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Aeschylean Tragedy, Thackeray, and Hugo

William Makepeace Thackeray incorporates three types of reference to the Trojan War in Vanity Fair.[1]  The first presents the elements of the story included in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: the sacrifice of Iphigeneia sculpted and surmounting “a great French clock”  (Ch. 13, 129);[2] the fighting of the war itself encapsulated in the reflection that “from the story of Troy down to to-day, poetry has always chosen a soldier for a hero” as Captain Osborne leaves for what will be the Battle of Waterloo (Ch. 30, 301); the charades at Gaunt House in which “Ilium is down.  Iphigeneia is slain.  Cassandra is a prisoner in his [Agamemnon’s] outer halls. …the anax andrôn is asleep in his chamber at Argos. …Aegisthus steals in pale and on tiptoe. …He raises his dagger to strike the sleeping man … Clytemnestra [Becky Sharp] glides swiftly into the room … she snatches the dagger out of Aegisthus’s hand, and advances to the bed” (Ch. 51, 510); and the illustration, “Becky’s second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra” (Ch. 67, 689).  The second type does not refer to the war or its prequels or sequels per se, but to Achilles through two references to the Achilles statue erected in Hyde Park in honor of the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, that frame the novel.  The narrator mentions that the statue had not yet been erected as the carriage carrying George Osborne and Dobbin to the church for George’s marriage passes the spot (Ch. 22, 216),[3] but ten years later Colonel Dobbin walks past it going to the widowed Amelia’s house on his return from India (Ch. 58, 579).  The third type of reference rests on two quotes from Homer’s Iliad.  The first occurs towards the end of the novel when Amelia shows Colonel Dobbin a letter written by her son, Georgy, who uses line two of the Iliad to raise the issue of Achilles’ selfishness that “occasioned a thousand woes to the Greeks.”  He extends the concept of selfishness as the cause of much grief, to oneself and others, to Napoleon (Ch. 58, 586).  At the conclusion of the novel, the narrator, too, uses the  words of “a favourite poet” to describe Amelia’s reaction when she realizes that Colonel Dobbin was returning, “Smiling through her tears [Iliad VI.484]” (Ch. 67, 683).  Achilles, Wellington, and Napoleon are linked; Thackeray, Aeschylus, and Homer are linked.

In the novel, Thackeray seems to employ the conventions of Greek tragedy.  Richmond Lattimore’s statement about the Oresteia, “Behind the domestic tragedy lies the tragedy of war,”[4] pertains equally to Vanity Fair.  Just like tragedy, the novel is both a visual representation and a verbal.[5]  Vanity Fair foregrounds domestic issues against a historic background of war.  Though there are often vivid battles in Greek tragedy, a messenger or a herald reports and describes them; they are not depicted on stage.[6]  Thackeray, likewise, separates the Battle of Waterloo from the narrative fabric.  He begins this section, “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists.  Our place is with the noncombatants” (Ch. 30, 293).  He describes the way in which the families who remain in Brussels after the soldiers depart for battle are affected by the nearby fighting and their lack of solid information.  These non-combatants are dependent on outside sources, first on rumor and subsequently on the wounded, for news.  In the Agamemnon, there are two narratives of the taking of Troy: Clytemnestra stresses victory (lines 264-267 and 281-316), and the herald describes the fighting as well as the suffering of both sides (524-537 and 587-614).  The chorus, in turn, reflects on the grief that the loss of Argive life means to the families (420-455).  Thackeray describes the Battle of Waterloo and victory as reported to those in Brussels.  He also focuses on what the loss of life means to the families through the effect of George’s death on Amelia, his wife, and George Osborne Sr., his father.  He evokes the grief of the father by showing him visiting Waterloo and endeavoring to live the scenes of his son’s death.

