering into dreamy cadences of "Dormez, dormez, chers song. It is this final transformation that is em- Amours" (p. 496). If the virulent "Amantium phasized in the "singing head" of the charade. Irae" is exposed and released in the Cytemnestra- The peaceful harmony of this tableau vivant Agamemnon charade, here the strain is trans- soon proves illusory, however, as the pacific and posed and modulated into sweeter amatory tones comic song issuing from the death's-head modu- anticipating the love lyric, "The Rose upon My lates into the unexpectedly dissonant and Balcony," that concludes the entertainments. sublime chords of "the awful music of Don But the submerged motif of sexual horror re- Juan." Like Agamemnon, Don Juan represents asserts itselfa in the second tableau of the new type of sexually imperial masculinity with series. an The scene remains the same, but the in- immoderate appetite for power, and the signiastrains of the house is now revealed to be the from the opera provide a rhetorically musical Steyne arms, the chivalric "coronets and carved bridge connecting the archaic bloodlusts heraldry" of a that Thackeray has already described barbaric civilization (the "subject" of the as cha- bearing "the dark mark of fate and doom." rades) with the sexual vendettas disrupting Thus even a though the scene resembles the merry more contemporary aristocratic milieu (the comings so- and goings of Tom Jones's Upton Inn cial "subject" of Vanity Fair). In the Mozartian ("inn," of course, is the syllable dramatized in opera of seduction and , of sexual this trans- tableau), the Steyne arms visually suggest gression and retribution in the name of anfamily invisible, internal, and still potent fatality at honor or divine vengeance, Thackeray sees work, the recalling Thackeray's earlier hint that a same cultural ethos working out its evil destiny: sexual curse haunts the Steyne house: a corrupt ideology of sexual imperialism under- lying the myth of love in the Western world. It was The the mysterious taint of the blood: the poor last of Thackeray's historical charades reveals mother had brought it from her own ancient race. the secret identity and cultural primacy The of evil his had broken out once or twice in the father's central figure of virility-Agamemnon, a family,curious long before Lady Steyne's sins had begun, compound of heroic and barbaric manhood: or her an fasts and tears and penances had been offered "Aga," a figure of sexual barbarism; a "Mem-in their expiation. (p. 457) non," a figure of cultural authority and prestige. With mordant irony, Thackeray bestows An on Aeschylean brooding over the fall of the Agamemnon the epithet anax andron, the greatkingly house informs Thackeray's account of evil man who will soon pay for the excesses communicatingof his itself through the mysterious manhood and of his kingship. In a sweeping "stain" and or taint of blood brought from an an- majestic gesture of feminine revenge, Clytemnes- cient race, an ancestral evil that hangs over tra, alias Becky Crawley, steals the dagger Gaunt from House as a dark reminder of the time the hesitant Aegisthus to complete the retribu- "when the pride of the race was struck down as tion, but here again the outcome is overcome the firstbornby of Pharaoh." The original sin em- darkness. bodied in the fatal union of the Steynes becomes The scene of the second series of charades the focus of the deepest progenitive anxieties moves to more familiar territory, as if to escape about familial succession, patrimony, and the the malignancy and potency of the oriental anddecline and eclipse of the aristocracy as a his- classical material dramatized in the first se- torical heritage. The charades' suppressed quence. Thackeray's setting is now Fielding- Ovidian theme of metamorphosis and their esque, evoking the atmosphere of low-life farce Aeschylean vision of sexual fate and familial and the memory of an earlier England where evil doom combine to revive the repressed but never took the benign form of rascality. The first forgotten memory of unexpiated and unexpiable tableau of the second series depicts a comic sins that will be violently avenged. Ominous "night" scene in a country house. The action hints is of an avenging agent and future retribution

