What Does Thackeray Actually Think About Class?

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?

“There was Nobody in the Church”: Corporate Worship in Vanity Fair

The titular quote comes from the scene where George and Amelia are getting married. Historically, in the church, the marriage liturgy is a sacrament that involves a communal affirmation; at a point in the Anglican liturgy, the congregation is asked to agree that they will support the marriage that they are witnessing and reinforce the couple’s promise to remain faithful to each other. Yet in Vanity Fair, the community is not present at the marriages. Thackeray writes, “there was nobody in the church” except Amelia’s close family, Dobbin, and the parson. And nobody in the community, save perhaps for Dobbin, acts to keep George and Amelia’s marriage together; rather, the community (in the shape of Becky and Rowden) seems bent on tearing their already tenuous union apart.

The problems of Vanity Fair, the novel seems to argue, occur at least partly because there is “nobody in the church.” Churches appear often, but they are hardly ever taken seriously. Thackeray is most often poking fun at the hypocrisy of the clergy, who themselves are not authentically “in the church.” He mocks the affected piety of Mr Bute, who reads a pointed sermon written by his wife and has no idea what it means. The church is a place that allows Rebecca to make eyes at various men during the sermon, and she jokingly presents the profession of clergymen as a last resort to resolve Rowden’s outstanding debts. Church doesn’t seem to be worth attending; nor is it a site of holy reverence. Instead of visiting the church, Mr. Osborne goes into his study to read the news; Sir Pitt sleeps in; and old Mrs. Crowley just doesn’t find it amusing. And Mrs. Sheepshanks, the Dissenter– who vocally claims to be the holiest of the bunch– switches parsons almost every week, just as she goes from quack doctor to quack doctor. All of these people, even those who claim holiness, are equally interested in the values of Vanity Fair; they are servants of Mammon rather than servants of God.

The one exception to the theme of “nobody in the church” occurs during the battle of Waterloo. Suddenly, when their husbands’, lovers’, and brothers’ lives are threatened, the women of the town respond with an outpouring of sudden piety: “Women rushed to the churches, and crowded the chapels, and knelt and prayed on the flags and steps.” For a moment, we catch a glimpse of the church universal, united through time by liturgical practice. Even though Amelia is too sick to pray in the church, Mrs. O’Dowd comes and reads her sermons, even though she doesn’t understand the “long and abstruse… Latin words.” As she reads the sermons, she has “Amelia and the wounded ensign for a congregation. The same service was read on that day in twenty thousand churches at the same hour; and millions of British men and women, on their knees, implored protection of the Father of all.” In this moment, it seems the practices of the church are uniting a nation in petition to God. The church universal is bigger than the corrupt and hypocritical parsons; and  an Irish woman reading sermons to a sick widow and wounded soldier can recreate a congregation.

Yet even in this seemingly transcendent moment, the narrator withdraws from this vision and calls into question the possibility of union with others. Those who are reading the sermons in Britain and praying for the soldiers “did not hear the noise which disturbed our little congregation at Brussels”; their prayers are less fervent and less affected by the immediate presence of war.

Indeed, the farther one gets from the war itself, the less personal it becomes. Mrs. Crowley reads the newspaper casualty list and battle accounts for entertainment, while Amelia reads to discover George’s fate. Even the church is not enough to unite a people in empathy or piety; experiences are personal and traumatic only to those directly affected by them.

If Vanity Fair’s society as a whole cannot experience unity through the practices of the church, then what about Christianity itself? Though Thackeray critiques the church, he withholds his criticism from Christianity as a whole. It seems his problem is not with the tenets of faith, but the people who pretend to practice them in order to gain personal profit. The only exception to this rule– the point where his satire perhaps touches on the faith itself– occurs during Amelia’s ineffective prayers: “Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.”

What is the point of Amelia’s prayers? They don’t avail much. George’s death, juxtaposed so closely with Amelia’s act of prayer, highlights the painful irony and the ineffectiveness of her pious practice. Is this a critique of prayer as a whole? Or is Thackeray perhaps doing something else?

I wonder, however, if the reader’s reaction here is not relief that God does not answer Amelia’s prayer and save George’s life. We, if not Amelia, can see how harmful and despicable George is; we see him fawning over Becky and breaking the marriage covenant. Death comes for George justly; he receives the consequences of his sins even as he thinks he will live forever. And we eventually learn to be grateful that George is dead, so that he didn’t run off with Becky and further break Amelia’s heart. Amelia can end up with Dobbin, and the novel can end happily for her despite her unanswered prayer.

Perhaps this passage of unanswered prayer exists to highlight the overall providence of the novel. Even at the point where Amelia’s prayers are left unanswered, the author-god seems to be working everything out for her good. She must suffer to get there, but she ends up at a place that’s worth getting to.

