w. m. thackeray’s vanity fair (notes)

The story, however, is as modern as tomorrow—the struggle to establish oneself in society. Whereas the tale seems disjointed and diverse, it is held together by the one theme: the foibles and deceptions of the inhabitants of Vanity Fair. No matter how minor a character, Thackeray identifies that person—perhaps by the significance of his name only—as living or not living in Vanity Fair. This continuous focus on human nature in all aspects from motherhood to death, from poverty to prosperity, makes the plot both probable and unified.
The conflict is always man against man for the joys and advantages of Vanity Fair. There is little soul-searching. The reader does not often enter the minds of the characters. He watches what they do, he hears what the author tells about them, and then with some direct prompting from the author, judges them. Any conflict with nature is conflict with human nature.
Thackeray wishes to impress on the reader the futility of Vanity Fair but he does not underestimate its values either. He admits that roast beef is good, although it vanishes like all pleasures of Vanity Fair. He points out the duplicity, the dishonesty, the double crossing of human beings all under the guise of doing good, being neighborly, or saving souls; but actually the purpose is to get money or position or advantage.
Most of the characters bow down to wealth and position regardless of the persons who have them. This worship of false values makes it possible for Rebecca to climb to the top, and if she had possessed sufficient money she would not have fallen on account of the discovery of her affair with Lord Steyne. For, although citizens of Vanity Fair may have a low opinion of the morals of their leading personages, this scruple will not deter them from attending balls, dinners, or any affair where one may get a free meal or sit beside nobility.
The setting so far as physical place is concerned, moves from London to Brighton, to the Continent including Paris, Rome, Brussels, and “Pumpernickel,” a small German principality. The reader moves from city house to country estate, from private academy to the sponging house, or debtors’ jail.
But there is also a social setting. The story unfolds against the back ground of the estates and attitudes of the landed aristocracy such as the Lord Steynes and the Crawleys; the houses of the city merchants such as the Sedleys, the Osbornes, and the Dobbins the colonial order and money of Miss Swartz and Joseph Sedley, the collector of Boggley Wollab; the military protocol in Brussels before Waterloo and in India; the Anglo-Irish in the persons and prejudices of the O’Dowds and the lesser fringes of Vanity Fair embodied in the Clapps, Raggles, Briggs, and others.
The book, then, has not only a setting as to place but also, and more important, as to position and power. It emerges as a social document, accurate in terms of history, sociology, and psychology.
The highest point in the social strata is the Court, where Becky finally is presented. The lowest is the Fleet prison, where fate sends poor Raggles. The two characters more concerned with human relationships than with position or power are Amelia and Dobbin.
Vanity Fair, then, is not so much a story told against a setting, as a state of mind, a state of mind still prevalent in the twentieth century.
The title suggests the idea: Vanity Fair. The treasures of Vanity Fair, that is, money and position, are desirable but transient. The gaiety, the mask of the ball, do not stay with the person when he faces death. Thackeray does not underestimate the importance of having a home, clothes and food; but he does expose the cruelty, the deception, the futility of making possessions and power the only aim in life.
The book is so saturated with the vanity of Vanity Fair, the duplicity of social climbers, and the weakness of human nature, that it would be impossible to separate idea from plot or plot from characters. If the book appears to ramble, it never strays from the focus of attention on the foibles of human nature in its struggle to reach the highest strata of Vanity Fair.
The setting could be changed to modern times and the observations would be true today. The vanity of man is universal and ever present. Women still berate and betray women; relatives still fight over money; mothers still sell their daughters for popularity, money, or position. Yet, there are some people, the reader hopes and Thackeray indicates, who do not bow down to the idols of Vanity Fair.
The winners at the end of the story are those who cherished human relationships first: Amelia, Dobbin, and Lady Jane, with the children Georgy and little Rawdon. Thackeray’s idea, then, is that although one may live in Vanity Fair, one need not be a slave to its values, which in the final analysis turn into futility and emptiness. The reader feels that Georgy and little Rawdon will be better men than their grandfathers.
The story is presented by summarized narrative, bits of drama, interpolated essays, without much recourse to the minds of the characters. If there is any doubt as to how the reader should judge an individual, the author steps in and makes appropriate comment. For example, when the Sedleys lose their money, the chief critic and enemy is old Osborne, whom Sedley has started in business. Thackeray comments on the psychology of old Osborne’s attitude:
When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be . . . a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain—otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.
