It’s no surprise that the very Victorian mother Mrs. Sheridan is not affected by the death of Mr. Scott and doesn’t want to venture down to the quarters of the lower-class. She is happy with the illusion of her garden party. However, Laura’s curiosity and sentimentality forbids her to think in such a way. She feels uneasy living in the safety of the garden party. Yet, when she is walking to the poor quarters, her mind is filled with “kisses, voices, and tinkling spoons”—thoughts of the garden party. Yet, she determinedly travels down into the poor underworld. At one point, the narrator curiously says, “One must go everywhere; one must see everything.” What does this mean?
The statement could just mirror the fate of Laura. She can’t remain in the world of garden parties and innocence forever. She must trek down into reality and see death. It is merely a rite of passage. However, the grammatical voice suggests that the narrator doesn’t only have Laura in mind. “One” seems to refer to society as a whole—society must go everywhere and see everything. By 1922 when “The Garden Party was written, the world had seen World War I and all of its atrocities. The statement could be a reminder that world cannot remain in balance forever, but society must progress through peace as well has turmoil. The statement could also be a call for exploration. In order to understand the world, you must step out of the illusions we’ve created and investigate every aspect of the world, searching for answers. This exploration is even hinted at during the closing of the story. Laura can only mutter the words, “Isn’t life—“, and isn’t able to complete the statement. Life, its mysteries, its joys, and the reason for suffering cannot be ascertained unless one goes everywhere and sees everything, searching for new ways to understand.
What are we to make of Becky Sharpe? It’s easy to have no sympathy for her since she is such a vicious manipulator. However, I can’t help but have a bit of a heavy heart when she is rejected by society—but this is only because I see her fallen nature as a result of the culture she lived in. She is depicted in more malevolent terms near the closing of the novel. Most tellingly, she is associated with Clytemnestra, a character of Greek mythology who murders her husband. Becky is associated with death (fitting, since her husbands seems to die off after a while)
However, Thackeray doesn’t paint her as a wholly malevolent character. The narrator writes, “She returned Emmy’s caresses and kind speeches with something like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine.” This complicates matters. Has Becky Sharpe undergone character development? Is she, despite all of this, turning into a human with a heart. There is more evidence for this: when Rawdon attacks Lord Steyne, the narrator says Becky “admired her husband, strong, brave, and victorious.” She finally has some sort of positive sentiment about her husband.
There is a qualifier in the narrator’s assessment of her affections—her emostions were “almost genuine”. The statement can then be read as merely another ploy to manipulate Amelia and Dobbin. At the end of the novel, Rebecca has a booth in Vanity Fair. She is a lady who “busies herself with works of piety”. However, this can be read as merely a façade—Amelia scurries off at the sight of Becky’s smile as if is malevolent.
A third possibility is that Becky may have had a glimmer of genuine emotions in her speech, but it was quickly smothered by her desire to regain her social position. This may be the true tragedy in Thackeray’s satire—the Fallen Woman never has a chance at redemption, even though she may seek it.
It’s always interesting when a writer breaks the fourth wall and creates little meta-moments. Of course, this happens frequently in Vanity Fair. What are we to make of it? It’s true that it may heighten the Realism. But it’s also true that it makes the work less realistic—life doesn’t have narrators and novelists guiding the way and shaping your moral opinions. Thackeray writes “The novelist, it has been said before, knows everything.” He knows everything which is happening in the story because he wrote it. There is a deeper implication that he knows everything morally, which is a bit disconcerting.
These meta-moments may also give the reader a chance to assess the novelist/narrator himself. We usually know little about the narrator if he isn’t part of the story-world. Vanity Fair’s meta-moments may serve to let the reader characterize the narrator and make judgments for himself. After the narrator says the novelist knows everything, says “My son,–I would say, were I blessed with a child—you may by deep inquiry and constant intercourse with him, learn how a man lives comfortably.” We learn that the narrator may be childless (which may have bearing on his assessment of mother/father/child relationships). We learn that he views fatherhood as a gift, supposing he is being sincere. This statement could also position the reader as the son and the narrator as the father. This reinforces the idea of the narrator as a moral guide.
Why does Henry Mayhew compare the sweeper-boy’s features to that of an Indian? Describing the young sweeper he interviews, Henry Mayhew writes, “his face, from a roundness of feature and the complexion of dirt, had an almost Indian look about it; the colour of his hands, too, was such that you could imagine he had been shelling walnuts.” What does Mayhew accomplish (or endeavor to accomplish) with this description? If Mayhew wrote the piece to bring awareness to the plight of poor children in London, the description seems almost glamorous—exotic. The Indian reference highlights the boys “otherness” and associates it with the “good-looking lad”. It gives the boy a sort of earthy quality. The “roundness” of his features takes away from the preconceived notion of poor boys as malnourished. This association with Indian features could be used to highlight the poor boy’s wildness—he is uncivilized, migrant, tumbling to make a living. Or, rather, his Indian features could be used to highlight his separation from middle-class culture. The boys have created a distinct subculture complete with slang, a particular argot, and hierarchy. Mayhew could be characterizing the boy’s life as something completely foreign with different ways of living and surviving. I suppose a more pertinent question is do these depictions do justice to the plight of the chimney-sweepers? Or does it further separate them from middle-class culture and decrease liability?