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 832 The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair are conveyed in the final "rustle" of movement tapestry she weaves to tell of the sins of the at the end of the "inn" charade. As the curtain is fathers, the living fabric of primal wrongs. Like drawn, a mysterious, though eminent, guest is the scenes that evoke her presence, Philomele's being announced, perhaps an Orestes bent on speechless art reenacts the hidden outrage and revenge or, as Thackeray intimates, a Ulysses silently protests against the oppressor's power. It preparing for another kind of bloody homecom- is Procne who reads the tale and, like Clytem- ing. Christian hopes in the efficacy of penance nestra, disguises her resentments while plotting (the expiatory prayers of Lady Steyne) are her treacherous revenge. During the Bacchic eclipsed by the urgency and power of these clas- orgies she murders her son Itys and serves him sical foreshadowings of an inevitable historical to the brutal and brutalizing Tereus in a grisly reckoning. They are only revived, belatedly, in feast. When Tereus learns of this cannibalistic the mark of Cain that Lord Steyne, after his and retributive rite, his rage is predictably ex- failed attempt to appease Rawdon and exculpate treme, but his murderous designs against Philo- himself, bears as the "scar" inflicted by Colonel mele and Procne are forestalled by his own Crawley, the avenging returned husband, in the transformation into a hoopoe, Philomele's into a melodramatic scene that marks the catastrophe nightingale, Procne's into a swallow, and Itys' of Becky and Steyne's illicit liaison. into a pheasant. In the final syllable of the second series of These grim classical legends of metamorpho- charades, anxieties about an impending cultural sis, fatal sexual unions, incestuous , crisis provoked by the domestic tragedies and familial cannibalism, sacrificed children, and hypocrisies of a decaying aristocracy are concen- female retaliation mirror and complement trated into an image of imperial (political) fear. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's family tragedy The final tableau shows a ship foundering in un- and, of course, all the incestuous, spiritually ruly seas, despite the heartening medley of cannibalizing relationships in Vanity Fair. "Rule Britannia." The spectacle of the imperiled Thackeray seems to be following the late, Ovid- ship of state, conventional symbol of maritime ian version of the myth that makes Philomele England, speaks to the most frightening night- the nightingale and Procne the swallow, perhaps mare haunting the British political mind. As the because the Ovidian reinterpretation attributes music of the tableau "rises up to the wildest both pathos and the power of representation to pitch of stormy excitement," discharging itself in the mute, raped sister rather than to the betrayed "gale," the source of the audience's uneasy, tur- and betraying wife.' The Ovidian version allows bulent emotion (the specter of political unrest Thackeray to suggest the essential doubleness of and unrule) is mollified by the transfiguration of Becky as a figure of cultural evil, representing a Becky into Philomele. The charade completes its Clytemnestra and a Philomele, the ravisher and word: Philomele, "the night-in-gale." the ravished, the unscrupulous avenger and the The pairing of Clytemnestra and Philomele in plaintive victim. Thackeray's double image of the character of Becky Sharp is neither fortui- female fatality culminates in the much remarked tous nor incongruous. Philomele's story, like description of Becky as a siren of magical pow- Clytemnestra's, constitutes an elaborate narra- ers who lures men to their watery graves. tion of sexual deception, brutality, violation of (Clytemnestra simply lures Agamemnon to his sacred familial bonds, and violent reprisal. Phil- bath to kill him.) The Becky-siren, "singing and omele is also a figure of outraged womanhood, smiling, coaxing and cajoling," conceals from literally concealed and silenced by her sexual se- view a "monster's hideous tail, . . . writhing and ducer and tormentor, Tereus, king of Thrace, twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy" (p. husband to Philomele's sister, Procne. Tereus' 617). The snake-siren image reveals more about crimes against Philomele, whom he imprisons the narrator's erotic imagination than it does and mutilates by cutting out her tongue, are, like about Becky's fatal sexuality, betraying as it Agamemnon's, doubly grave, being the sins of does the sexual disgust and fear lurking beneath both king and husband. Philomele, deprived of a the "perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner" voice to protest her ravishment, communicates in which he relates her fiendish (Bohemian) ad- the chronicle of her sufferings through art-the ventures. If Becky is a monster with a remark-

