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.