If there is “nobody at the church” in Vanity Fair, does the novel itself act as a kind of church for the churchless? It seems that Vanity Fair is teaching us how to read not only the novel, but also our own lives, just as a sermon often uses a story or parable to illustrate truth. Do we enter to learn from the folly of others, and exit with the motivation to avoid such folly in our own lives? If Amelia’s prayers are unanswered because she doesn’t know what’s best for herself, Thackeray’s novel may perform a kind of theodicy, answering the problem of evil with a notion of ultimate providence. Perhaps this is the perspective from which the novel means us to read the “little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history.”

Can we see the “spot” beneath the ink? Vanity Fair as Palimpsest

The readers are often referred to as “brother wearers of motley” – fools listening to another fool’s story (185). Yet, as we have seen in Shakespeare and other weavers of tales, the fool is often the font of knowledge and the voice of reason, and while the narrator perceives of his story through the lens of satire, many of his observations hold weight. He mentions that his aim is to show a side of the Fair that is rarely seen, the private realm. The narrator aims “to walk with you [the reader, the fellow fool] through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there” (185). In his desire to examine “the shops,” could there be a multiplicity implied? And can we see the images of past stories through the lines of the fool’s tale?

Vanity Fair is many things – satire, realist, comedy, romance – but what about palimpsest?

The written word depicted in letters and journals becomes an important marker of how time changes perception in the novel. In the first two hundred pages of the novel, the narrator remarks on the changeling nature of letters over the years: “Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while!” (187) One meaning warps into another meaning as more information behind the text becomes unveiled.

One of the narrator’s more sincere comments brought out the idea of the novel as palimpsest: “The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else” (187). This is very clearly the definition of a palimpsest. Indeed, throughout the narrator’s tale, the reader is reminded that this is one of many stories in the Fair; there are more stalls that have their own stories, and this is the background of one of many stalls – such as the one we find Rebecca at the end of the novel (730). What is to say that the other layers of the Fair have not also been written and vanished so that this tale could be told. Instead of writing “on it to somebody else” it has been written on about somebody else.

This multiplicity comes out as the narrator compares the actions of his tale to those not present. This can be something as simple as referring to a “neighbor Jones” or a “neighbor Smith,” which obviously are standby names for anyone – inferring that these events have a universality (372). Yet there are more specific analogies to past characters, such as Lady Macbeth, that suggest that this story has been stacked upon other stories not mentioned: “Lady Macbeth would not quit Becky’s chamber until her cup of night-drink was emptied” (431). While this is not the only example of personification, this section exemplifies an interesting quality in the novel, the moments when characters become others. Even if only for a moment, Lady Southdown becomes Lady Macbeth. It begins with a simile: “looking more like Lady Macbeth than ever” (431). However, Lady Macbeth embodies Lady Southdown for a brief sentence as she “would not quit Becky’s chamber.”

These moments when the writing under the present text shows itself to the reader, begs the question: is this glimpse of the undertext an intentional ploy by the storyteller, or has the old story reared up to make itself known? In other words, was this analogy carefully selected from amongst other options, or was it inevitable? The repetition of the Fair, in all its versions, is unstoppable, and each character represents someone who has come before, whose story has all but evaporated from the page.

(I had to end this dramatically, yet I understand that Lady Macbeth’s story hasn’t disappeared, I mean it’s a play that has been written down, but you get where I’m going.)

Rack Punch, Napoleon, and the True Rewards of Virtue

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).

What, indeed.

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).

Readerly Vanitas

After reaching, at long last, the final page of the many pages of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, many readers might find the novel’s resolution (or lack thereof) to be a bit unfulfilling. After all, it seems reasonable to think that with more than eight hundred pages to work with Thackeray should have been able to tie things up pretty tidily. We might expect to be devastated by a crushingly tragic outcome or to be sated by a graciously comic reward of virtues (such as we can find them). And we do see a bit of both. But, on the whole, the ending feels rushed, following from some climactic (more anti-climactic) crisis and resolution for Amelia and none at all for Becky with whom we have spent a majority of our time.

We seem to have a pretty satisfactory wrapping up of things with the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia, and in several ways their union does curtail the tragic direction which the novel seemed to be heading for a while, by putting young George on the right track (or at least edging him off the wrong one) and by rescuing Amelia and Dobbin from their stupidity and “spooney”-ness respectively. But Rebecca remains in a decidedly ambiguous position socially, a somewhat obscure one financially, and a pretty dismal one morally (having profited from if not orchestrated the great Waterloo Sedley’s demise). Nothing has been resolved for Rebecca, and Thackeray undercuts even our resolution concerning Amelia and Dobbin, by hinting at the imperfections of their marital state on the final page! The very last thought we hear from Emmy, or from any of the novel’s characters, is her reflection on Dobbin’s fondness for their daughter: “Fonder than he is of me” (809). Clearly, Thackeray does not intend to let marriage stand as a shining signifier of the long-sought happy ending.