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms Maria DiBattista 833 able and growing "taste for disrespectability" comes the instrument of social and political am- (p. 625), she is no lusus naturae, no freak bitions, of and all sexual attitudes serve to rational- nature, but a freak of the culture whose izemodel even as they dissimulate this fundamental, of angelic womanhood elevates the religious sexually "politic" economy. over the erotic instinct. Becky's "disreputable" Thackeray's formal appropriation of the character represents the potential for a demonic Clytemnestra myth in the novel serves as a psy- and malevolent female sexuality in contrast chological to and historical commentary on the un- the respectable but no less selfish "love" ofexamined her delusions of the Victorian's sexual true opposite and double, Amelia, the martyr ideology. To identify Becky as Clytemnestra is to the Victorian feminine ideal who dedicates not merely to invoke a psychological explana- her life to the "corpse" of her love (p. 172). tion for Becky's "natural" wickedness but to suggest that in the conduct of life the public and the private, the national and the domestic re- III main inseparable. Attitudes toward women, marriage, sex, because they are present at the It was George Eliot who reminded us, citing very formation and foundation of a cultural the authority of Herodotus, that the woman order, constitute the primary basis of cultural question is not an extraneous or a peripheral and social stability. Ideology is all of a piece, so factor in the historical analysis of change but that a the private tyrannies authorized by familial "fit beginning."10 Like Eliot's , self-interest do not confine themselves to the Vanity Fair centers on the lot of women in itsdomestic sphere but invariably and inevitably description of the origins of cultural crisis and radiate to infect a society's conception of itself its prophetic assessments of the possibilities forand to motivate the most decisive of national meaningful change. When Thackeray decides actions.to forgo a military history celebrating England's Becky Sharp is a representative figure whose heroic manhood during the Napoleonic era for social a ambitions reflect the internal crisis of op- comic history chronicling the amatory and fi-pressed womanhood and the external menace of nancial fortunes of female "non-combatants" a "French" radicalism comically treated in the and the men who love them (p. 282), his deci- "bel esprit" of Miss Crawley, who passionately sion is neither historically frivolous nor inconse- embraces Voltaire and Rousseau and talks quential. The stories of Becky Sharp and Amelia "most energetically of the rights of women" (p. Sedley expand into paradigmatic fables parallel- 93). Becky's radicalism is more subversive and ing and reflecting "those mutations which disarming.ages Her mother was a Frenchwoman, and produce in empires, cities, and boroughs" Becky's (p. morals seem indebted to the darker 66), mutations that are recorded in the migra- elements in French novels. In the denigration tion of power from the landed gentry toand an humiliation of women, Thackeray discerns a ascendant middle class with a ready-money, universal principle of violation that provides the credit economy. logic of his domestic comedy and informs his In the declining aristocracy (whose historical intuition, pristinely classical in its pessimism, of eclipse Thackeray dramatizes by the deep degen- the cycle of reprisal that underlies and deter- eracy of Sir Pitt Crawley presiding over the "rot- mines all historical events. In one of the novel's ten borough" of Queen's Crawley, by the cyni-few sustained moments of seriousness, the narra- cism of Lord Steyne, and by the "Dowagerism" tor comments on the historically decisive battle reigning in Great Gaunt Street [p. 451]) and of inWaterloo, a comment that is hauntingly ap- the rising merchant classes (which he treats plicable to the outrages committed and au- satirically), Thackeray perceives, but cannot thorized to- by the bitter necessities of war for tally disavow, the same corrupt and corrupting which Clytemnestra courts revenge in the sexual ideology, the wholesale "selling" Agamemnon:and emotional victimization of women to ensure the traditional primacy and the economic power of. . .you and I, who were children when the great an imperiled social caste. Marriage thus be- battle was won and lost, are never tired of hearing