To clarify my early conclusion that Thackeray was echoing Greek tragedy, I turned to another midcentury novel that also includes an account of the Battle of Waterloo, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).[7] Hugo, like Thackeray, separates the section on the Battle of Waterloo from the main narrative flow and gives a twofold presentation.[8]  The first is an evocative and emotional, though impersonal, sightseeing trip that imagines the suffering that must have taken place.  He begins, “L’an dernier (1861), par une belle matinée de mai, un passant, celui qui raconte cette histoire, arrivait …. Il était dans le champ de bataille de Waterloo” [Last year (1861), on beautiful morning of May, a walker who is telling this story arrived….He was on the field of battle of Waterloo] (II.I.i, 333-34).  The second is an analytic reconstruction of the battle that Hugo separates even further from the narrative by highlighting the temporal disjunction, “Retournons en arrière, c’est un des droits du narrateur, et replaçons-nous en l’année 1815 …” [Let us turn back, it is one of the rights of the narrator, and put ourselves again in the year 1815] (II.I.iii, 341).  Both authors undertook significant research before writing their sections on Waterloo, and both also faced criticism for including Waterloo at all.

Despite these similarities of structuring, Hugo, though he heaps up classical allusions, does not have a readily apparent plan of reference.  On closer scrutiny, however, it is possible to discern a repeated use of Aeschylus and the Oresteia in Parts I, II, and III.[9] The first of these comes in the description of Waterloo when Hugo says that through his response to the English command to surrender, “Merde” [shit], a little known officer, Cambronne, “a gagné la bataille” [won the battle] and that such a response “atteint la grandeur eschylienne” [attains Aeschylean greatness] (I.II.xiv.373-75).  Other references appear as Marius becomes involved with the plotters.[10]  In describing the actual insurrection, however, Hugo draws upon numerous allusions to the Trojan War and to Homer.  Hugo frames his novel with two related allusions, one, the apple given to Venus by Paris, prior to Fantine’s “downfall” (I.III.vii.165), and the second, late in the novel as preparations are underway for Cosette’s wedding, to Helen giving her garter to Paris and thus causing the Trojan War (after explaining the link between the belt of Venus and the garter of the bride) (V.V.vi.381).  So, as Thackeray framed Vanity Fair with the Achilles Statue, Hugo framed Les Misérables with Venus and the mythic causes of the Trojan War. Just as the idiosyncratic Iphigeneia clock chimed early in Vanity Fair as Amelia Sedley sat under the disapproving eye of her future father-in-law, late in Les Misérables M. Gillenormand (Marius’ grandfather) describes an elaborate clock chiming on Strasbourg cathedral (V.V.vii.380). Though these are merely preliminary observations, I think that they suggest a remarkable symmetry in the two novels.  Each novelist is grappling with issues of time, place, and memory.[11]


[1] All quotations are taken from the Norton Critical Edition, Peter Schillingsburg (ed).  NY: W.W. Norton, 1994. Chapter numbers as well as page numbers are given.

[2] Note that the sacrifice of Iphigeneia is not part of the narrative of the Agamemnon, but that the event is retold by the chorus and referred to by Clytemnestra.

[3] It was erected in 1822.

[4] “Introduction to the Oresteia in Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Marsh H. McCall (ed).  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 73.

[5] Though only one picture has been discussed, the novel was illustrated throughout by Thackeray who included illustrated capitals at the beginning of each chapter that form a commentary in their own right on the action to follow.  See Victor R. Kennedy, “Pictures as Metaphors in Thackeray’s Illustrated Novels.”   Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 9.2 (1994): 135-47, and Stephen Canham, “Art and the Illustrations of Vanity Fair and The Newcomes.”  Modern Language Quarterly 43.1 (1982): 43-66.  For the role of the herald and messager in Greek tragedy, see Athanasios D. Stéfanis, Le messager dans le tragédie grecque (Athens: Académie, 1997), 233-238.

[6] See Stéfanis.

[7] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 3 Vols.  Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1967.  The quotations are identified by part, book, chapter, and page.

[8] The description of Waterloo encompasses part II, book I, chapters 1-19.

[9] There are other quick references such as that to Aschylus’ pun on the name Polynices (I.III.vii.163).

[10] Enjolras and Grantaire are likened to Orestes and Pylades.

[11] Waterloo is frequently used as a turning point in the human relationship with commemoration and memory.  For example, see Stuart Semmel, “Reading the Tangible Past: British Tourism, Collecting, and Memory after Waterloo.”  Representations 69(2000): 9-37.  One should also consult Hugo’s William Shakespeare, particularly the first three books containing his discussion of Homer and Aeschylus.

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