In short, the novel does not seem to end so much as it does simply stop. As such, we might pause to consider whether this sense of some incompleteness, even arbitrariness, is a failure in Thackeray’s masterpiece or an essential part of his novel’s structure.

It might be particularly useful to ponder this question in light of D.A. Miller’s “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller considers the difficulty which every novelist faces in ending her novel which arises from the non-narratable happy ending. Miller argues that because the movement of a novel arises necessarily from conflict, trouble, or problems of some kind the happy ending cannot be narrated in the same way as the preceding plot. In fact, the novelist must be careful not to attend to her happy ending too closely or its imperfections will inevitably be disclosed, since any presentation of life requires the implicit recognition that life is a process of change and the reality of change reminds us that happiness can go as quickly as it came. Thus, a novelist can only really resolve her story by a sort of sleight of hand, defining the happiness against the conflict which came before while distracting the reader from the many perfectly apparent ways in which the happy ending could be, or already is, problematized.

However, Miller’s “problem of closure” is not a problem for Thackeray at all. If we consider the stated context of the novel along with Thackeray’s narrator’s final words it becomes apparent that the lack of resolution in his novel is no accident but rather an essential part of the novel’s plan. After describing Becky’s rather paltry and unstable success and problematizing Amelia’s marriage by noting her jealousy of her own daughter, Thackeray concludes his novel by reminding us once again that what we have been observing all along is merely the foolish play of Vanity Fair:

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out. (809).

Here, Thackeray recognizes with Miller the impossibility of really resolving a novel. There is no ending which can really bring full satisfaction. Or, at least, there is no such ending in Vanity Fair and thus, correspondingly, in Vanity Fair. The very meaning of “vanity” includes the inability to provide ultimate satisfaction or meaning. Thackeray has shown his characters in quest of satisfaction for eight hundred pages, and, while his ending is by no means tragic, it could not be called comic either. Amelia and Becky are still in pursuit of their happy ending, and the readers are shown that that pursuit will likely continue forever uncompleted.

Thackeray not only explicitly denies his readers a happy ending to his story but actually denies them a happy ending in their own lives as well! The narrator’s rhetorical questions clearly imply that it is not only Becky and Amelia who cannot achieve finally satisfying desires but also each of us reading this novel or watching this “play.” We, as readers, might all along have been waiting for, perhaps expecting, satisfaction of our readerly expectations, and Thackeray achieves his ends by purposely flouting those hopes. We have been led to identify, sometimes uncomfortably, with the characters throughout the novel, and now we identify with them in their experience of that nagging feeling that something is still missing.

And if a frustrated reader were to splutter out that, after all that time and effort spent, he felt as if he’d gotten nowhere, we can imagine that Thackeray might well smirk and satirically query, “Do you mean, perhaps, it was all in vain?”

Duped!

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!

 

Works Cited

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

Show me the money!

Last week, we discussed Becky’s claim that she could be a good woman if she had 5,000 pounds a year. This notion of morality seems somewhat Marxist, affirming the materialistic idea that action is bound with economics, or simply relative and circumstantial. Thackeray continues to question the concept of morality in a superficial and vain world. The novel does not endorse Becky’s claim, but exposes her utter selfishness which is at the root of her abuse of money.

Becky’s pursuit of fortune constantly tarnishes her integrity. Becky price gouges her carriage and horses to Jos in his panic-stricken state in the midst of the war: “Rebecca measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos’s eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back” (320). Becky and Rawdon continue in their toxic irresponsibility to gamble and live on credit. Becky and Rawdon’s abuse of money again shapes their morality as they effectively bankrupt Briggs and Raggles, “….and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison; yet someone must pay even for gentleman who live for nothing a-year….” (372). Becky’s selfishness pervades her environment. Her love for money seems to be greater than the love she has for her own son. He only becomes useful to her at the end of the novel when he financially supports her. Her adulterous and utilitarian relationship with the rich Lord Steyne reveals her lack of dignity. In the midst of Mr. Sedley’s death, Osborne tells George:  “You see….what comes of merit and industry, and judicious speculations, and that. Look at me and my baker’s account. Look at your poor grandfather, Sedley, and his failure. And yet he was a better man than I was, this day twenty years—a better man I should say, by ten thousand pound” (607). Thackeray seems to be making a clear statement on morality standing independent of one’s economic situation.

This notion becomes subverted as Becky likely kills Jos in order to live off his insurance policy and ironically live a life of charity: “She busies herself in works of piety. She goes to church, and never without a footman. Her name is in all the Charity Lists.” (689) In a sense, the novel comes around full circle, as she does “become a good woman”, but her charity is false and unconvincing. Thackeray insists that Becky’s lack of virtue does not arise out of her financial situation, but underlies her pursuit of wealth at the expense of those around her.

