Duped!

After last week’s class discussion, in which we debated just what it is about our tricky narrator’s descriptions that makes many of us sympathize with that snake, Rebecca, I was on the look-out for a demonstration of his tactics.  I found just such a display in Chapters 48 and 49, “In Which the Reader is Introduced to the Very Best Company” and “In Which We Enjoy Three Courses and a Dessert.”

 
Let us begin by looking at the second of these two chapters, for it is in that one that Becky receives sympathy not unlike the kind I repeatedly find myself extending to her despite the fact that I have received ample evidence suggesting that, even if she “had five thousand a year,” she would probably still not be a “good woman,” as she supposes she could be.  During this chapter, Lord Steyne hosts a dinner.  When he introduces Becky to Lady Steyne and her daughters, Lady Steyne gives her a hand “cold and lifeless as marble.”  Nobody wants to be considered cold and lifeless, so I found that I immediately aligned myself with Becky instead of Lady Steyne (as if I really had to decide between the two).  In case I had hesitated, the narrator follows up the unflattering description of Lady Steyne’s hand by noting that Becky received it, ill-offered as it was, “with grateful humility.”  Of course I know she’s putting on a show, but, nevertheless, I found myself favoring the appearance of “grateful humility” over “cold and lifeless” marble.

 
Later on in the evening, “when poor little Becky” is “alone with the ladies,” she is treated with quiet disdain.  When she approaches the fireplace at which the ladies are gathered, they move to the table.  When she moves to the table, they return to the fireplace.  Becky is plainly shunned.  It is at this point that it becomes worthwhile to reflect on the preceding chapter.  In Chapter 48, while visiting Becky at her own home, Lord Steyne had warned Becky: “gare aux femmes [beware of the women], look out and hold your own!  How the women will bully you!”  He compares them to the murderous Lady Macbeth and the selfish, flattering daughters of King Lear, Regan and Goneril.  No wonder, then, that when, jumping forward to the dinner in Chapter 49, I once again side with Becky.  Who wants to be on the same team as Lady Macbeth?  Not me!  So when Lady Steyne at last extends some pity to “poor little Becky” by going to her and striking up a conversation about music (and complimenting Becky’s skill, no less), I extend sympathy right along with her.  I know that Becky sings “religious songs of Mozart” for Lady Steyne with masterful hypocrisy, and yet I sit with Lady Steyne and listen because the narrator has set up the scene in such a way that I either sit with the Lady Steyne or align myself with a murder of crows.

 

Throughout Vanity Fair, the narrator garners sympathy for Becky by presenting her in the context of other people’s faults.  By repeatedly doing so, he prompts his readers to choose Team Becky not because of any virtue in her but, rather, because the offenses of her opponents are so often more obvious at the moment the choice is made.

 

Duped no more, tricky narrator!

 

Works Cited

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. projectgutenberg.org. The Project Gutenberg, 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Show me the money!

Last week, we discussed Becky’s claim that she could be a good woman if she had 5,000 pounds a year. This notion of morality seems somewhat Marxist, affirming the materialistic idea that action is bound with economics, or simply relative and circumstantial. Thackeray continues to question the concept of morality in a superficial and vain world. The novel does not endorse Becky’s claim, but exposes her utter selfishness which is at the root of her abuse of money.

Becky’s pursuit of fortune constantly tarnishes her integrity. Becky price gouges her carriage and horses to Jos in his panic-stricken state in the midst of the war: “Rebecca measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos’s eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back” (320). Becky and Rawdon continue in their toxic irresponsibility to gamble and live on credit. Becky and Rawdon’s abuse of money again shapes their morality as they effectively bankrupt Briggs and Raggles, “….and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison; yet someone must pay even for gentleman who live for nothing a-year….” (372). Becky’s selfishness pervades her environment. Her love for money seems to be greater than the love she has for her own son. He only becomes useful to her at the end of the novel when he financially supports her. Her adulterous and utilitarian relationship with the rich Lord Steyne reveals her lack of dignity. In the midst of Mr. Sedley’s death, Osborne tells George:  “You see….what comes of merit and industry, and judicious speculations, and that. Look at me and my baker’s account. Look at your poor grandfather, Sedley, and his failure. And yet he was a better man than I was, this day twenty years—a better man I should say, by ten thousand pound” (607). Thackeray seems to be making a clear statement on morality standing independent of one’s economic situation.

This notion becomes subverted as Becky likely kills Jos in order to live off his insurance policy and ironically live a life of charity: “She busies herself in works of piety. She goes to church, and never without a footman. Her name is in all the Charity Lists.” (689) In a sense, the novel comes around full circle, as she does “become a good woman”, but her charity is false and unconvincing. Thackeray insists that Becky’s lack of virtue does not arise out of her financial situation, but underlies her pursuit of wealth at the expense of those around her.

 

The Effects of Serving a Life Sentence in the Friend Zone

My title is a bit misleading/incomplete in that it implies that I will only discuss the effects of Amelia’s behavior on Dobbin’s emotions. Rather, I intend to point out several of Amelia’s faults in general, ones which, whether evident to Dobbin or not, helps readers (okay, me) to let go of the notion that Dobbin ought to forever stay as greatly in awe of Amelia as he ever was in the beginning.