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 834 The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair and recounting the history of that famous action. ical realism and its narrative objective: "to ex- Its remembrance rankles still in the bosoms of mil- pose," as Lukacs rightly argues, "contemporary lions of the countrymen of those brave men who apologetics."l3 The mythological material that lost the day. They pant for an opportunity of re- supports the novel's cultural interpretation and venging that humiliation; and if a contest, ending social criticism both reflects and anticipates the in a victory on their part, should ensue, elating them in their turn, and leaving its cursed legacy of resurgent "paganism" whose "dark morals" will hatred and rage behind to us, there is no end to the dominate the historical imagination of the sec- so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations ond half of the nineteenth century. In this sense, of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which Vanity Fair is an intriguing transitional text be- two high-spirited nations might engage. Centuries tween the self-confident neoclassical novels of hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be Fielding, who could develop potentially conta- boasting and killing each other still, carrying out gious Oedipal material within a transforming bravely the Devil's Code of honour. (p. 314) Christian vision of providentially ordered his- tory, and the bitter, darkly pagan Aeschylean Shame and glory are the values endemic to tragedies a of Thomas Hardy. As the last two classical ethos, and their legacy is a cursed heri- major illustrations of Vanity Fair testify, depict- tage of hatred and rage, the alternations of suc-ing the double face of Becky Sharp as Clytemnes- cessful and unsuccessful murder. In contemplat- tra (see p. 780) and as an ironic exemplum ing the sweeping panorama of historical change of "Virtue Rewarded," there exists an uneasy and struggle, Thackeray discerns an endlessly and problematic alliance between Thackeray's repeatable cycle of victimization and revenge. classical intuitions of cultural disorder and the Nor is this legacy confined to intercultural, inter- Christian vision implied by his novel's ironic national conflict. The organizing conceit of appropriationhis of its allegorical original, Pilgrim's novel centers on the interpenetrating metaphors Progress. The charades, the "play" within the of military and amatory campaigns to secure larger historical performance enacted in the "positions," establish power, defend hegemony. novel, are representative of Thackeray's dilemma And the deep interdependence, even identity, be- and his proposed solution: through their formal tween acts of love and war, caricatured in the opacity and equivocation, they suggest that the illustration depicting the comic mesalliance meaningof of historical act or cultural "attitude" Venus preparing the armor of Mars (p. 282), must be supplied, puzzled out by the spectator or penetrates far into the rhetoric of the novel's reader. Thackeray deliberately displaces meaning social and political ."1 Through the con- into the external and alienating realm of imper- trolling image of embattled relations, Thackeray sonation, symbolic identification, and illustration, suggests that tyrannies and servilities corrupting where it is subject to multiple, often faulty inter- the foundation of social life eventually infect the pretations, even though, as the charades tell us, entire cultural order. The mutually reinforcing only one conclusion is right and inevitable. projects of sexual and political revenge are sym- The generic imperative of the charades is bolized in the Iphigenia chronometer, whose never to expose reality in the direct light of steady and remorseless ticking signals an on- complete representation. It is this imperative going, if unsuspected, cycle of aggression and that shadows and perhaps explains Thackeray's retaliation. Becky's second appearance asreluctance as a narrator to interpret the central Clytemnestra keeps this classical concept classicalof myths of the novel and to expose Becky familial, racial, and national fatality alive. as It guilty or innocent of certain sexual or social suggests that the "strife" between men and crimes. Thackeray's reticence in dealing explic- women, between the outraged female and the itly with these issues may have something to do kingly male, is a strife not confined to private with the moral climate of his time,14 but his realms but, as Clytemnestra warns the chorus carefully chosen moments of silence originate, I in the Agamemnon, a "conflict born out of an-would suggest, in a kind of ritual reluctance and cient bitterness . . . pondered deep in time."12 fear at unveiling the deeper mysteries or hidden Thackeray's classicism in Vanity Fair, then, laws governing the fate of any society. Vanity, validates rather than contradicts the novel's crit- for Thackeray as for the Preacher, is the false