 

The Effects of Serving a Life Sentence in the Friend Zone

My title is a bit misleading/incomplete in that it implies that I will only discuss the effects of Amelia’s behavior on Dobbin’s emotions. Rather, I intend to point out several of Amelia’s faults in general, ones which, whether evident to Dobbin or not, helps readers (okay, me) to let go of the notion that Dobbin ought to forever stay as greatly in awe of Amelia as he ever was in the beginning.

I felt let down the first time I realized (many years ago when I read this novel) that Dobbin’s love for Amelia had cooled – not when he tells her that she wasn’t worth his love, but later, when Thackeray deems it more important to talk of Dobbin’s affection for little Janey and the History of the Punjaub book rather than make any more mention of his undying love for Amelia. Having read the book again at a different age, I now believe that this makes perfect sense. Both Amelia and Dobbin are shown to be people of gentle and moderate temperament, and devoid of malice; Thackeray’s narrator sometimes refers to Amelia as “our heroine” (108, 109, 462) and although this novel is meant to be “without a hero,” there is much agreement amongst scholars and readers that Dobbin comes closest to fitting the bill. It is fitting for the two of them to be together, and perhaps we expect a romantic end to the novel, given that Dobbin is finally getting something for which he has waited eighteen years. Why then, the drop of lemon juice right at the end to curdle the milk?

To answer this, let us start by examining the ways in which Amelia puts us off. First, Amelia is blind to Becky’s manipulations. She lets Becky have the chance to influence many important things in her life, including the feelings of her husband and her brother. She doesn’t catch onto the fact that George was desirous to have an affair with Becky, and she doesn’t do much to prevent Jos from being crazy about Becky either. Dobbin is onto Becky from day one, and years of being made to see Amelia’s stupidity cannot help to strengthen his respect for her.

The only aspect of life in which Amelia is worth anything is in her role as a mother, and even in that, she is very impractical. She dresses up Georgy in fine clothes when they don’t even have enough to eat. Amelia, harshly speaking, fails to some degree in all of her roles: as a wife (because she is boring and clueless), a sister (because she does not do enough to protect her brother), and a mother (because she is unwise with money, and not much of a disciplinarian). She even fails as a friend to Dobbin before becoming his wife, constantly taking advantage of his kindness despite knowing that he is in love with her and therefore being led on. Thackeray’s depiction of Amelia as a “tender little parasite” (724) is right. Throughout the novel, Amelia is always dependent on others, starting from her parents and going all the way through a long line of people to whom she clings for support: George, Mrs. O’Dowd, Dobbin and even her own son. With regard to Dobbin in particular, she is quite selfish and cruel: “She didn’t wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not infrequently levied in love” (800).

After eighteen years of this treatment, Dobbin’s disappointment is necessary whether or not that makes the novel less romantic; he cannot be expected to consistently feel the same for a woman who has time and again proven unworthy of his love, and unworthy of any other admiration. Dobbin is heroic, helpful, discreet, discerning and many other things (perhaps his biggest fault is to be in love with an imbecile like Amelia), and therefore his disenchantment with Amelia, not just when he says he will leave, but even after his marriage to her, is quite natural. Amelia is, as Becky says, for too long “a silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature” and that takes too much of a toll to be forgotten just because Dobbin gets his prize in the end. There is something embittering in having to wait too many years for something that continually loses its luster, through faults of its own, during the wait.

By the end of the novel, Dobbin seems to be freed from the shackles of an obsession much the same way that Amelia is freed from her undue attachment to George. What makes Dobbin’s transformation more admirable is the fact that he comes to the realization himself that Amelia isn’t worthy – he does not have to be shown some example of questionable conduct the way George’s infidelity has to be shoved under Amelia’s nose (literally) to get her to see his true colors. In addition to that, Dobbin is superior to Amelia in my eyes in that he articulates his indignation at being treated poorly, whereas Amelia still has nothing bad to say about George after finding out that the latter had planned to elope with Becky.

Hence, I am glad that Dobbin’s love for Amelia cools. I would not want him to treat her badly, and Thackeray does reassure us that Dobbin continues to be kind to her and gratify her wants, but the evaporation of that worship that was there at the beginning needed to happen, and I am rather satisfied that it did.

Generation VF

 

At the start of the second half of the novel, both female protagonists have given birth to male progeny. As per usual, Becky and Amelia’s approaches to this newest life development differ greatly. Amelia, still mourning the loss of that vain scoundrel, George Senior, smothers newborn Georgy, as only the suffocating, simpering gal can. The narrator tells us that the doting mother “nursed him, and dressed him, and lived on him” (349, italics mine). Oh that’s right, in case you missed the italics let me say again, the mother is actually subsisting off of her child (talk about an early-era pageant mom). Amelia’s dependence has been kicked up a notch since the loss of her neglectful husband and the narrator details how the “Widow and Mother” exists solely for her child, indeed he says (and I think we all agree the narrator is in fact, a ‘he’), “This child was her being” (349).