I felt let down the first time I realized (many years ago when I read this novel) that Dobbin’s love for Amelia had cooled – not when he tells her that she wasn’t worth his love, but later, when Thackeray deems it more important to talk of Dobbin’s affection for little Janey and the History of the Punjaub book rather than make any more mention of his undying love for Amelia. Having read the book again at a different age, I now believe that this makes perfect sense. Both Amelia and Dobbin are shown to be people of gentle and moderate temperament, and devoid of malice; Thackeray’s narrator sometimes refers to Amelia as “our heroine” (108, 109, 462) and although this novel is meant to be “without a hero,” there is much agreement amongst scholars and readers that Dobbin comes closest to fitting the bill. It is fitting for the two of them to be together, and perhaps we expect a romantic end to the novel, given that Dobbin is finally getting something for which he has waited eighteen years. Why then, the drop of lemon juice right at the end to curdle the milk?

To answer this, let us start by examining the ways in which Amelia puts us off. First, Amelia is blind to Becky’s manipulations. She lets Becky have the chance to influence many important things in her life, including the feelings of her husband and her brother. She doesn’t catch onto the fact that George was desirous to have an affair with Becky, and she doesn’t do much to prevent Jos from being crazy about Becky either. Dobbin is onto Becky from day one, and years of being made to see Amelia’s stupidity cannot help to strengthen his respect for her.

The only aspect of life in which Amelia is worth anything is in her role as a mother, and even in that, she is very impractical. She dresses up Georgy in fine clothes when they don’t even have enough to eat. Amelia, harshly speaking, fails to some degree in all of her roles: as a wife (because she is boring and clueless), a sister (because she does not do enough to protect her brother), and a mother (because she is unwise with money, and not much of a disciplinarian). She even fails as a friend to Dobbin before becoming his wife, constantly taking advantage of his kindness despite knowing that he is in love with her and therefore being led on. Thackeray’s depiction of Amelia as a “tender little parasite” (724) is right. Throughout the novel, Amelia is always dependent on others, starting from her parents and going all the way through a long line of people to whom she clings for support: George, Mrs. O’Dowd, Dobbin and even her own son. With regard to Dobbin in particular, she is quite selfish and cruel: “She didn’t wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not infrequently levied in love” (800).

After eighteen years of this treatment, Dobbin’s disappointment is necessary whether or not that makes the novel less romantic; he cannot be expected to consistently feel the same for a woman who has time and again proven unworthy of his love, and unworthy of any other admiration. Dobbin is heroic, helpful, discreet, discerning and many other things (perhaps his biggest fault is to be in love with an imbecile like Amelia), and therefore his disenchantment with Amelia, not just when he says he will leave, but even after his marriage to her, is quite natural. Amelia is, as Becky says, for too long “a silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature” and that takes too much of a toll to be forgotten just because Dobbin gets his prize in the end. There is something embittering in having to wait too many years for something that continually loses its luster, through faults of its own, during the wait.

By the end of the novel, Dobbin seems to be freed from the shackles of an obsession much the same way that Amelia is freed from her undue attachment to George. What makes Dobbin’s transformation more admirable is the fact that he comes to the realization himself that Amelia isn’t worthy – he does not have to be shown some example of questionable conduct the way George’s infidelity has to be shoved under Amelia’s nose (literally) to get her to see his true colors. In addition to that, Dobbin is superior to Amelia in my eyes in that he articulates his indignation at being treated poorly, whereas Amelia still has nothing bad to say about George after finding out that the latter had planned to elope with Becky.

Hence, I am glad that Dobbin’s love for Amelia cools. I would not want him to treat her badly, and Thackeray does reassure us that Dobbin continues to be kind to her and gratify her wants, but the evaporation of that worship that was there at the beginning needed to happen, and I am rather satisfied that it did.

Generation VF

 

At the start of the second half of the novel, both female protagonists have given birth to male progeny. As per usual, Becky and Amelia’s approaches to this newest life development differ greatly. Amelia, still mourning the loss of that vain scoundrel, George Senior, smothers newborn Georgy, as only the suffocating, simpering gal can. The narrator tells us that the doting mother “nursed him, and dressed him, and lived on him” (349, italics mine). Oh that’s right, in case you missed the italics let me say again, the mother is actually subsisting off of her child (talk about an early-era pageant mom). Amelia’s dependence has been kicked up a notch since the loss of her neglectful husband and the narrator details how the “Widow and Mother” exists solely for her child, indeed he says (and I think we all agree the narrator is in fact, a ‘he’), “This child was her being” (349).

Becky on the other hand is less attached to her spawn, and by less attached I mean that she literally abandons the poor kid with a French maid who loses him at the beach for an entire day during which time he “very narrowly escaped DROWNING on Calais sands” (361, caps mine). Apparently children in the Victorian era are considered about as human as a pomeranian, if you lose track of them just say fiddlesticks and move on (seriously, nobody at the beach thought the imperiled urchin was worth investigating?!). Luckily for Junior, Colonel Crawley “rascal” as he was “had certain manly tendencies of affection in his heart” and treated his son “with a paternal softness” (372).

Though this set up could create very interesting discussion of gender roles, i.e. Becky shuns her gender’s biggest role by despising her child and Big Rawdon invertsparental stereotypes by acting the nurturing mother figure (while still retaining Victorian era ‘ashamed’ness about this sissified affection for his only son[389]), I bring up the two boys because I wonder how their respective childhoods impacts, if indeed it does, their maturation and adult lives.  Georgy is given up to curmudgeonly Grandpa Osbourne when his mother realizes she will not be able to provide for the little angel, and even though the old man lavishes “more luxuries and indulgences than had been awarded to his father” in an effort to make amends for his behavior towards the late George Sr., Georgy is a relatively well-adjusted young man and adult.  He also inherits the Osbourne fortune (549). Rawdon Jr. also makes good in life despite his mother’s neglect, and his father’s imprisonment, spending his weekends away from school haunting the grounds of Queen’s Crawley and  eventually inheriting the Crawley fortune after the death of everyone named Pitt (548).

