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.

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