Becky on the other hand is less attached to her spawn, and by less attached I mean that she literally abandons the poor kid with a French maid who loses him at the beach for an entire day during which time he “very narrowly escaped DROWNING on Calais sands” (361, caps mine). Apparently children in the Victorian era are considered about as human as a pomeranian, if you lose track of them just say fiddlesticks and move on (seriously, nobody at the beach thought the imperiled urchin was worth investigating?!). Luckily for Junior, Colonel Crawley “rascal” as he was “had certain manly tendencies of affection in his heart” and treated his son “with a paternal softness” (372).

Though this set up could create very interesting discussion of gender roles, i.e. Becky shuns her gender’s biggest role by despising her child and Big Rawdon invertsparental stereotypes by acting the nurturing mother figure (while still retaining Victorian era ‘ashamed’ness about this sissified affection for his only son[389]), I bring up the two boys because I wonder how their respective childhoods impacts, if indeed it does, their maturation and adult lives.  Georgy is given up to curmudgeonly Grandpa Osbourne when his mother realizes she will not be able to provide for the little angel, and even though the old man lavishes “more luxuries and indulgences than had been awarded to his father” in an effort to make amends for his behavior towards the late George Sr., Georgy is a relatively well-adjusted young man and adult.  He also inherits the Osbourne fortune (549). Rawdon Jr. also makes good in life despite his mother’s neglect, and his father’s imprisonment, spending his weekends away from school haunting the grounds of Queen’s Crawley and  eventually inheriting the Crawley fortune after the death of everyone named Pitt (548).

Thackeray’s next generation is far more successful than their forerunners. However, it is interesting that this new generation seems to share similarities with the previous generation (in addition to the genetics), namely Rawdon Junior is deprived of his parents just like his mother was, but he turns out A-okay, George Junior loses his father just like George Senior lost Old Osbourne after he married Amelia, and he too has a much happier ending. Are we to understand then, that Thackeray believes that kids will inevitably turn out peachy keen deprived of one or both of their biological parents  for a good deal of their childhood as long as there is a steady stream of revenue providing them with ponies and ‘tips’ and at least one stand-in guardian at hand? Or maybe we are not to look to answers beyond the fact that male children inevitably fare better than female adolescents in Vanity Fair and Victorian England at large. It is encouraging after all the mischief of Becky Sharp and the infuriating impotence of Amelia that their children have a bright future, but I am not sure that I am convinced with the neatly tied bow that this new generation puts on Thackeray’s tale, are you?

“Nothing without a woman or a girl”

I personally don’t like to disagree with the godfather of soul, but Thackeray’s Vanity Fair seems to challenge one of his more famous maxims. (Or, at the very least, subvert it.) Vanity fair is most certainly not a man’s world: the men in it do little more than play games–whether with billiards, cards, or swords. They hold money, but are ruled by their wives (or, at the very least, their mistresses or desired mistresses) in its management.

Yet, despite that, the vast majority of the men are relatively happy. They play their games, have friends, and enjoy life. There are exceptions, to be sure (the Sir Pitts, Dobbin, and the Marquis), who will dealt with shortly, but for now it’s enough to note that the majority of the men spend their time pleasurably in pursuit of sport.They sit in their clubs and barracks telling the same stories and jokes for fifteen or thirty years, red-faced and “laugh[ing] quite easily” (355). When women gather, on the other hand, there are no laughs. At best, there are polite overtures of friendship which hide their territorial combats. At worst, they openly “cut” each other in public.  “Those who know a really good woman are aware that she is not in a hurry to forgive, and that the humiliation of an enemy is a triumph to her soul” (327).

This seemed odd to me, at first. In Victorian England, we are constantly reminded, women were expected to remain at home as the angel of the house. They were responsible for the moral fiber of the Empire and manage their affairs in order to support their menfolk’s efforts at politics or business. This is manifestly not the case in the Vanity Fair, and we have to wonder why?

I don’t believe that answer is merely Becky Sharp, but rather that Vanity Fair is simply not a  man’s world. Men can serve in politics–if as blessed as the Sir Pitts of the Marquis–or with distinction in the army, if blessed with a war. As a last resort, they have the colonies. But, in a time of peace, England has little need for its men. The nation of shopkeepers is a domestic nation, and women naturally reign supreme. The social sphere is theirs to rule; men have no place in Vanity Fair. Consider young George Osborne: he “grew up delicate, sensitive, imperious, woman-bred…He ruled all the rest of the little world around him” (320). Perhaps then the reason this novel has no hero is that all the men have gone.

