Early in Vanity Fair, the “incisive” and “liberal” Miss Crawley makes a comment about class that puts Becky Sharp in a positive light. Although Becky retains no social capital from her birth, Miss Crawley claims the young woman is better than those with class status: “‘What is birth, my dear?’ [Miss Crawley] would say to Rebecca—‘Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II.; look at poor Bute at the parsonage; is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you—they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler” (119). Taken at face value, Miss Crawley’s statement appears to be a trenchant critique of the British class system. Becky is more intelligent than Sir Pitt and “poor Bute” (though I cannot say the same about “poor dear Briggs”). Becky does seem to hold “better” internal qualities than the upper class people Miss Crawley compares her to. (Of course, Becky does not always use these qualities in the best way). There is one major problem, however, with this critique: it comes from Miss Crawley. The wealthy woman is clearly an object of ridicule in Vanity Fair, so why would Thackeray make her the mouthpiece of this class critique?
This passage illuminates one of the major tensions in the novel—how do we know when the novel actually critiques an idea, system, or character? At the same time, how do we know when Thackeray is playing with his readers? Can we trust this narrative voice? Vanity Fair satirizes most of the characters and various aspects of society, but does the narrative voice believe in anything? Why satirize if not to incite change?
The tension arises for me when I compare Miss Crawley’s class critique with a later statement by the narrator. When Becky begins to rise in society, the narrator soliloquizes on the idea of the “best” people in society: “Here, before long, Becky received not only ‘the best’ foreigners (as the phrase is in our noble and admirable society slang), but some of the best English people too. I don’t mean the virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but ‘the best’…” (588). While the narrator’s tone is far different from that of Miss Crawley, he, like the wealthy woman, questions the notion of “the best” in society. By using scare quotes, Thackeray shows that the idea of “the best” is empty. To be the best is to be made “the best”—there is nothing inherent that makes someone better than another. Is this not a similar critique as the liberal-minded Miss Crawley? Why would Thackeray’s narrator make the same point as a ridiculous character? Doesn’t that just undercut the trust the reader has in the narrator? At the same time, however, the second passage shows that Becky is no model of moral value. While it is difficult to know where the reader might want his readers to fall in the question of class, perhaps these passages show that Thackeray believed everyone of all classes was horrible.
The relationship between these two passages helps to show why the narrative voice in Vanity Fair is so slippery. In the end, though, it makes me wonder—does the narrator have anything of worth to say? Does Thackeray offer critiques just for the sake of critique? Or, is Thackeray trying to make some kind of point with his narrator? If Thackeray is using satire to create change, why undercut the narrator so much? Surely Thackeray isn’t trying to hold Becky up as a model of moral values and she isn’t “better” than any other character.
On the other hand, is Thackeray making a point about words and language itself? The Hebrew term heh’bel is translated as vanity but it also means “vapor” or “breath.” While I am not trying to suggest that Thackeray knew Hebrew (maybe he did), I do think this Hebrew word can offer some insight. Perhaps, by undercutting the narrator’s satirical voice, Thackeray is saying that our words, our language is all vanity, breath that escapes our mouths and dissipates, inciting no change or leaving no lasting effect. But on the other hand, maybe Thackeray is not saying that. Who knows?