Here is an example of dramatic presentation. Amelia visits Becky to find out if she can help her. Becky has hidden her brandy bottle in the bed, and is putting forth every effort to engage Amelia’s sympathy by way of little Rawdon:
“My agonies,” Becky continued, “were terrible (I hope she won’t sit down on the bottle) when they took him away from me I thought I should die; but I fortunately had a brain fever, during which my doctor gave me up, and—and I recovered, and—and—here I am, poor and friendless.”
“How old is he?” Emmy asked.
“Eleven,” said Becky.
“Eleven!” cried the other. “Why, he was born the same year with George who is—”
“I know, I know,” Becky cried out, who had in fact quite forgotten all about little Rawdon’s age. “Grief has made me forget so many things, dearest Amelia. I am very much changed: half wild some times. He was eleven when they took him away from me. Bless his sweet face, I have never seen it again.”
“Was he fair or dark?” went on that absurd little Emmy. “Show me his hair.”
Becky almost laughed at her simplicity . . .
Usually Thackeray just describes what happens. George and Becky are talking about how Becky can get next to Briggs, Miss Crawley’s maid, and thereby see Miss Crawley and regain her favor for Rawdon. Becky says she will find out when Briggs goes to bathe; she will dive in under Briggs’ awning and “insist on a reconciliation”.
The idea amuses George, who bursts out laughing, whereat Rawdon shouts at them to ask what the joke is. Thackeray does not say Amelia is jealous, he shows the reader what she does: “Amelia was making a fool of herself in an absurd hysterical manner, and retired to her own room to whimper in private.”
Instead of showing, sometimes the author tells what the situation is. Of Sir Pitt’s second wife, he says, “Her heart was dead long before her body. She had sold it to become Sir Pitt Crawley’s wife. Mothers and daughters are making the same bargain every day in Vanity Fair.”
Although Thackeray claims to write about real people, at the close of the book, he says, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Thackeray does write about real people; Amelia is drawn from Mrs. Thackeray. However, in the writing of a story, there is a transformation and adaptation which justifies also the figure of the manipulation of puppets.
The author calls his characters ironic or patronizing names such as “Our poor Emmy,” or “Our darling Rebecca.” The modern reader may think his writings full of clichés. One must remember, however, that Thackeray makes fun of just such patronizing expressions, and one cannot be sure that he uses such expressions seriously.
Thackeray likes certain words such as “killing.” Sometimes his punctuation seems old-fashioned, like his use of the colon instead of a period in sentences like: “William knew her feelings: had he not passed his whole life in divining them?”
Sentence structure ranges from a few words to a whole paragraph. The variety tends to make the story readable, slows the pace or quickens it; variation may come in the form of a question or direct address. Essay or narration alternates with dialogue and dramatic action.
Because the story was written as a serial, Thackeray didn’t have the whole manuscript in hand for completion and correction. As a result the story rambles; essays have been inserted as padding; there is a certain amount of confusion in regard to names, places, and time. For example, Mrs. Bute Crawley is sometimes Martha, sometimes Barbara. Georgy sees Dobbin in London at a time when he is in Madras.
The reader has a complete picture of Joseph’s visit with his father and Amelia, his reassurance as to their welfare. Then Amelia gets a letter from Jos saying he will be delayed—he hasn’t yet left Southampton.
Whatever his faults in producing a sprawling, sometimes inaccurate manuscript, Thackeray has never missed a chance to point out the futility, the snobbery of Vanity Fair.
Thackeray takes symbols from everyday life, from the classics, and from the Bible. He shows Rebecca ensnaring Joseph in a tangle of green silk, at their first acquaintance. As Becky climbs the social stairway, she is likened to a spider. At the close of the book, she has literally entangled and destroyed Joseph just as a spider would its victim. She sucked his money, his vitality, his personality from him. She did not reduce Rawdon to such a shell, but she played Delilah to his Samson.
At the charade party Rebecca plays Clytemnestra, symbolic of her destruction first of Rawdon, second of Joseph. (Clytemnestra killed her husband, Agamemnon, when her lover’s courage failed.) Rebecca is also called Circe, the siren who lured men to their death. Sir Pitt refers to the Bute Crawleys as Beauty and the Beast, a symbolic hint that Bute has married a battle-axe, which he has.
The Osborne household keeps time by a clock representing the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Iphigenia, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, was sacrificed by her father for success in war, another route to power and position. Old Osborne tries to sacrifice George to a marriage for money; he destroys Miss Jane’s one romance for his own selfish convenience. The Iphigenia clock, then, symbolizes the complete subordination of the Osbornes to money and social success.