This reading, of course, casts a fairly negative light on Thackeray’s understanding of gender. Are women incapable, in his mind, of creating non-competitive, mutually beneficial relationships?  Are men such as Col. Rawdon, ex-soldiers reduced to uselessness at peace time, to blame for the state of Vanity Fair? At times, Thackeray’s narrator seems to say, “No.” “What a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them if they do” (25). At others, of course, the narrator defends women, particularly Becky, arguing that they simply have to do what they do to survive and thrive in their society.

Because the narrator is so notoriously difficult to pin down, it is difficult to say definitively what is being satirized. I suspect such an effort is a Rorschach test, but would like to suggest that the most important question in reading is whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes. A Lockean scholar could read Vanity Fair as critical of a wicked society that has forced its men and women to pursue vanities, a Hobbit could argue that Vanity Fair is critical of wicked men and women that have created a shallow society. In both cases the result is negative, but where Thackeray places sin is significantly different and allows varying levels of sympathy for his characters.

Perfect Strangers

First off, I cannot link my title, so you should click here, be transported back in time, possibly to a time that you did not know existed (you youngsters), and then do it again here.

So I hate to play Captain Obvious, but our man Dobbin is the chief stranger in Vanity Fair. Dobbin is time and again neglected and ignored. He is even treated as the stranger by the narrator. The narrator often casts him out of England, as Dobbin spends much of the novel in India, or elsewhere with his regiment, away from the narrative. We furthermore see Dobbin as the stranger early in the narrative, when he is picked on at school because his father is a grocer, though Dobbin of course changes his circumstances by standing up to George Osborne’s bully (40-44). He is ignored by his friends when an adult, as is observed by the Vauxhall party episode early in the novel (54-58).

Most enduringly, Amelia treats Dobbin as a stranger by ignoring his love. It is Dobbin that finances Amelia’s departure from Brussels after George dies with no reciprocation. And Dobbin provides some financial support for Amelia and George Jr., again, without much acknowledgement. Moreover, Amelia treats Dobbin like a stranger when she hears that he is to be married. She enthusiastically congratulations him, which causes him to feel miserably downcast because, “She would not see that he loved her” and, after he had cared for her in Brussels, “‘forgot me before the door shut between us!’” (436). Here Dobbin, the stranger, is not seen, but is forgotten. And it only gets worse for Dobbin, as he soon learns that Amelia herself is to get married (438-439). Amelia further treats Dobbin as a stranger when Amelia defends her old friend Rebecca near the end of the novel. Dobbin sees Rebecca’s manipulation and eventually returns to his regiment because Amelia is again choosing someone else over him (669-670).

What? You disagree? Okay, I can see how Rebecca can be seen as a stranger. She is the child of poor artists and is orphaned. While her duplicity, whether with Jos, Rawdon, Lord Steyne, or Jos again, is abhorrent, she is portrayed in a sympathetic light, which seems to stem, at least in part, from her always outwardly playing the role of the insider, yet never quite permanently eluding her outsider designation. Moreover, an argument could be made for Amelia as a stranger, with her pecuniary state and her subsequent estrangement from George Jr. that results from her poverty as the primary example of her being a stranger (494-498).

So, perhaps there are many strangers in the novel. As a closing thought, what do you think about children as strangers in Vanity Fair? George Jr. is spoiled by his mother, which could be construed as a form of distancing and neglect in contrast with a way of knowing a child. Furthermore, George Jr. goes to live with his grandfather, away from his mother, for a period of time. Does this make him a stranger? Rawdon Jr. is spoiled by his father, but he eventually takes his governorship and moves away. Moreover, Rebecca completely ignores Rawdon Jr. his entire life, until she learns that he has inherited the baronetcy and therefore has money. He therefore is not known by his mother at all and only moderately more by his father. Does this make him a stranger?

Our Lovely, Undecipherable Narrator Strikes Again…And Again

What are we to do with this narrator? We’ve already spent some time discussing his (lack of) reliability, sarcasm, and inconsistency. He claims to know all, yet holds some information back. Sometimes we know what is written in the letter or on the note, and sometimes not. Sometimes we are led to believe that the narrator’s words reflect his own views, but often they (supposedly) do not.

Significant to this problem of the narrator is how Thackeray chooses to frame his novel, beginning with the prologue entitled “Before the Curtain.” He (either Thackeray, the narrator, or the Manager, or some combination of the lot, we cannot be sure) describes Vanity Fair as a show, with the characters of the novel first as actors with face paint and masks and then as puppets and dolls. The whole story is a performance we, as members of the audience alongside the Manager, are sitting down to watch.  This is problematic because throughout the novel the narrator continuously shifts roles, and thus determining Thackeray’s intentions becomes much more difficult.