Thackeray’s next generation is far more successful than their forerunners. However, it is interesting that this new generation seems to share similarities with the previous generation (in addition to the genetics), namely Rawdon Junior is deprived of his parents just like his mother was, but he turns out A-okay, George Junior loses his father just like George Senior lost Old Osbourne after he married Amelia, and he too has a much happier ending. Are we to understand then, that Thackeray believes that kids will inevitably turn out peachy keen deprived of one or both of their biological parents  for a good deal of their childhood as long as there is a steady stream of revenue providing them with ponies and ‘tips’ and at least one stand-in guardian at hand? Or maybe we are not to look to answers beyond the fact that male children inevitably fare better than female adolescents in Vanity Fair and Victorian England at large. It is encouraging after all the mischief of Becky Sharp and the infuriating impotence of Amelia that their children have a bright future, but I am not sure that I am convinced with the neatly tied bow that this new generation puts on Thackeray’s tale, are you?

“Nothing without a woman or a girl”

I personally don’t like to disagree with the godfather of soul, but Thackeray’s Vanity Fair seems to challenge one of his more famous maxims. (Or, at the very least, subvert it.) Vanity fair is most certainly not a man’s world: the men in it do little more than play games–whether with billiards, cards, or swords. They hold money, but are ruled by their wives (or, at the very least, their mistresses or desired mistresses) in its management.

Yet, despite that, the vast majority of the men are relatively happy. They play their games, have friends, and enjoy life. There are exceptions, to be sure (the Sir Pitts, Dobbin, and the Marquis), who will dealt with shortly, but for now it’s enough to note that the majority of the men spend their time pleasurably in pursuit of sport.They sit in their clubs and barracks telling the same stories and jokes for fifteen or thirty years, red-faced and “laugh[ing] quite easily” (355). When women gather, on the other hand, there are no laughs. At best, there are polite overtures of friendship which hide their territorial combats. At worst, they openly “cut” each other in public.  “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” (327).

This seemed odd to me, at first. In Victorian England, we are constantly reminded, women were expected to remain at home as the angel of the house. They were responsible for the moral fiber of the Empire and manage their affairs in order to support their menfolk’s efforts at politics or business. This is manifestly not the case in the Vanity Fair, and we have to wonder why?

I don’t believe that answer is merely Becky Sharp, but rather that Vanity Fair is simply not a  man’s world. Men can serve in politics–if as blessed as the Sir Pitts of the Marquis–or with distinction in the army, if blessed with a war. As a last resort, they have the colonies. But, in a time of peace, England has little need for its men. The nation of shopkeepers is a domestic nation, and women naturally reign supreme. The social sphere is theirs to rule; men have no place in Vanity Fair. Consider young George Osborne: he “grew up delicate, sensitive, imperious, woman-bred…He ruled all the rest of the little world around him” (320). Perhaps then the reason this novel has no hero is that all the men have gone.

This reading, of course, casts a fairly negative light on Thackeray’s understanding of gender. Are women incapable, in his mind, of creating non-competitive, mutually beneficial relationships?  Are men such as Col. Rawdon, ex-soldiers reduced to uselessness at peace time, to blame for the state of Vanity Fair? At times, Thackeray’s narrator seems to say, “No.” “What a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them if they do” (25). At others, of course, the narrator defends women, particularly Becky, arguing that they simply have to do what they do to survive and thrive in their society.

Because the narrator is so notoriously difficult to pin down, it is difficult to say definitively what is being satirized. I suspect such an effort is a Rorschach test, but would like to suggest that the most important question in reading is whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes. A Lockean scholar could read Vanity Fair as critical of a wicked society that has forced its men and women to pursue vanities, a Hobbit could argue that Vanity Fair is critical of wicked men and women that have created a shallow society. In both cases the result is negative, but where Thackeray places sin is significantly different and allows varying levels of sympathy for his characters.

Perfect Strangers

First off, I cannot link my title, so you should click here, be transported back in time, possibly to a time that you did not know existed (you youngsters), and then do it again here.

So I hate to play Captain Obvious, but our man Dobbin is the chief stranger in Vanity Fair. Dobbin is time and again neglected and ignored. He is even treated as the stranger by the narrator. The narrator often casts him out of England, as Dobbin spends much of the novel in India, or elsewhere with his regiment, away from the narrative. We furthermore see Dobbin as the stranger early in the narrative, when he is picked on at school because his father is a grocer, though Dobbin of course changes his circumstances by standing up to George Osborne’s bully (40-44). He is ignored by his friends when an adult, as is observed by the Vauxhall party episode early in the novel (54-58).

Most enduringly, Amelia treats Dobbin as a stranger by ignoring his love. It is Dobbin that finances Amelia’s departure from Brussels after George dies with no reciprocation. And Dobbin provides some financial support for Amelia and George Jr., again, without much acknowledgement. Moreover, Amelia treats Dobbin like a stranger when she hears that he is to be married. She enthusiastically congratulations him, which causes him to feel miserably downcast because, “She would not see that he loved her” and, after he had cared for her in Brussels, “‘forgot me before the door shut between us!’” (436). Here Dobbin, the stranger, is not seen, but is forgotten. And it only gets worse for Dobbin, as he soon learns that Amelia herself is to get married (438-439). Amelia further treats Dobbin as a stranger when Amelia defends her old friend Rebecca near the end of the novel. Dobbin sees Rebecca’s manipulation and eventually returns to his regiment because Amelia is again choosing someone else over him (669-670).