Amelia’s giving up Georgy is compared to Hannah’s giving up Samuel. The Bible story has religious significance; Hannah gives up her son to the Lord. In Vanity Fair, Amelia, though she is not of Vanity Fair, surrenders her son to advantages that money and position can provide. The symbol here may be ironic.
The symbolism described in the foregoing paragraphs constitutes one form of imagery. To continue with similar figures which may not be considered broadly symbolic, one reads of Miss Pinkerton, “the Semiramis of Hammersmith.” Sermiramis was an Assyrian queen noted for beauty, wisdom, and voluptuousness. Hammersmith was a metropolitan borough of London. Obviously the figure is ironic. When Pitt lures James into trouble by urging him to drink and smoke in Miss Crawley’s house, Thackeray calls Pitt, Machiavel, a name synonymous with political cunning, duplicity, and bad faith.
Old Sir Pitt, called Silenus, leers at Becky like a satyr. In mythology Silenus is a fat old man, jolly, intoxicated, an attendant of Bacchus. Satyrs are goat-like men, attendants of Bacchus, the god of wine.
Men and women are compared to trees and birds: “While Becky Sharp was on her own wing in the country, hopping on all sorts of twigs and amid a multiplicity of traps, and pecking up her food quite harmless and successful, Amelia lay snug in her home . . .” He compares George to a tree where Amelia can built her nest but says it is not safe. When Dobbin has at last won Amelia, the author says, “The bird has come in at last. There it is with its head on his shoulder, billing and cooing close up to his heart with soft outstretched fluttering wings . . .” He calls Dobbin the “rugged old oak to which you cling.”
Dobbin, the “uproused British lion,” tells his sisters they “hiss and shriek and cackle . . . don’t begin to cry. I only said you were a couple of geese.”
Thackeray compares Amelia to a violet, speaks of her nursing the corpse of Love, after George seems to have abandoned her In caring for her father, she appears to Dobbin to walk “into the room as silently as a sunbeam.”
Pitt Crawley is “pompous as an undertaker.” Lady Crawley is a “mere machine in her husband’s house.” Amelia is a “poor little white-robed angel,” who fortunately can’t hear George and his fellows roaring over their whiskey-punch.
When the ladies cry, the author says, “The waterworks again began to play.” Miss Swartz, in fancy garments, is dressed “about as elegantly . . . as a she chimney-sweep on May Day.” Dobbin, on contemplating Becky’s flirtation, has “a countenance as glum as an undertaker’s.” When Amelia comes out, just before George’s departure for battle, holding his sash against her bosom, Thackeray says “the heavy net of crimson dropped like a large stain of blood,” a possible symbol of George’s fate.
The note George gives Becky asking her to run away with him, lies “coiled like a snake among the flowers.” When Becky exploits her fellow men, she is like the mermaid feeding below the surface of the water on the pickled victims. The “sheep-dog,” or female companion necessary to the vivacious social climber in Vanity Fair, reminds Thackeray of “the death’s head which figured in the repasts of Egyptian bon-vivants . . .”
Mrs. Bowls, formerly Firkin, maid to Miss Crawley, extends her hand to Becky and “her fingers were like so many sausages, cold and lifeless.” Mrs. Frederick Bullock’s kiss is “like the contact of an oyster.”
One of the most humorous comparisons is that of cleaning a woman’s reputation by presenting her at Court as one would clean dirty linen by putting it through the laundry. A countess of sixty is compared with faded street lights. She has “chinks and crannies” in her face. The calling cards from the ladies of Lord Steyne’s family are “the trumps of Becky’s hand.” But Steyne says, “You poor little earthenware pipkin, you want to swim down the stream along with the great copper kettles.”
When Georgy’s nose is hurt, one does not see blood, but “the claret drawn from his own little nose.” Becky calls herself a mouse, perhaps able to help the lion, the second Sir Pitt. To indicate that the servants are gossiping about Becky, Thackeray personifies Discovery and Calumny as the waiters who serve the food and drink.
When Dobbin comes home, the English landscape “seems to shake hands” with him. Dobbin’s desire is a “bread-and-butter paradise.” Becky is a hardened Ishmaelite who halts at Jos’ tents and rests.
Samuel Chew notes that Thackeray spent much of his time “parodying and satirizing romantic sentiment” and that he “possessed a terrible power to detect and expose men’s self-deceptions, shams, pretenses and unworthy aspirations.”