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms Maria DiBattista 835 idol of the unregenerate historical world, its darkknows everything, knows this also" (p. 318). divinity incarnated in the "Imperial Master," Here the omniscience is in the service of Thack- "Magnificent Idea," the "August Presence" eray's of "cynicism," but the narrator is merely the king who rules. As Thackeray prepares laughing to up the reader's sleeve. At worst, com- initiate his readers into what he had earlier plete demystification constitutes what Ruskin, in called the "mystical language" (p. 367) of his van- troubled response to Vanity Fair, calls ity and to usher them into the very penetralia "blasphemy"-in of its scriptural sense of mystery-the entertainments that provide "'Harmful the Speaking'-not against God only, "high world" of fashion and power with butits againstso- man, and against all the good works cial rituals-he tellingly invokes the tutelary and purposes of Nature": myth of Semele: The word is accurately opposed to "Euphemy," the They say the honest newspaper-fellow who rightsits in or well-speaking of God and His world; and the hall and takes down the names of the great the twoones modes of speech are those which, going out who are admitted to the feasts, dies after a oflittle the mouth, sanctify or defile the man. time. He can't survive the glare of fashion long. Going It out of the mouth, that is to say, deliber- scorches him up, as the presence of Jupiter ately in full and of purpose. A French postillion's "Sacr- dress wasted that poor imprudent Semele-a r-re"-loud,giddy with the low "Nom de Dieu" follow- moth of a creature who ruined herself by venturing ing between his teeth, is not blasphemy, unless out of her natural atmosphere. Her myth ought against to his horse; but Mr. Thackeray's close of his be taken to heart amongst the Tyburnians, the Waterloo Bel- chapter in Vanity Fair, "And all night gravians,-her story, and perhaps Becky's too. long Amelia was praying for George, who was lying (p. 484) on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart" (sic), is blasphemy of the most fatal and subtle Thackeray's attempt to allegorize the story kind.16 of Semele into a comic parable of social vanity and class "imprudence," like his Clytemnestra Ruskin'scha- appropriation of the vocabulary of rade, is only partially successful in concealing the sacred to interpret the "speech" of omni- the generative meaning of the myth. Semele, scient narrationa locates the source of sancity or mortal, gains knowledge of divine and immuta- defilement in the speaker, not in the reality of ble form at the expense of her life; her story, the thingand spoken. Thackeray's blasphemy in the Becky's too, constitutes a cautionary myth Waterloo link- chapter is authorized, however, by the ing the eclaircissement of the knower with conventions a de- of realism that prescribe the unbi- structive, if generative, violence that is ased essen- chronicling of event unmediated by pallia- tially sexual.15 Thackeray's allusion to this tive myth illusion. But in the charades of Vanity Fair, of sexual violence and violation introduces a in the question of Becky's guilty liaison with variation on the novelistic theme of unhappy Lord Steyne, and in the suspicious death of Jos unions, a theme previously limited to the comic Sedley, Thackeray resorts neither to voiced treatment of "mesalliance": the imprudent mar- blasphemy nor to its Ruskinian opposite, riage of Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. euphemy. Rather he resorts to blasphemy's The myth of Semele establishes a correspon- negation: an equivocal and equivocating silence. dence between demystification and annihilation His ultimate reluctance to expose the illusion of that is crucial in understanding Thackeray's loveown and the myth of good works emanating attitudes toward novelistic knowledge, especially from God, man, and nature leads him to ab- narrative omniscience. Complete knowledge scond,be- like a tormented demiurge, from the scene comes at best an instrument of historical and of the performances, leaving the stage of his his- personal devaluation, as when the narrator "en-tory free for his performers to act out blasphemy lightens" his readers that the relics sent to Misswithout speaking it. Crawley to effect a reconciliation between Raw- Perhaps it is the story of Semele ("her story, don and his aunt were purchased from peddlers and . . . Becky's too") that remains the fable trafficking in the spoils of war. "The novelist," Thackeray takes most to heart. As the myth advises the narrator in sardonic tones, "who suggests, Thackeray's critical silences could be-

