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.

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