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Zelma Catalan. The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes

Alain Jumeau
p. 220-222
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Zelma Catalan. The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski UP, 2009. 249 p. ISBN 978-954-07-2823-0.

Texte intégral

1Thackeray studies have received a new contribution, a book dealing with irony in the major novels of the famous Victorian satirist, written with elegance and clarity by a Bulgarian academic who is interested in Victorian fiction and the stylistics of the novel. Her study starts with a simple statement: “Still, although Thackeray is to this day included among the canonical figures in Victorian literature, his irony has not become the subject of a critical analysis on a comprehensive scale” (7). While she occasionally glances at the earlier or the later novels, she studies the novelist’s irony in three of his major novels, where it plays an essential role in the context of his realist art.

2Catalan starts with a theoretical chapter on “Irony in the Discursive World”, in which she makes the traditional distinction between three types of irony—verbal, situational and philosophical—and covers the whole history of irony from the Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to modern times with Kierkegaard’s “eminent irony”. She makes judicious use of the distinction introduced by Aristotle’s Ethics between the eiron, someone who goes against the accepted order by speaking deceptively, using mock praise for blame, for instance, and suggesting the reality hidden beneath the appearance, and the alazon, or boastful dissimulator. In her discussion she covers many books, giving special attention to Linda Hutcheon’s Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge, 1995). From her, she derives the idea that irony cannot be seen simply as a rhetorical trope, nor even as an attitude to life, but as a discursive strategy operating at the level of language (verbal) or form (musical, visual, textual). She agrees with Hutcheon that irony is basically transideological, because “it does not ’belong’ to a conservative or a liberal attitude, and can support or subvert either” (27-28), but she goes a step further when she writes that “irony can also be seen to be transdiscursive, for it can select its meanings, its targets and victims from any discourse” (28). Moreover, she reveals the real strategy of irony when she points out that, far from merely replacing appearance by reality, it rests on a conflict of meanings. And she concludes with an interesting definition of irony as “an oppositional discursive practice whose strategic purpose is to negate, fully or partially, existing discourses of power” (34).

3Her second chapter deals with Thackeray’s best-known novel, Vanity Fair, a bitter comic satire on Victorian materialism. There she finds irony at work “on a comprehensive scale and with all the authority granted to it by its inclusion into the novel’s narrative function” (37). She shows that Thackeray reaches the level of philosophical irony in this novel clearly referring to Ecclesiastes and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But in this godless universe, the measure of all things becomes Time: “Time is indeed the only absolute in this work where everything else is subject to the arbitrariness of the market. That is why history—the passage of time seen in its human dimensions, both public and private—best exposes all human vanity” (61). In this chapter, perhaps the most brilliant of the whole book, it is a pity, though, that she pays so little attention to Thackeray’s illustrations, his so-called “candles”, which shed a useful light on the meaning of the novel, and combine textual irony with visual irony.

4The History of Henry Esmond, the subject of the next chapter, is of a different nature. Here, Thackeray turns his back on the panoramic description of society and “constructs an introspective, intensely intimate work, steeped in a lyrical key” (105). Irony, the hallmark of the novelist, is still present, but it is of a different nature. It operates mainly at the structural level, for the novel produces its meanings “through the ironic negation or modification of each ‘reflection’ by the others” (107). In spite of the main character’s efforts to give us a sincere, truthful and authentic history of his own life, his memoir which aims at being complete and coherent is obviously not so. The Preface added by his daughter Rachel Warrington casts a demythologizing perspective on her father’s version. This turns his memoir into yet another appearance, “a domestic romance of the kind that Thackeray sardonically dismisses in Vanity Fair” (137).

5The fourth and last chapter is devoted to The Newcomes, which takes up the theme of Vanity Fair, but on an even grander scale and with a wider range of characters. According to Catalan, irony works here “as a strategy to preserve the realist method from becoming a means of experiencing life as a menacing chaos and is applied more consistently than ever before” (162). The most striking formal characteristic of the novel is that Thackeray’s irony is mediated through the narrator, Pendennis, borrowed from a former novel. He is neither omniscient nor autobiographical, but a figure with a special position in the fictional world, for he is himself a novelist by profession and a friend of Clive, the main character. “More importantly, he is, like Thackeray himself, a person with a particular philosophy about the life he is describing” (170).

6In her conclusion, Catalan suggests that in these three novels, Thackeray’s politics of irony undergoes a change. “From a politics of criticism, which in both the ‘narrative’ and the ‘textual’ function of Vanity Fair and Esmond works to assert realism as a discourse of power, in The Newcomes it becomes oppositional vis-à-vis realism itself, leaving only its social theme untouched by the force of ironic negation” (225). In this perspective, irony might be seen as a tool holding together an aesthetic that challenges Victorian realism and drifts towards a form of writing which heralds the modern age.

7Despite its limited scope (the three major novels), this scholarly book, which deals with an essential aesthetic feature, is indeed a valuable contribution to Thackeray studies.

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Alain Jumeau, « Zelma Catalan. The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 220-222.

Référence électronique

Alain Jumeau, « Zelma Catalan. The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 11 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Alain Jumeau

Université de Paris-Sorbonne

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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