What? You disagree? Okay, I can see how Rebecca can be seen as a stranger. She is the child of poor artists and is orphaned. While her duplicity, whether with Jos, Rawdon, Lord Steyne, or Jos again, is abhorrent, she is portrayed in a sympathetic light, which seems to stem, at least in part, from her always outwardly playing the role of the insider, yet never quite permanently eluding her outsider designation. Moreover, an argument could be made for Amelia as a stranger, with her pecuniary state and her subsequent estrangement from George Jr. that results from her poverty as the primary example of her being a stranger (494-498).

So, perhaps there are many strangers in the novel. As a closing thought, what do you think about children as strangers in Vanity Fair? George Jr. is spoiled by his mother, which could be construed as a form of distancing and neglect in contrast with a way of knowing a child. Furthermore, George Jr. goes to live with his grandfather, away from his mother, for a period of time. Does this make him a stranger? Rawdon Jr. is spoiled by his father, but he eventually takes his governorship and moves away. Moreover, Rebecca completely ignores Rawdon Jr. his entire life, until she learns that he has inherited the baronetcy and therefore has money. He therefore is not known by his mother at all and only moderately more by his father. Does this make him a stranger?

Our Lovely, Undecipherable Narrator Strikes Again…And Again

What are we to do with this narrator? We’ve already spent some time discussing his (lack of) reliability, sarcasm, and inconsistency. He claims to know all, yet holds some information back. Sometimes we know what is written in the letter or on the note, and sometimes not. Sometimes we are led to believe that the narrator’s words reflect his own views, but often they (supposedly) do not.

Significant to this problem of the narrator is how Thackeray chooses to frame his novel, beginning with the prologue entitled “Before the Curtain.” He (either Thackeray, the narrator, or the Manager, or some combination of the lot, we cannot be sure) describes Vanity Fair as a show, with the characters of the novel first as actors with face paint and masks and then as puppets and dolls. The whole story is a performance we, as members of the audience alongside the Manager, are sitting down to watch.  This is problematic because throughout the novel the narrator continuously shifts roles, and thus determining Thackeray’s intentions becomes much more difficult.

As Andy brought up in discussion last week, periodically we see the narrator deigning to step down into the action of the novel in a manner of sorts. Andy suggested that it could be visualized as the Manager/narrator sitting next to you at the play and pausing the action to comment and bring you in on some of the inner-workings and issues at hand.  However in chapter 62, the narrator makes an unprecedented move and actually enters the story. He states, “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance,” referring to those main characters who were vacationing in Pumpernickel. He even attends the same play (of all things) as “our friends” as he refers to them (793). Besides the obvious contradiction of his assertion that his “history” (not tale or story) is true, we now must puzzle over what these paragraphs tell us about the narrator’s omniscience and role in the story.  Who is he, and why/when should we believe him?

Thackeray maintains the play construction all the way through the novel to the final page, ending: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (878). The illustration paired with words depicts two children beside a toy box. Various dolls are strewn about within and around it, and the inside of the lid reads “FINIS.” Rather than returning to the idea of the characters as painted and masked actors, Thackeray chooses to finish with the characters as dolls and puppets put away in a box for another time. The effect is a telling contrast between the triviality of the playthings and the penultimate lines: “AhI Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?” (878). The narrator has ended not simply mocking and criticizing the individual characters and their respective stereotypical roles, but rather the novel as a whole; all the decisions, worries, and experiences are worthless, the insignificant and frivolous stuff of child’s play.  He ends having negated all the supposed messages of the novel, leaving his audience to decipher Thackeray’s intentions.

In this final scene—if it can be called that since the story has already finished—the narrator is lifted back to his meta-narrator role completely outside the novel, so outside that it is he who is instructing the children who ostensibly have been pulling the strings of the character puppets and walking the legs of the dolls. This final layer of ingenious and elaborate obfuscation complicates the novel yet again, still leaving us with the question, what are we to do with the narrator?

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

“‘Pen Me A Pretty Little Letter'”

Remembering Thackeray’s designation of the narrator of Vanity Fair as “the Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) and of his cast of characters as “puppets” (xxxii), I suspect there is more significance than may first meet the eye in a certain pair of letter-writing scenes.  While I originally read the first simply as comic relief, I began to think about it more seriously when I encountered the second.  The first scene, of course, is the one in which Rebecca dictates to Rawdon Crawley a letter addressed to Miss Crawley, and punctuated with moments of humor such as this: “‘You old booby,’ Rebecca said, pinching his ear…‘beseech is not spelt with an a, and earliest is’” (312-13).  This scene operates on several levels, working well both as comedy and as an illustration of the personalities of Becky and Rawdon, but perhaps more significantly as an instance where Thackeray allows one of his characters narratorial power—where he gives one of his “puppets” the marionette strings.  We see the strength of Becky’s willfulness and agency here, where she takes the power of words away from her husband and inserts herself into a text (the letter). Rawdon, who is supposed to be writing the letter, can thus only claim credit for being the mechanical means of its creation—something Miss Crawley recognizes immediately because Rebecca’s influence is too strong: “‘Don’t you see, you goose…that Rawdon never wrote a word of it. …It is that little serpent of a governess that rules him’” (313).

