Rack punch is the worst.
The bowl of rack punch Jos consumes in Vanity Fair’s sixth chapter is, according to the narrator, “the cause of all this history” (64). Jos’s fateful bowl of alcoholic goodness prevents him from proposing to Becky, which allows Becky to marry Rawdon, which knocks her down from the pinnacle of the social mountain and alienates her from Amelia.
Or does it?
In the same chapter, the narrator also mentions that a “dear, tender mother” would have “managed the business in ten minutes” by extracting the “interesting avowal from the bashful lips of the young man” (61). Rack punch or no, Becky’s mother would have secured Jos’s proposal for Becky and radically changed course of Vanity Fair’s history.
But not so fast!
In Chapter 16 the narrator notes that if Rawdon Crawley had been with Becky at Miss Crawley’s house instead of at his club and joined his wife in begging the “old spinster’s” forgiveness, the couple would have been “forgiven in a twinkling” (178). Such a reconciliation would have no doubt given Becky her five thousand a year and prevented much of the harm the couple caused.
Again, in Chapter 24 we’re informed that if Dobbin had married Miss Osborne, George’s sister would have “declared herself as her brother’s friend and a reconciliation might have been effected between George and his angry father” (271). Mr. Osborne’s support would have no doubt saved Amelia much trouble and heartbreak after her husband’s death, perhaps even preventing her damaging mental breakdown.
Finally, four chapters later, the narrator explains that because Napoleon’s movements resulted in Mr. Sedley’s bankruptcy, the Corsican is the real author of the Vanity Fair’s history. For without Napoleon, the narrator asks, “What would have become of our story and all our friends?” (316).
Despite the narrator’s initial confidence in the significance of the rack punch, readers begin to sense by the novel’s midpoint that the real “cause” of Vanity Fair’s history is far from simple. The multitude of potential causes the text offers undercuts both the rack punch hypothesis and the narrator’s credibility as a competent judge of his own history. No one really knows which event caused what outcome or how the characters could have avoided all their troubles.
So, the question becomes, why? Why does Thackeray offer so many potential causes for the history of Vanity Fair? What work does this move perform within the novel and what does the author look to satirize outside it?
Sentimental novels like Pamela might have offered one potential target for Thackeray’s ridicule. These novels posit a clear cause/effect relationship: righteous living results in positive outcomes. As Pamela’s subtitle optimistically asserts, virtue is rewarded. Pamela draws a simple, straightforward line between the protagonist’s actions, the novel’s events, and Pamela’s future happiness.
As it does with so many other tropes, Vanity Fair cuts and twists this line between cause and effect, virtue and reward. Jos’s rack punch, Mrs. Sharp’s death, and Napoleon all get thrown together in a confused tangle without any clear way to determine how one character’s actions causes another character’s demise. The novel as a whole suggests the tenuous link between virtue and reward, and Amelia and Becky illustrate this principle most clearly. Amelia, who acts virtuously throughout much of the novel, is rewarded with heartbreak, sickness, and what appears to be a dissatisfying marriage. Becky, on the other hand, gets to live among a “very strong party of excellent people” in apparent happiness and prosperity (808). Amelia is not perfectly virtuous and Becky is not perfectly rewarded, but the old cause-and-effect Pamela posits seems to no longer work properly.
Perhaps none of this uncertainty should come as a surprise in a novel entitled Vanity Fair. The novel ends with “Vanitatus, Vanitatum,” after all. But I wonder if the breakdown the novel illustrates between cause and effect indicates a sense of uncertainty in nineteenth century society at large. Times, they were a’changin’, and Thackeray wasn’t the only person to wonder whether older, more stable models of the world and of morality were still viable. One novel cannot speak for an entire culture, but Thackeray’s success suggests that his critique of sentimental certainty resonated with readers. If “the world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face,” Thackeray seems to have shared with his readers a countenance of bemused confusion as he struggled to make sense of the world’s random sequence of cause and effect (17).