Thackeray’s essays, poems, novels, and short narratives combine gravity and humor to develop complex commentaries on society as a whole and the individual’s place in it. His narrators, whose moralizing is always to be questioned, serve to expose readers to different ways of perceiving and thinking about reality.
Because plot summaries of Thackeray’s works would reduce their breadth and depth to simple sequences of events, I have chosen to quote the opening and closing lines of his major novels in the hope that the interested reader will pick up one of Thackeray’s books and take the time to enjoy the wisdom, wit, and beauty that lie within it.
The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century. By Fitzboodle (1844)
"Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it. . . .
The trees in Hackton Park are all about forty years old, and the Irish property is rented in exceedingly small farms to the peasantry; who still entertain the stranger with stories of the daring, and the devilry, and the wickedness and the fall of Barry Lyndon."
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1847-1848)
"While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. . . .
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."
The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends, and His Greatest Enemy (1848-1850)
"One fine morning in the full London season, Major Arthur Pendennis came over from his lodgings, according to his custom, to breakfast at a certain Club in Pall Mall, of which he was a chief ornament. . . .
We own, and see daily, how the false and worthless live and prosper, while the good are called away, and the dear and young perish untimely,—we perceive in every man’s life the maimed happiness, the frequent falling, the bootless endeavor, the struggle of Right and Wrong, in which the strong often succumb and the swift fail: we see flowers of good blooming in foul places, as, in the most lofty and splendid fortunes, flaws of vice and meanness, and stains of evil; and, knowing how mean the best of us is, let us give a hand of charity to Arthur Pendennis, with all his faults and shortcomings, who does not claim to be a hero, but only a man and a brother."
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Queen Anne. Written by Himself (1852)
"The actors in the old tragedies, as we read, piped their iambics to a tune, speaking from under a mask, and wearing stilts and a great head-dress. . . .
Our diamonds are turned into ploughs and axes for our plantations; and into negroes, the happiest and merriest, I think in all this country: and the only jewel by which my wife sets any store, and from which she hath never parted, is that gold button she took from my arm on the day when she visited me in prison, and which she wore ever after, as she told me, on the tenderest heart in the world."
The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family. Edited by Arthur Pendennis, Esq. (1853-1855)
"A crow, who had flown away with a cheese from a dairy window, sat perched on a tree looking down at a great big frog in a pool underneath him. . . .
Ah, happy, harmless Fable-land, where these things are! Friendly reader! May you and the author meet there on some future day! He hopes so; as he yet keeps a lingering hold of your hand, and bids you farewell with a kind heart."
The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century (1857-1858)
"On the library wall of one of the most famous writers of America, there hang two crossed swords, which his relatives wore in the great War of Independence. . . .
Here my master comes; he has poked out all the house-fires, has looked to all the bolts, has ordered the whole male and female crew to their chambers; and begins to blow my candles out, and says, ‘Time, Sir George, to go to bed! Twelve o’clock!’ ‘Bless me! So indeed it is.’ And I close my book, and go to my rest, with a blessing on those now around me asleep."
The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World; Showing who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By (1861-1862)
"'Not attend her own son when he is ill!’ said my mother. ‘She does not deserve to have a son!’ And Mrs. Pendennis looked towards her own only darling whilst uttering this indignant exclamation. . . .
Dance on the lawn, young folks, whilst the elders talk in the shade! What? The night is falling: we have talked enough over our wine: and it is time to go home? Good night. Good night, friends, old and young! The night will fall: the stories must end: and the best friends must part."