This content downloaded from on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 20:08:23 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 836 The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair tray an anxiety, religious or metaphysical, about endorses the class-bound ideology his satire ex- the limits of the human power to know and to poses. represent. It is an anxiety Thackeray covertly Thackeray himself defends the moral status of expresses in his life of Swift, where he sees in silence when he defines Amelia's reticence as Swift's genius-a genius almost Zeus-like in its "the timid denial of the unwelcome assertion of power "to flash upon falsehood and scorch it ruling folks, a tacit protestantism" (p. 601). In into perdition"-an awful and an evil spirit. Thackeray's tacit protestantism, so different Thackeray describes Swift in a passage that re- from the vocal and charged denunciations of calls Semele's imprudent exposure to the glare of Swift, he lays to rest his social and narrative a dazzling magnificence: anxieties and exorcises the Swiftian specter of prophetic madness. It is such tacit protestantism In his old age, looking at the 'Tale of a Tub', when that characterizes the melancholic anomie of the he said, "Good God, what a genius I had when I novel's broken or inconclusive ending: "Come wrote that book!" I think he was admiring, not the children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, genius, but the consequences to which the genius for our play is played out" (p. 666). had brought him-a vast genius, a magnificent Having opened up a Pandora's box of social genius, a genius wonderfully bright, and dazzling, and strong,-to seize, to know, to see, to flash upon and historical evils, Thackeray vainly tries to falsehood and scorch it into perdition, to penetrate shut them up in the confines of his fictional pup- into the hidden motives, and expose the black pet box, to "miniaturize" and thus minimize the thoughts of men,-an awful, an evil spirit.17 implications of his fable. As a satirist and criti- cal realist, Thackeray is hopelessly divided be- What Thackeray seems to fear in the example tween his evil genius for penetration into the of Swift's life and the methods of his art is the hidden motives and invisible laws governing fate ordained for the evil genius capable ofhuman relations and his Steyne-like cynicism in penetrating into hidden motives and exposing exposing a reality at once spiritually vain and the black thoughts of men: the "maddened hur- morally horrifying. Charlotte Bronte rightly saw ricane" of a tormented man who suffered that the satirist of Vanity Fair could lift "the "frightfully from the consciousness of maskhis own from the face of the Pharisee" through the scepticism" and who "bent his pride so far "Greek down fire of his sarcasm," but she mistakenly as to put his apostasy out to hire" (p. 171). placed The the "levin-brand of denunciation" in the subjectivism underlying Thackeray's belief tradition that of biblical prophecy. If Vanity Fair Swift's art was inspired by the misanthropic often re-speaks as "solemn as an oracle," its testi- sentments of a failed opportunist may monyreflect does not resemble the "faithful counsel" Thackeray's own fear of spiritual bankruptcy, of a Micaiah a prophesying evil.19 When Thack- fear dramatized in the cynical apostasy eray of thespeaks, he speaks like the impotent proph- haunted Lord Steyne, over whose head hoversetess Cassandra, who, in chronicling the the Damoclean sword of madness (p. 454). Agamemnon's It is dark drama of sexual vengeance, this fear that may explain Thackeray's lamentsmoral that "there is no god of healing in this and ideological ambivalence in Vanity Fair, story" an (1. 1248). ambivalence Arnold Kettle has defined as the desire to "expose illusions and yet keep them."18 Such ambivalence lies at the heart of Princeton University Thackeray's "gentlemanly ideal," an ideal that Princeton, New Jersey


1 The Letters and Private Papers of William Make- Geoffrey Tillotson and Kathleen Tillotson (Boston: peace Thackeray, ed. Gordon N. Ray (Cambridge: Houghton, 1963), p. 494. Subsequent references are Harvard Univ. Press, 1964), Im, 391. to this edition, and page numbers are cited in the text. 2William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, ed. 3 Van Ghent, "Vanity Fair," in The :

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Form and Function (New York: Holt, 1953), p. 151. 10 Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Bos- 4 The charade in Emma is as follows: ton: Houghton, 1956), Bk. i, Ch. xi, p. 71. 11 See Edgar F. Harden, "The Fields of Mars in Vanity Fair," Tennessee Studies in Literature, 10 To Miss (1965), 123-32. My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings, 12 The Oresteia, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), 11. 