This scene gains a further meaning, I believe, when compared with the scene in which Sir Pitt Crawley dictates a letter to his wife, informing Rawdon and Becky of the Sir Pitt Crawley Sr.’s death.  The former Lady Jane Southdown, we must remember, has a mother who “ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her” (416).  Consequently, this dictation becomes a battle of wills between Lady Southdown and Sir Pitt, both commanding the obedience of Lady Jane in what to write in the letter, with Sir Pitt ultimately emerging successful. Fortunate Lady Jane, it turns out, no longer has to take the ideas her mamma “ordered” for her, since she has a husband who can dictate them to her: “‘[H]ow wise and good, and what a genius my husband is!’” (518). Compare this with Rawdon’s submission to Becky’s dictation: “So he altered these words, bowing to the superior knowledge of his little Missis” (313). And in contrast with Lady Jane, who received her ideas read-made from “‘wiser heads than hers’” (424), Becky “generally succeeded in making her husband share all her opinions” (311-12).

Perhaps this comparison would not be particularly fruitful if its only observation were that Becky takes an active role, even over the men in her life, whereas the passive Lady Jane is characterized as too weak to even form her own opinions on things.  I propose that these two complementary scenes be read as part of Thackeray’s larger commentary on intelligence in women.  Becky is repeatedly called clever, brilliant, full of wit, and she admits to herself, “‘I have passed beyond it [her poor origins], because I have brains…and almost all the rest of the world are fools’” (536)—and having seen enough of Lady Jane’s passivity and secondhand opinions, I am inclined to believe her.  But even Amelia, who is called more than once our heroine, “took her opinions from those people who surrounded her, such fidelity being much too humble-minded to think for itself” (324).  The comparison of the letter-writing scenes, paired with what we know of Thackeray as a narrator of his characters, highlights a particular difficulty in defining his view of women with or without intelligence: what does he think of them?

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

Feminism in Vanity Fair

The issue of femininity is particularly interesting in the novel. In contrast to Amelia’s “tender-hearted” nature, Becky’s womanhood is practically denied and she is almost reminiscent of a Lady MacBeth figure: “Unsex me!” The narrator states:

She had never mingled in the society of women: her father, reprobate as he was, was a man of talent; his conversation was a thousand times more agreeable to her than the talk of such of her own sex as she now encountered—the pompous inanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good humour of her sister, the silly cackle and scandal of the elder girls and the frigid correctness of the governess equally annoyed her—and she had no soft maternal heart, this unlucky girl, otherwise the prattle and talk of the younger children with whose care she was chiefly intrusted, might have soothed and interested her: but she lived among them two years and not one was sorry that she went away (14).

Thackeray seems to endorse the necessity of the maternal bond for a young woman’s development while simultaneously dismissing female society. Without a mother, Becky must pursue marriage, “husband-hunting” (19). She is further characterized as a “viper” with “demoniacal laughter” (15). One recalls the vampire imagery of the New Woman in Dracula. Later in the novel, we see the lack of Becky’s maternal instinct in the coldness she displays towards her own child. This again goes against Victorian convention: “… women are commonly not satisfied until they have husbands and children on whom they may centre affections….” (32). Becky presents a threat to the stereotypical gender norm of the “angel in the house”. She is much different from the traditional woman we have seen: Mina Harker, even Jane Eyre. In a way, the narrator seems to subvert her gender where she appears more fittingly masculine. The power dynamic shifts. This is evident in the portrayal of Joseph Sedley as a foil to Becky with his timidity: “He was as vain as a girl: and perhaps his extreme shyness was one of the results of his extreme vanity” (22). Even his father calls him “vain, selfish, lazy, and effeminate” (52). Thackeray appears to present a gender reversal of the norm in Becky and Joseph. Becky Sharp symbolizes the complexity of shifting notions of gender in the Victorian period.

Hot or Not List: The Vanity of George Osbourne and Joseph Sedley

To examine some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards vanity as evidenced by the descriptions and dialogues used in Vanity Fair, I would like to contrast the characters of Joseph Sedley and George Osbourne.

Joseph is in the unfortunate position of being “superabundant[ly] fat” (20) and “as vain as a girl” (21). Chapter Three begins with an opulent description of him: “A very stout, puffy man in buckskins and Hessian boots, with several immense neckcloths that rose almost to his nose, with a red-striped waistcoat and an apple-green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown-pieces was reading the paper by the fire…” (16). Joseph’s vanity stems more from a desire to look good than from the confidence of already looking good, and because he is so fond of eating and sleeping, he relies more on accessories than on physical fitness to improve his appearance. The extent of his success is questionable, as substantiated by the distinction made by Thackeray: “He never was well dressed, but he took the hugest pains to adorn his big person, and passed many hours daily in that occupation” (20). The fact that Joseph is shy and awkward in reacting to compliments shows his awareness of the fact that his appearance is not genuinely pleasing. Shortly after Rebecca, in her endeavors to seduce him, loudly whispers to Amelia that Joseph is handsome, the latter pokes at the fire to have something to engage himself with, then pulls the bell-rope and insists that he must hasten away to an appointment. Had he been fully convinced of his looks, he possibly may have not been flustered by such statements or even the presence of his sister. Joseph’s being frightened of any lady beyond measure (20) gives a general idea of his interactions with women, while the line, “Encountering the eye of Miss Sharp, he stopped all of a sudden, as if he had been shot” (17) is particularly effective in conveying the image of Joseph being rendered paralyzed or frozen with nervousness by someone who is a potential love interest. In any case, it is clear that the opposite sex makes Joseph uncomfortable, and it is safe to assume that his vanity is largely the source of his anxiety. Thackeray’s characterization of Joseph may be indicative of the idea that when persons have little to work with in terms of natural beauty or true physical manifestations of society’s ideals, (for example slimness), other efforts to look aesthetically pleasing are at best futile and at worst ridiculous.

