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.

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