As Andy brought up in discussion last week, periodically we see the narrator deigning to step down into the action of the novel in a manner of sorts. Andy suggested that it could be visualized as the Manager/narrator sitting next to you at the play and pausing the action to comment and bring you in on some of the inner-workings and issues at hand.  However in chapter 62, the narrator makes an unprecedented move and actually enters the story. He states, “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance,” referring to those main characters who were vacationing in Pumpernickel. He even attends the same play (of all things) as “our friends” as he refers to them (793). Besides the obvious contradiction of his assertion that his “history” (not tale or story) is true, we now must puzzle over what these paragraphs tell us about the narrator’s omniscience and role in the story.  Who is he, and why/when should we believe him?

Thackeray maintains the play construction all the way through the novel to the final page, ending: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (878). The illustration paired with words depicts two children beside a toy box. Various dolls are strewn about within and around it, and the inside of the lid reads “FINIS.” Rather than returning to the idea of the characters as painted and masked actors, Thackeray chooses to finish with the characters as dolls and puppets put away in a box for another time. The effect is a telling contrast between the triviality of the playthings and the penultimate lines: “AhI Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?” (878). The narrator has ended not simply mocking and criticizing the individual characters and their respective stereotypical roles, but rather the novel as a whole; all the decisions, worries, and experiences are worthless, the insignificant and frivolous stuff of child’s play.  He ends having negated all the supposed messages of the novel, leaving his audience to decipher Thackeray’s intentions.

In this final scene—if it can be called that since the story has already finished—the narrator is lifted back to his meta-narrator role completely outside the novel, so outside that it is he who is instructing the children who ostensibly have been pulling the strings of the character puppets and walking the legs of the dolls. This final layer of ingenious and elaborate obfuscation complicates the novel yet again, still leaving us with the question, what are we to do with the narrator?

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

“‘Pen Me A Pretty Little Letter'”

Remembering Thackeray’s designation of the narrator of Vanity Fair as “the Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) and of his cast of characters as “puppets” (xxxii), I suspect there is more significance than may first meet the eye in a certain pair of letter-writing scenes.  While I originally read the first simply as comic relief, I began to think about it more seriously when I encountered the second.  The first scene, of course, is the one in which Rebecca dictates to Rawdon Crawley a letter addressed to Miss Crawley, and punctuated with moments of humor such as this: “‘You old booby,’ Rebecca said, pinching his ear…‘beseech is not spelt with an a, and earliest is’” (312-13).  This scene operates on several levels, working well both as comedy and as an illustration of the personalities of Becky and Rawdon, but perhaps more significantly as an instance where Thackeray allows one of his characters narratorial power—where he gives one of his “puppets” the marionette strings.  We see the strength of Becky’s willfulness and agency here, where she takes the power of words away from her husband and inserts herself into a text (the letter). Rawdon, who is supposed to be writing the letter, can thus only claim credit for being the mechanical means of its creation—something Miss Crawley recognizes immediately because Rebecca’s influence is too strong: “‘Don’t you see, you goose…that Rawdon never wrote a word of it. …It is that little serpent of a governess that rules him’” (313).

This scene gains a further meaning, I believe, when compared with the scene in which Sir Pitt Crawley dictates a letter to his wife, informing Rawdon and Becky of the Sir Pitt Crawley Sr.’s death.  The former Lady Jane Southdown, we must remember, has a mother who “ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her” (416).  Consequently, this dictation becomes a battle of wills between Lady Southdown and Sir Pitt, both commanding the obedience of Lady Jane in what to write in the letter, with Sir Pitt ultimately emerging successful. Fortunate Lady Jane, it turns out, no longer has to take the ideas her mamma “ordered” for her, since she has a husband who can dictate them to her: “‘[H]ow wise and good, and what a genius my husband is!’” (518). Compare this with Rawdon’s submission to Becky’s dictation: “So he altered these words, bowing to the superior knowledge of his little Missis” (313). And in contrast with Lady Jane, who received her ideas read-made from “‘wiser heads than hers’” (424), Becky “generally succeeded in making her husband share all her opinions” (311-12).

Perhaps this comparison would not be particularly fruitful if its only observation were that Becky takes an active role, even over the men in her life, whereas the passive Lady Jane is characterized as too weak to even form her own opinions on things.  I propose that these two complementary scenes be read as part of Thackeray’s larger commentary on intelligence in women.  Becky is repeatedly called clever, brilliant, full of wit, and she admits to herself, “‘I have passed beyond it [her poor origins], because I have brains…and almost all the rest of the world are fools’” (536)—and having seen enough of Lady Jane’s passivity and secondhand opinions, I am inclined to believe her.  But even Amelia, who is called more than once our heroine, “took her opinions from those people who surrounded her, such fidelity being much too humble-minded to think for itself” (324).  The comparison of the letter-writing scenes, paired with what we know of Thackeray as a narrator of his characters, highlights a particular difficulty in defining his view of women with or without intelligence: what does he think of them?