George Osbourne is shown to be handsome through his own eyes as well as those of other characters in the novel. Dobbin thinks Amelia “worthy even of the brilliant George Osbourne” (51) and George says of Dobbin, “There’s not a finer fellow in the service, nor a better officer, though he is not an Adonis, certainly,” (47) while catching his own reflection in the mirror and simultaneously seeing Rebecca’s fixed gaze upon him. Amelia is also certainly smitten by his “beautiful black, curling, shining whiskers”; she does not believe that anywhere in the world there was ever “such a face or such a hero” (47). We come to the overall approximation that Thackeray feels it more admissible for George to have high opinions of himself, for he is constantly deluged with some form of admiration or another from people surrounding him, whether direct or indirect. We see a glimpse of George’s fashion sense when he buys a pin for himself, using the money he had borrowed from Dobbin to get a present for Amelia. The selfishness of such an act aside, this very stripped-down example is in direct contrast to Joseph’s tendency to go overboard with adornments. With the simplicity of the pin as an accessory, Thackeray shows that George needs only a minor embellishment to draw out the comeliness that he naturally has.

The “Novel Without a Hero” Has a Heroine without a Prayer

At least for the first half of the book, Rebecca seems to be anti-prayer. For over half the novel, she never appears praying; on the contrary, the narrator suggests that she disdains prayer. First, we see Rebecca feeling constricted by the imposition of prayer under Mrs. Pinkerton’s regime: “The rigid formality of the place suffocated her: the prayers and the meals…oppressed her almost beyond endurance.” Then for the remainder of the first half of the book, she never genuinely prays.

This absence might not be such a big deal, except that she seems to stand alone in this, especially as a woman. We see people praying before meals, we hear the church bells summoning people to pray, and we notice all the servants gathering to pray. Mrs. Major O’Dowd reads her uncle’s sermons and prays from her prayer book as she brews a cup of joe for her hubby in the morning. The narrator repeatedly defines women as pray-ers. While the men fight, the women pray. While the men shed their blood, the women shed their tears as they weep in supplication.

If Thackeray privileged praying, then Amelia would be the heroine. We know she prays for God to strengthen the men, for George to come back to her, and for him to be safe. The narrator comments about her: “How long had that poor girl been on her knees! What hours of speechless prayer and bitter prostration had she passed there!” Rather than being lauded as the model woman for her prayer practices, Amelia is regarded as weak and ineffectual. Soon after she prays “Our Father” on the couch with George, he leaves her. All she can do is try to protect the holy space from Rebecca’s touch, which would ruin the memory for her. At the end of chapter 32, we see her prayers going unanswered: “Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” Earlier in the book, the narrator (who, let’s be honest, usually doesn’t hesitate to share details), refuses to share what Amelia prays, saying that her prayers “are secrets, and out of the domain of Vanity Fair, in which our story lies.”

Becky is set apart from Amelia and the other women in many ways, one of which is her avoidance of prayer. And as she is set apart, the narrator lauds her as the heroine of the novel. The illustration accompanying the narrator’s praise for her independence depicts her sleeping soundly after her husband leaves. She doesn’t need anything. She gathers her things together and doesn’t ask for help from a higher power. And she’s praised for it.

In “Thackeray and Religion: The Evidence of Henry Esmond,” John Peck notes that few critics have closely examined Thackeray’s religion, but that the author’s skepticism is evident in his works. (Not only was Thackeray a skeptic, but he also apparently abhorred religious tracts…don’t tell Charles Reade). Perhaps this skepticism prompted him to set apart as the heroine the one who sees no need for prayer.

A Tale of Two Governesses

“‘Do you suppose I have no feeling of self-respect, because I am poor and friendless, and because rich people have none? Do you think, because I am a governess, I have not as much sense, and feeling, and good breeding as you gentlefolks in Hampshire?’” (162-163). When I came across these words spoken by Miss Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair, I heard an echo in my mind of similar words from another governess with whom we have recently become familiar; I refer, of course, to none other than Jane Eyre.  Jane’s passionate speech towards Rochester in the famous garden scene where he tells her first that she must find new employment, and mere pages later, proposes marriage to her, is strangely similar to the above words that Becky Sharp directs at Rawdon Crawley.  “‘Do you think,’” Jane says with fervor, “‘that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’” (361). Yes, how similar their words are, these two governesses – and yet, how different the effect produced by them! When Jane addresses Rochester, I feel the depth of her cry, and cry out along with her; when I read Becky’s retort, I am far more inclined to respond, “Yes, Miss Sharp; your sense, feeling, and good breeding are precisely the qualities I doubt you to have, given my present acquaintance with your character.”  Why is there such a difference in what is behind the words of these two women?

