This Week In My Classes: Politics and Moral Complicity

The 2016 U. S. election has given some books I regularly teach new resonance–and not in a good way. In March 2016, Hard  Times was indeed “for these times,” with Mr. Bounderby running for President:

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

“Remember,” I wrote sadly this February, “when the possibility that he would actually win…seemed absurd?” In the wake of Trump’s victory last November, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day felt (as its author intended) like a cautionary tale, one we can only hope it isn’t too late to heed.

This week I am teaching Vanity Fair, and now it’s Sir Pitt Crawley who seems unhappily familiar:

Vanity Fair — Vanity Fair! Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read — who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettifogging: who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.

Vanity Fair isn’t really about what a bad man Sir Pitt Crawley is, or even what a bad woman Becky Sharp is. It’s at least as much about their enablers: the toadies and sycophants and patsies and stooges who either actively or passively make it possible for bullies and boors to rule the world.

Yesterday was our last class hour on the novel, and I used part of it to lay out the argument I make here: that the novel isn’t really about its characters, but in fact is primarily about us, its readers, the ones who might rise to the moral challenge the novel sets them of asking ourselves (before it’s too late!) how far we are complicit in the evils and injustices, both petty or grandiose, of the world we live in. Nobody in Vanity Fair is without vanity; even the most loving and loyal characters are prone to delusions, or are selfish even in their devotion, and their generosity does not excuse (and often exacerbates) their reluctance to face harsh truths or take decisive action.

If there’s something disheartening about such a grim evaluation of our moral lives, there’s also something bracing about it, as there is about Dickens’s closing injunction: “Dear reader!” he says, “It rests with you and me,” and Thackeray’s implication is the same–the kind of world we live in is ultimately up to us. It’s not that we can individually fix everything that’s wrong: Dickens does put a fair amount of faith in personal actions, but Vanity Fair shows us a tangled web of interconnected systems of wrongdoing, including sexism, racism, class antagonism and snobbery, and colonialism. Still, all these “isms” are embodied in individuals with at some agency, and lest we think there’s no point even trying to exert ourselves against their systemic force, we get Lady Jane Crawley, née Sheepshanks,  who takes a decisive stand against our heroine Rebecca:

“Upon-my word, my love, I think you do Mrs. Crawley injustice,” Sir Pitt said; at which speech Rebecca was vastly relieved. “Indeed I believe her to be —”

“To be what?” cried out Lady Jane, her clear voice thrilling and, her heart beating violently as she spoke. “To be a wicked woman — a heartless mother, a false wife? She never loved her dear little boy, who used to fly here and tell me of her cruelty to him. She never came into a family but she strove to bring misery with her and to weaken the most sacred affections with her wicked flattery and falsehoods. She has deceived her husband, as she has deceived everybody; her soul is black with vanity, worldliness, and all sorts of crime. I tremble when I touch her. I keep my children out of her sight.”

“Lady Jane!” cried Sir Pitt, starting up, “this is really language —” “I have been a true and faithful wife to you, Sir Pitt,” Lady Jane continued, intrepidly; “I have kept my marriage vow as I made it to God and have been obedient and gentle as a wife should. But righteous obedience has its limits, and I declare that I will not bear that — that woman again under my roof; if she enters it, I and my children will leave it. She is not worthy to sit down with Christian people. You — you must choose, sir, between her and me”; and with this my Lady swept out of the room, fluttering with her own audacity, and leaving Rebecca and Sir Pitt not a little astonished at it.

Though Rebecca is not one to be kept down forever, Lady Jane’s judgment prevails to the extent that Rebecca never is welcomed again into her house, and Lady Jane’s influence helps point the next generation towards a future that’s at least not altogether discouraging. If only more people in a position of power today would show a fraction of Lady Jane’s courage and take a decisive stand against the false and heartless person currently imperiling the world with his vanity…

I’ve been thinking that another novel for our times is Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. It has none of the Victorian Sage’s tendency to prophesize and declaim from on high: instead, it has a bracingly practical focus on what ordinary people without extraordinary power can actually do locally to make things work a little better. We don’t all have what it takes (personally or logistically) to be a literal politician, but one thing all of the novels remind us is that the root of the English word “politics” is the Greek word polis, which Merriam-Webster explains means “city or community”: “Words from Greek polis and polītēs have something to do with cities or communities or the citizens who live in them.” It really is all about us.

2 Comments to This Week In My Classes: Politics and Moral Complicity

  1. October 12, 2017 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I came to read this after an evening of writing thank you notes to contributors to the Democratic political candidate I am supporting for the 2018 congressional election. One of my fondest hopes for the future is that it’s not only those in a position of power who can make a difference. It’s every one of us, believing that our actions, our words, and our votes count.

  2. October 13, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I will have to look for South Riding. That’s not a book I know at all nor an author I know. Winifred Holtby. I’ll look for her.

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