1377-78. All further Another view of man, my second brings, citations will be to this translation. Behold him there, the monarch of the seas! 13 Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell (London: Mer- But, ah! united, what reverse we have! lin, 1962), p. 202. Lukacs does not specify, though he Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown; might, that it is primarily the classical allusions that Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave, undermine the apologetics of the current historical And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone. regime. As a meditation on vanity that eschews, even as it competes with, the "braggart heathen " Although Emma has little trouble puzzling out the of classical myth, the novel's Christian moralizing charades and supplying the talismanic word-"court- addresses a more pervasive malaise: contemptus mundi. ship"-she is unable to interpret them as a parable of Thackeray's classicism is more culture-bound than his power and freedom compromised by love (see Emma, "Christian" stance because it is more involved with ed. Lionel Trilling [Boston: Houghton, 1957], Vol. I, the specific orders of time. Ch. ix, p. 54). For the charades in Jane Eyre, see Jane 14 Thackeray explicitly addresses and implicitly de- Eyre (New York: Norton, 1971), Ch. xviii, pp. 160-62. plores "the moral world" of readers whose Pharisaic 5 Bronte's Rochester assumes a similar character in habits force the narrator to adopt euphemy for plain the charade he performs as "the very model of an speaking, innuendo for declaration: "We must pass eastern emir," but Bronte proves her talent for equivo- over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley's biography with cation by refusing to specify whether he is "an agent or that lightness and delicacy which the world demands- a victim of the bowstring" in a pantomime drawn from the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular ob- "the patriarchal days" (Jane Eyre, p. 161). jection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hear- 6Romances portraying the sexual subjugation of ing vice called by its proper name" (p. 617). Since women are codified in their most engaging form in The this well-known passage only serves to introduce the Arabian Nights, the oriental collection of tales that infamous description of the Becky-siren, Thackeray Thackeray identifies as the primary text of childhood. seems to be indulging in his own brand of feigned Dobbin loses himself in daydreams inspired by the delicacy. oriental magic of the tales (p. 47), and Becky, too, 1i Out of the catastrophic union of Semele and Zeus seems to fashion her dreams of glory and prosperity is born-or rescued-the infant Dionysus, who be- on the model of "charming Alnaschar visions" (p. 28). comes the tutelary god and founder of orgiastic rites Alnaschar's "charming" visions of fantastic wealth, dominated by, and appealing primarily to, women. however, generate more volatile fantasies of criminal These Bacchic rites play a role in the tragedy of Tereus, sadism and sexual omnipotence. Moreover, the frame Procne, and Philomele. Leo C. Curran points out that story of the Arabian Nights also concerns a reign of in the later Ovidian version of the Semele myth the terror pursued by a once benign pasha who, disillu- association between sexual and divine violence is clear: sioned in love, systematically sets out to depopulate the "Ovid's language is explicit in indicating that Semele's ranks of womanhood. Scheherazade is the clever, schem- immolation takes place during the act of intercourse ing woman who, like Becky, weaves fictions to buy and not merely when Jupiter approaches her" (see time to circumvent or redirect the violence that may "Rape and Rape Victims in The Metamorphosis," eventually claim her as its victim. Arethusa, 11 [1978], 239, n.). 7 John Loofbourow, Thackeray and the Form of 16 John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Fiction (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), p. Century (1884; rpt. in Thackeray: The Critical Heri- 61. tage, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson and Donald Hawes [Lon- 8 J. Lempriere, Bibliotheca Classica (Philadelphia: don: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968]), p. 87. Lippincott, 1888), p. 740. 17 Thackeray, "Swift," The English Humourists, in 9 See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (New York: The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Cornhill Braziller, 1957), pp. 165-69. The two versions are at ed. (New York: Scribners, 1911), xxI, 171. the heart of the "confusion" in Arnold's poetic treat- 18 Kettle, An Introduction to the English Novel (Lon- ment of the myth in his "." Both Swinburne don: Hutchinson, 1951), p. 169. ("Itylus") and Eliot (The Waste Land) conform to 19 See Charlotte Bronte's preface, dedicated to Thack- the Ovidian reinterpretation of the myth. eray, in Jane Eyre, 2nd ed. (London, 1847).

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