I believe that the reason for this difference can be found by comparing the author’s preface to each of the novels in question.  Charlotte Brontë advises certain negative critics of Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion….To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” (12).  Thackeray also establishes a certain connection between morality and his novel: “Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place, certainly…Some people consider Fairs immoral altogether” (xxxi-xxxii). However, while Brontë makes it clear that her business in Jane Eyre is the unmasking of the hypocrite who parades as the virtuous man, Thackeray emphasizes the staged, showy, mask-like quality of Vanity Fair, saying: “But persons who think otherwise…may perhaps like to step in for half an hour and look at the performances. There are scenes of all sorts…the whole accompanied by appropriate scenery and brilliantly illuminated with the Author’s own candles” (xxxii).  Indeed, “performer” and “performance” are words Thackeray uses frequently in connection with Rebecca Sharp (9, 15, 42, 74, 165), along with multiple references to her mother’s career as a stage performer and other words that suggest Becky is merely playing a part.  He also often uses the pair of contrasts “artful”/”artless” when talking about the behavior of many of the women in the novel.

The theatrical, staged quality Thackeray succeeds in giving his work and his own narrative voice is perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the story.  However, this is also why Becky Sharp fails to be accessible and relatable, as Jane Eyre without a doubt is: Vanity Fair is the height of satire.  But because of this, we cannot trust the “Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) who readily admits that his characters are “puppets” (xxxii).  We cannot sympathize with them, any more than we can be sure of the true face of someone who is masked for a performance on the stage.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

“That Creature” – The Unappreciated Heroine of Vanity Fair

As the subtitle of Vanity Fair is “A Novel Without a Hero,” I found myself waiting for the scene in which the narrator would reveal Amelia Sedley’s character flaw.  He wasted no time in doing so with regard to Rebecca Sharp, who does not hesitate to declare regarding Chiskick, “I hate the whole house … I wish it were in the bottom of the Thames, I do; and if Miss Pinkerton were there, I wouldn’t pick her out, that I wouldn’t.  Oh, how I should like to see her floating in the water yonder, turban and all, with her train streaming after her, and her nose like the beak of a wherry.”  (Well, Miss Sharp.  I think I understand why Miss Pinkerton disdained to give you “the high honor of the Dixonary.”)  In contrast to this disturbing introduction to Rebecca, the narrator writes of Amelia that she is “fully worthy of the praises bestowed by” Miss Pinkerton and has “many [additional] charming qualities.”   He even tells us that she is “a dear little creature” and that it is “a great mercy … that we are to have for a constant companion, so guileless and good-natured a person.”  Does this not sound like a candidate for the role of heroine?  And yet the narrator’s very next words reject the idea: “As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her.”  My question is, why not?  Why can’t Amelia be the heroine of Vanity Fair?

 
After reading two-thirds of the novel, I am convinced that it is not because Amelia possesses some inner villainy yet to be revealed.  I am more inclined to suggest that the reason is simply that she is dull.  The Miss Osbornes represent the consistent review of Amelia among the members of her own sex when they “ask each other with increased wonder, ‘What could George find in that creature?’”  Amelia does not have what it takes to thrive in the world of Vanity Fair.  Where others are disloyal, she is faithful.  Where they are designing and corrupt, she is artless and honest.  Others manipulate emotions for their own gain.  The emotions Amelia expresses are sincere.  The world of Vanity Fair doesn’t know what to do with her.  Women like Mrs. Bute Crawley and Rebecca take the world by storm.  They exercise their agency and endeavor to get what they want by their own less-than admirable efforts.  Amelia, in contrast, does not spring headlong into the fray.

 
In the context of a satirical novel, however, it is worth asking whether or not the book’s subtitle is to be accepted.  Is Vanity Fair really a novel without a heroine or hero?   I think there is reason to believe that it might actually have both: Amelia and William Dobbin, respectively.  Dobbin is Amelia’s male parallel.  He is honest, loyal, passive, and under-appreciated, as she is.  These two are not the exciting heros that the world of Vanity Fair is looking for.  They do not thrive on the empty pursuits and accolades of their peers.  In a novel that so criticizes the society it describes, the under-appreciation of Amelia and Dobbin among their peers actually functions as testimony of their heroic stand.  They are heros precisely because they do not respond to the beck and call of and receive praise from the vain world in which they live.

 

Works Cited

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. projectgutenberg.org. The Project Gutenberg, 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Complex Critiques: What Do We Do with Miss Swartz?

Thackeray clearly intends Vanity Fair to be a satirical social critique. His prologue “Before the Curtain” explicitly reveals as much, the characters introduced in the forms of puppets, dolls, and figures and the whole affair—rather fair—as a performance. Then throughout the novel, the characters cover a broad spectrum of stereotypical roles. In Miss Pinkerton we have the strict but ironically unintelligent finishing school mistress who overvalues social status and affluence, and in Mr. Sambo we have a caricature of the affable black servant. Amelia is Patmore’s unassuming, ever-loving Angel in the House, and Jos Sedley is a shallow and overindulgent dandy only concerned about himself.

As we progress through the novel, the narrator is ever-present, drawing attention to himself (I find it unlikely the narrator is female) and his omniscience in order to moralize and pass judgment on these characters. Their extreme characteristics seem to allow for easy critique. However closer examination reveals inconsistencies in descriptions that suggest these critiques are more complex than they first appear.

