Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

Thackeray and Slavery

By Deborah A. Thomas

“Thomas is thorough and clear in the presentation of her argument, basing it on close textual evidence and relating Thackeray’s attitudes to contemporary social and cultural contexts.”

Donald Hawes, Analytical & Enumerative Bibliography

“Drawing upon history, sociology, and literary criticism, this wide-ranging and thoughtful study is meticulously researched and well written.”

S. A. Parker, Choice

Slavery fascinated Thackeray. For him, the essence of slavery consisted of treating people like things. Thomas examines relationships in Thackeray’s fiction in which people have been reduced to objects and power is an end. These relationships include not only actual slaves and blacks, but also servants, dependents of all races, upper-class women sold into marriage, and children struggling to escape parental domination.

Thomas also clarifies Thackeray’s view of black slavery. Many of his remarks about black men and women reflect an attitude that we could today call racist. He regarded blacks of the American South (where he traveled on lecture tours in 1852-53 and 1855-56) as inherently different from whites. At the same time, he viewed slavery as inherently wrong and condemned its exploitive aspects. Nonetheless, in some of his letters from America, he observed that the slaves he had seen appeared better treated, on the whole, than many domestic servants and industrial workers in England. It was characteristic of Thackeray to try to see both sides of a complex issue. However, modern students of Thackeray often seem to be so uncomfortable with his effort to present what he considered a balanced picture that they overlook his basic awareness of the vils of slavery and the way in which the idea of slavery repeatedly occurs in his writing. The prominence of this idea in his fiction has important implications for anyone studying nineteenth-century literature and culture.

For Thackeray, as for most of his nineteenth-century British contemporaries, the major form of slavery was that to be found in the New World. However, ideas regarding galley (penal) slavery and Western concepts of “Oriental” slavery also contributed to his thinking about human bondage. Prior to his visits to the United States, the image of slavery had a powerful creative effect on Thackeray’s writing. In contrast, after his exposure to the reality of slavery in the American South, this image waned in creative power in his fiction. For Thackeray in this regard, the unseen was imaginatively more stimulating than the seen.

Thackeray and Slavery

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Retail price: $55.00, S.
Release date: June 1993
262 pages
Rights:  World

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