“The Book of Snobs,” written by William Makepeace Thackeray, is a satirical work that dissects and mocks the various manifestations of snobbery within English society. Published in 1848, the book originated from a series of articles Thackeray contributed to “Punch” magazine, later compiled into a cohesive volume. Through humor and keen observation, Thackeray critiques the obsession with social status and the absurd behaviors it engenders.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

On a pleasant evening in Kensington, a few young gentlemen gathered at the “King’s Arms” inn. They sipped their wine, observing the varlets and servitors of the nobility parading in their vibrant liveries in the inn’s gardens. The tall elms stood majestically in full leaf, and the chariots of England’s nobility whirled by, heading to a grand banquet at the nearby palace. These varlets, in their plush breeches and canary-colored coats, strutted with a swagger that fascinated the onlookers. The conversation among the gentlemen soon turned to the pervasive nature of snobbery, a subject ripe for exploration.

Colonel Snobley, epitomizing the concept of a snob, exuded an air of superiority that was insufferable. He wore japanned boots and moustaches, lisped, drawled, and smoothed his lacquered whiskers with a flaming bandanna soaked in musk. Thackeray, determined to challenge this pomposity, employed harmless conversations and strategic stares, using his fork as a toothpick to unsettle Snobley. After two mornings of this practice, Snobley fled the inn, unable to bear the scrutiny any longer.

The narrative then introduces Marrowfat, a man who committed the social faux pas of eating peas with a knife. This act, performed at the ‘Europa Coffee-house’ in Naples, caused Thackeray such deep pain that he commissioned a mutual friend to delicately sever their acquaintance. Despite Marrowfat having saved Thackeray’s life and lent him a substantial sum of money, the breach in etiquette was unforgivable. Years later, at a dinner at Sir George Golloper’s, Thackeray was astonished and delighted to see Marrowfat using his fork properly. Overcome with emotion, Thackeray reconciled with his friend, illustrating the absurd extent to which social norms dictate personal relationships.

A diplomatic banquet in Constantinople further exemplifies the intricacies of social etiquette. Thackeray navigates the event with skill, in stark contrast to the Russian agent Count de Diddloff, who fails to adhere to local customs. When the host, Galeongee, offers a spicy dish, Diddloff’s grimace and subsequent near-fainting spell highlight his discomfort. Thackeray, however, gracefully accepts the dish, endearing himself to the host and securing a diplomatic victory. This episode underscores the importance of conforming to societal expectations, even in foreign lands.

The book delves into the realm of royalty, portraying them as the ultimate snobs. Gorgius IV, celebrated as the “first gentleman in Europe,” is depicted as a figure whose flaws are overlooked due to his royal status. His extravagant lifestyle and trivial pursuits, such as inventing Maraschino punch and shoe-buckles, are met with adulation. This satirical portrayal critiques the blind reverence for royalty and the absurdity of idolizing individuals based solely on their titles.

Thackeray critiques the influence of aristocracy on religious and social institutions. He describes how a clergyman’s worth is measured by his association with nobility, revealing the deep-rooted classism in society. The story of Lord Buckram, a young nobleman whose life is shaped by snobbish adulation, illustrates how societal structures perpetuate snobbery. From his early education at Richmond Lodge, where he was worshipped by the headmaster, to his time at the University, where tutors and peers alike toadied to him, Buckram’s life is a testament to the corrupting influence of social status.

The Court Circular, a publication detailing the daily activities of royalty and nobility, is another target of Thackeray’s satire. He argues that such publications reinforce the notion of inherent superiority among the upper classes. The story of Miss Snobky, a young aristocrat who expects her absence from London to be noted in the papers, exemplifies the early indoctrination into snobbish values. Her belief that her movements are of public interest highlights the absurdity of the societal obsession with nobility.

Thackeray also examines “respectable snobs” within the middle class. Lady Susan Scraper and her household represent this demographic, where appearances and social standing are paramount. Despite their outward display of wealth and respectability, their lives are fraught with financial constraints and pretensions. Lady Susan, with her grand carriage and obsequious servants, maintains an image of affluence while managing a tight budget. Her daughter, Miss Emily Scraper, endures the irony of lavish appearances masking a frugal reality, with rumors of her spending pocket money on buns highlighting their financial strains.

Sir Alured and Lady de Mogyns are social climbers whose ostentatious lifestyle and fabricated genealogy reflect the lengths to which people go to establish social prominence. From their origins as the Muggins family, they transformed into the de Mogyns, complete with a concocted history of ancient Welsh nobility. Their lavish parties and elaborate liveries mask their humble beginnings, serving as a critique of the artificiality and absurdity of social climbing.

Throughout his observations, Thackeray employs humor and irony to expose the ridiculousness of social pretensions. His characters, from the pompous Colonel Snobley to the anxious Marrowfat and the vainglorious de Mogyns, illustrate the varied facets of snobbery. The narrative’s vivid characterizations and sharp dialogue enhance the humor and poignancy of his critique.

In conclusion, “The Book of Snobs” is a satirical exploration of societal norms and the obsession with status. Thackeray’s keen observations and witty storytelling create a compelling narrative that entertains while encouraging readers to reflect on their own behaviors and attitudes. The book remains a timeless critique of social pretensions, resonating with audiences across generations.

Main Characters

  • Colonel Snobley: A perpetual snob whose exaggerated manners and sense of superiority epitomize the “positive snob.”
  • Marrowfat: A friend whose breach of social etiquette leads to a temporary estrangement with Thackeray, symbolizing the “relative snob.”
  • Count de Diddloff: A Russian agent who fails to navigate social customs, serving as a foil to Thackeray’s adeptness.
  • Gorgius IV: A satirical portrayal of a monarch whose celebrated status highlights the absurdity of aristocratic reverence.
  • Lord Buckram: A young nobleman whose life is shaped by snobbish adulation, illustrating the influence of societal structures.
  • Miss Snobky: A young aristocrat who embodies early indoctrination into snobbish values.
  • Lady Susan Scraper: A middle-class matron whose life is a facade of wealth and respectability.
  • Sir Alured and Lady de Mogyns: Social climbers whose ostentatious lifestyle and fabricated genealogy critique the artificiality of social prominence.

Themes and Motifs

  • Social Pretension: The book satirizes the absurd lengths people go to maintain their social status and appearances.
  • Classism: Thackeray critiques the rigid class structures and the blind reverence for nobility.
  • Hypocrisy: The narrative exposes the hypocrisy inherent in societal norms and the disparity between outward appearances and true character.
  • Conformity: The importance of adhering to societal expectations is a recurring motif, highlighting the pressures to conform.

Writing Style and Tone

Thackeray’s writing style in “The Book of Snobs” is characterized by its wit, humor, and keen observational skills. He employs irony and satire to critique societal norms, creating a narrative that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Thackeray’s use of vivid characterizations and sharp dialogue enhances the humor and poignancy of his critique. The tone is both mocking and reflective, inviting readers to laugh at the absurdities of snobbery while encouraging them to reflect on their own behaviors and attitudes. Through his masterful use of language and narrative techniques, Thackeray creates a compelling and enduring critique of social pretensions.

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Categories: Book Summary