One particularly complex depiction is that of Miss Swartz. She is clearly “other,” specifically an ethnic other. When we first meet her, it is at Miss Pinkerton’s school. She is described as the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” (7) and upon Amelia’s (and Becky’s) departure, is inconsolable in a “passion of tears” (7) and “hysterical yoops” (10). These descriptions persist into the second appearance of the heiress as a potential suitor for George Osborne.  Nearly every time Miss Swartz is spoken of some reference to her “West Indie” appearance is made. George is the worst, his reaction to the “Belle Sauvage” (245), “Black Princess” (246), or “mahogany charmer” (250) as he refers to her is particularly distasteful. When he sees her decked out in her jewels and finery, he describes her as “elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day” (252). He pokes fun at her appearance, commenting on the “white feathers in her hair—I mean in her wool” (246).

Now to a certain extent, as with the other over-the-top descriptions of characters, the intention is criticism, and in this case it is for George.  Following one of George’s descriptions of Miss Swartz, the narrator says he is “rattling away as no other man in the world surely could” (246). The reader is meant to judge George for his close-mindedness, and yet at several points we see the narrator represent Miss Swartz in many of the same ways, referring to her as a “dark paragon” (246) and a “dark object of conspiracy” (251). He recalls her “very warm and impetuous nature” and connects it to her origins, saying she “responded to their affection with quite a tropical ardour” (251). Our understanding of how to view Miss Swartz and what exactly is being critiqued is thus complicated.

The reading is even more complicated by the positive characteristics we’re given of Miss Schartz; a vast majority originates in her wealth. She is an “object of vast respect” to the Osborne family because of her inheritance.  George’s sisters and father approve of their match because the former can imagine all the balls and Court presentations and the latter the ennobling of the family’s name. They are willing to overlook her foreignness because of the riches she has to offer. In contrast, they shun Amelia because having lost her family’s wealth, she is no longer a fit match for George. After discovering that George has defied him and married Amelia anyway, Mr. Osborne exclaims that he is “fly[ing] in the face of duty and fortune” (284). Of course the narrator explicitly criticizes this way of thinking, quipping, “People in Vanity Fair fasten on to rich folks quite naturally” (248), followed by a tangential paragraph of discussion.

In the end we are left with a conflicting depiction of Miss Swartz. She is the ethnic other, and yet Amelia is the classed other. Which was more threatening to the Victorians? Which is Thackeray and/or the narrator critiquing or mocking? Where might Thackeray’s own biases be creeping in? Miss Swartz represents just one of the many complicated social critiques that Thackeray makes throughout Vanity Fair, critiques that appear to have many layers, the satire making them all the more difficult to unfold.

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Austin Powers and the Narrator of Vanity Fair

You are likely thinking “finally!” Or perhaps “what?!?” Either way (and I am pretty sure there are only two possible reactions to my title), watch this now and by the end of my post, everything will be illuminated.

Casting our male and female gazes upon the semester, it is notable that the narrator of Vanity Fair is unlike the other narrators that we have read thus far. Having said this, he (I say he because Thackeray does) does share some superficial qualities with these other narrators, yet he exhibits vastly greater artistry. The narrator of Vanity Fair is quite conspicuous, as is the narrator of Mary Barton, yet the narrator of Vanity Fair is much more dexterous when speaking directly to the reader, whereas the narrator of Mary Barton is startlingly abrupt. Moreover, the narrator of Vanity Fair has a moral aim in mind, as does the narrator of It Is Never Too Late To Mend. However, the methods of the two narrators could not be more different. William Thackeray’s narrator utilizes satire and is incredibly successful, while Charles Reade’s narrator preaches at the reader and therefore fails to gain the sympathy of the reader.

Thackeray is successful with his satire in large part through his chameleon-like narrator, whose voice guides and orders the construction of the narrative at one point, permits the freedom for subversion within that structure at another, and cleverly and humorously mirrors what is happening in the narrative at the next. An example of this is observed when the narrator is foregrounding for the readers Dobbin’s temperament in the wake of George and Amelia’s honeymoon, “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer, who know, at once, how credulous we are, and how sceptical [sic], how soft and how obstinate, how firm for others and how diffident about ourselves” (223). The narrator is here acknowledging his nimbleness and fluctuating voice.

Through his nimble voice, the narrator of Vanity Fair accomplishes many things: for instance, a critique of the aristocracy, a moral appeal to the middle class, and a disparaging of jingoism (65, 91, 326). But a central task of the narrator is a reconsideration of genre. The novel’s narrator most clearly depicts this at the end of chapter eight when he states, “while the moralist who is holding forth on the cover, (an accurate portrait of your humble servant) professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery, in which his congregation is arrayed” (83). Here the narrator unmasks his aim by taking the title of moralist. Yet this moralist is wearing the costume of a clown (“long-eared livery”), not the “gown” or “bands” of the priest, the garb which Reade’s above mentioned narrator wears. Furthermore, this clown costume is the same that “his congregation is arrayed” in. It is in this clownish clothing, satire, that the moralist narrator may complete his work.

Yet, the narrator is not simply a moralist, as he discusses “a brother of the story-telling trade at Naples” who was worked into “a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing” (83). The narrator is here invoking and criticizing the Italian melodrama. He follows this story with a critique of French realism (84). Yet Thackeray does not criticize these genres in order to exclude them from his novel, but to include them. Thackeray critiques the generic elements of melodrama and realism by combining them in his moralist satire. Indeed, Thackeray’s blending of different genres alters the very definition of these genres. It adds complexity to the novel, where the Victorian novel corresponds in its generic gluttony to Joseph Sedley, the resident glutton of Vanity Fair. The novel both critiques the above genres and becomes them.