Classic Omniscience Revisited: Lessons for the Modern Novelist in Thackeray's Vanity Fair

As a craft technique, nineteenth-century omniscience is mostly brought up these days for the purposes of pointing out that it’s obsolete. It’s old. It’s passé. The presumed authority of the classic omniscient voice is no longer plausible; its sweeping pronouncements no longer ring true. Less God-like points of view, such as first person and limited third—often split into the perspectives of multiple characters—provide more fitting lenses through which to portray the diverse social, cultural, and emotional realities of the present age.
It’s not my intention to contradict this view, but I do wonder if we as writers have been too quick to turn our backs on an important element of the craft. I’m not alone. In a recent The Writer’s Chronicle article (March/April 2017), Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that the omniscient “is the most flexible and useful of all the points of view. It’s the freest.” She also pointed out that first person and limited third, by far the most common points of view in contemporary literature, are also “the easiest ones, the least interesting.”
Last year, as it happens, I spent a few months immersed in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While that colorful saga began to unwind, I noticed the various uses Thackeray made of the omniscient point of view—and the power of the narrative vantage point surprised me. As a matter of fact, more than anything else in the book, it was the central guiding consciousness—its supple elasticity; its expansive vision; its bitingly droll eloquence—that kept me riveted over the course of seven hundred densely printed pages. Curious as to the mechanics underlying this instance of classic omniscience, I went back to take a closer look.
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