Also, Thrall and Hibbard in the section on satire in their Handbook refer to Thackeray as one of the “later satirists,” along with Byron, following in the great tradition of the “golden age of satire” characterized by the writings of Dryden, Swift, Addison, Steele, Pope, and Fielding. Thackeray as satirist, then, should not be overlooked even in a cursory review of Vanity Fair.
Considered standard among a good many students and teachers of literature is the Thrall and Hibbard definition of satire—”A literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions may be improved.” Accepting this definition the student of Thackeray would do well to examine some of the ways Thackeray employs satire—mainly by (1) the use of names, (2) irony, and (3) humorous situations.
Some of the names have symbolic significance and some apparently are used for humor or irony’s sake. For certain occupations the author chooses “killing” names: Lance, the surgeon; Mrs. Briefless, the barrister’s wife; Sir Thomas Coffin, the celebrated hanging judge; Dr. Ramshorn, the preacher; Mr. Bawler, minister of the Darbyites. The Miss Scratchleys fight; Mary Box is always thumping her small brother; Mr. Hammerdown is the auctioneer; Quill is a cashier; Dipley is a candlemaker; Miss Grains is the brewer’s daughter; Pestler is an apothecary; Mr. Quadroon writes on the slave question.
To portray characteristics there are names such as Mr. Smirk, Miss Toady, the Reverend Mr. Crisp, and the Reverend Mr. Flowerdew. Mrs. Flamingo dresses in a crimson silk gown. Lord Methuselah is an old man, and Mrs. Highflyer is a social climber. Lady Slingstone is a notorious gossip. Madame de St. Amour would be affectionate, while Madame de Belladonna might be quite deadly. Becky outwits the brilliant Lady Stunnington and the witty Mr. Wagg.
The situation, at the time the name is mentioned, frequently augments the satire. Becky is riding with Sir Pitt to Queen’s Crawley. Rain is pouring. The towns along the way are Leakington, Mudbury and Squashmore.
Lord Steyne (stain is the symbolic meaning) lives in Gaunt House. Wealthy, honored, and bored, he fills his life with sensuous pleasure, but actually his existence is empty, as Gaunt indicates. Becky Sharp is not named Sharp by accident. Neither are the Crawleys, who use every means to crawl up the social and monetary ladder.
Some names are apparently just for fun: Lord Heehaw, Mrs. Hook Eagles, Swanky, Trotter, Lady Vere Vane, Mrs. Rougemont, Miss Hawky. Bowls is the butler; Heavytop, is the colonel; Knuckles is the private; Cackle is the assistant surgeon; Ensigns Spooney and Stubble are young officers; Mr. Chopper bandies the Osbornes’ money; Deuceace is a gambler.
Thackeray’s irony takes a wide range—sometimes biting, sometimes playful, but always pertinent. A sample of comment on money follows: “I for my part, have known a five-pound note to interpose and knock up a half-century’s attachment between two brethren; and can’t but admire, as I think what a fine and durable thing Love is among worldly people.” “What a charming reconciler and peacemaker money is!” “The good quality of this old lady has been mentioned . . . She had a balance at her banker’s which would have made her beloved anywhere.”
When Becky and Rawdon look for George in order for Rawdon to gamble with him, the author remarks, “I hope the reader has much too good an opinion of Captain and Mrs. Crawley to suppose that they ever would have dreamed of paying a visit to so remote a district as Bloomsbury, if they thought the family whom they proposed to honour with a visit were not merely out of fashion, but out of money, and could be serviceable to them in no possible manner.”
Women come in for a good share of Thackeray’s sarcasm. He has his tongue-in-cheek as he describes Becky’s need of a mother. “All she wanted was the proposal, and ah! how Rebecca now felt the want of a mother!—a dear, tender mother, who would have managed the business in ten minutes . . .”—”All old women were beauties once, we very well know.”
Miss Pinkerton writes Mrs. Bute that Miss Tuffin is sweet, young, eighteen, and therefore, probably not suitable. She illustrates Thackeray’s idea that “natural jealousy . . . is one of the main principles of every honest woman.” Mrs. Bute is reluctant to forgive the begging Miss Horrocks. “But those who know a really good woman are aware that she is not in a hurry to forgive, and that the humiliation of an enemy is a triumph to her soul.” Mrs. Bute, in her treatment of Miss Crawley “. . . ground down the old lady in her convalescence in such a way as only belongs to your proper-managing, motherly, moral woman.”
