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