Becky’s friendship with Lady Jane is such that “. . . these two ladies did not see much of each other except upon those occasions when the younger brother’s wife, having an object to gain from the other, frequented her. They my-loved and my-deared each other assiduously, but kept apart generally . . .”
In ironical comments on society and life in general, Thackeray lets the reader know that even those in modest circumstances love their children. Dobbin writes his mother “. . . who was fond of him, although she was a grocer’s wife and lived in a back parlour in Thames St.”
Captain Dobbin makes conversation “. . . like a consummate man of the world . . . some topic of general interest such as the opera . . . or the weather—that blessing to society.”
Gossips have not changed since Vanity Fair—”The tartwoman hints to somebody, who took an affidavit of the fact to somebody else, that there was a great deal more than was made public regarding Mr. Crisp and Miss Sharp . . .”
Of deaths and funerals, Thackery comments, “Could the best and kindest of us who depart from the earth, have an opportunity of revisiting it, I suppose he or she . . . would have a pang of mortification at finding how soon our survivors were consoled . . .”
Of weddings, he says, “After three or four ceremonies, you get accustomed to it, no doubt; but the first dip, everybody allows, is awful.” And of the fighting in Belgium, he says, “For a long period of history they have let other people fight there.”
Thackeray’s characterizations are often ironic. The rich Miss Crawley says of herself, Rebecca, and Rawdon: “‘We’re the only three Christians in the county my love,’ in which case it must be confessed that religion was at a very low ebb in the county of Hants.” George broke up Becky’s marriage to Joseph and “she loved George Osborne accordingly.” Miss Crawley “showed her friendship by abusing all her intimate acquaintances to her new confidante (than which there can’t be a more touching proof of regard).”
Joseph’s eating is “the delightful exercise of gobbling.” As an invalid, he takes two-thirds of the bottle of champagne. Mr. Sedley says that if Joseph should receive word of the death of the rest of the family, he would say “Good Gad!” and go on with his dinner.
Mr. Osborne’s disposition has suffered because “. . . he has not been allowed to have his own way. To be thwarted in this reasonable desire was always very injurious to the old gentleman . . . ” Maria Osborne Bullock “. . . felt it her duty to see her father and sister as little as possible.”
Mr. Osborne called kicking a footman downstairs a “hint” to leave. Lord Steyne says his wife is as gay as Lady Macbeth and calls his home a “temple of virtue.” Lady Fits-Willis is of the “best people.” Her patronage helps Becky. The lady “asked her to her own mansion, and spoke to her twice in the most public and condescending manner . . . The important fact was known all over London that night . . .” At Vauxhall “our young people made the most solemn promises to keep together . . . and separated in ten minutes afterwards.”
Joseph, embarrassed when he first meets Rebecca, turns red, can’t talk, and yanks the bell rope loose.
Sir Pitt is a stingy, dirty, disreputable boor who can’t spell, doesn’t read, eats boiled mutton, and has but one candle in the house; but it stands in an ornate silver candlestick, and three footmen serve the boiled mutton. Old Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky:
“I’m an old man, but a good’n. I’m good for twenty years. I’ll make you happy, see if I don’t. You shall do what you like; spend what you like; and ‘av it all your own way. I’ll make you a settlement. I’ll do everything reglar. Look year!” and the old man fell down on his knees and leered at her like a satyr.
Rebecca started back a picture of consternation. In the course of this history we have never seen her lose her presence of mind; but she did now, and wept some of the most genuine tears that ever fell from her eyes.
“Oh, Sir Pitt!” she said. “Oh, sir—I—I’m married already.”
When the party gets ready to leave Brighton, Amelia rises to pack, while her husband lies in bed “deploring that she had not a maid to help her.” When Becky wants to impress someone with her domesticity and her love for her child, she pulls out a little shirt that she is sewing for little Rawdon, but he outgrows it long before it is finished.
Jos calls on Becky in her room at the “Elephant.” She has to do some quick house cleaning:
In that instant she put a rouge-pot, a brandy-bottle, and a plate of broken meat into the bed . . . she placed herself on the bed—not on the bottle and plate, you may be sure . . . she put her hand to her heart with a passionate gesture of despair, burying her face for a moment on the bed.
The brandy-bottle inside clinked up against the plate which held the cold sausage. Both were moved, no doubt, by the exhibition of so much grief . . . that spotless being—that miserable unsullied martyr—was present on the bed before Jos—on the bed, sitting on the brandy-bottle.

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