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

Feminism in Vanity Fair

The issue of femininity is particularly interesting in the novel. In contrast to Amelia’s “tender-hearted” nature, Becky’s womanhood is practically denied and she is almost reminiscent of a Lady MacBeth figure: “Unsex me!” The narrator states:

She had never mingled in the society of women: her father, reprobate as he was, was a man of talent; his conversation was a thousand times more agreeable to her than the talk of such of her own sex as she now encountered—the pompous inanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good humour of her sister, the silly cackle and scandal of the elder girls and the frigid correctness of the governess equally annoyed her—and she had no soft maternal heart, this unlucky girl, otherwise the prattle and talk of the younger children with whose care she was chiefly intrusted, might have soothed and interested her: but she lived among them two years and not one was sorry that she went away (14).

Thackeray seems to endorse the necessity of the maternal bond for a young woman’s development while simultaneously dismissing female society. Without a mother, Becky must pursue marriage, “husband-hunting” (19). She is further characterized as a “viper” with “demoniacal laughter” (15). One recalls the vampire imagery of the New Woman in Dracula. Later in the novel, we see the lack of Becky’s maternal instinct in the coldness she displays towards her own child. This again goes against Victorian convention: “… women are commonly not satisfied until they have husbands and children on whom they may centre affections….” (32). Becky presents a threat to the stereotypical gender norm of the “angel in the house”. She is much different from the traditional woman we have seen: Mina Harker, even Jane Eyre. In a way, the narrator seems to subvert her gender where she appears more fittingly masculine. The power dynamic shifts. This is evident in the portrayal of Joseph Sedley as a foil to Becky with his timidity: “He was as vain as a girl: and perhaps his extreme shyness was one of the results of his extreme vanity” (22). Even his father calls him “vain, selfish, lazy, and effeminate” (52). Thackeray appears to present a gender reversal of the norm in Becky and Joseph. Becky Sharp symbolizes the complexity of shifting notions of gender in the Victorian period.

Hot or Not List: The Vanity of George Osbourne and Joseph Sedley

To examine some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards vanity as evidenced by the descriptions and dialogues used in Vanity Fair, I would like to contrast the characters of Joseph Sedley and George Osbourne.

Joseph is in the unfortunate position of being “superabundant[ly] fat” (20) and “as vain as a girl” (21). Chapter Three begins with an opulent description of him: “A very stout, puffy man in buckskins and Hessian boots, with several immense neckcloths that rose almost to his nose, with a red-striped waistcoat and an apple-green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown-pieces was reading the paper by the fire…” (16). Joseph’s vanity stems more from a desire to look good than from the confidence of already looking good, and because he is so fond of eating and sleeping, he relies more on accessories than on physical fitness to improve his appearance. The extent of his success is questionable, as substantiated by the distinction made by Thackeray: “He never was well dressed, but he took the hugest pains to adorn his big person, and passed many hours daily in that occupation” (20). The fact that Joseph is shy and awkward in reacting to compliments shows his awareness of the fact that his appearance is not genuinely pleasing. Shortly after Rebecca, in her endeavors to seduce him, loudly whispers to Amelia that Joseph is handsome, the latter pokes at the fire to have something to engage himself with, then pulls the bell-rope and insists that he must hasten away to an appointment. Had he been fully convinced of his looks, he possibly may have not been flustered by such statements or even the presence of his sister. Joseph’s being frightened of any lady beyond measure (20) gives a general idea of his interactions with women, while the line, “Encountering the eye of Miss Sharp, he stopped all of a sudden, as if he had been shot” (17) is particularly effective in conveying the image of Joseph being rendered paralyzed or frozen with nervousness by someone who is a potential love interest. In any case, it is clear that the opposite sex makes Joseph uncomfortable, and it is safe to assume that his vanity is largely the source of his anxiety. Thackeray’s characterization of Joseph may be indicative of the idea that when persons have little to work with in terms of natural beauty or true physical manifestations of society’s ideals, (for example slimness), other efforts to look aesthetically pleasing are at best futile and at worst ridiculous.

George Osbourne is shown to be handsome through his own eyes as well as those of other characters in the novel. Dobbin thinks Amelia “worthy even of the brilliant George Osbourne” (51) and George says of Dobbin, “There’s not a finer fellow in the service, nor a better officer, though he is not an Adonis, certainly,” (47) while catching his own reflection in the mirror and simultaneously seeing Rebecca’s fixed gaze upon him. Amelia is also certainly smitten by his “beautiful black, curling, shining whiskers”; she does not believe that anywhere in the world there was ever “such a face or such a hero” (47). We come to the overall approximation that Thackeray feels it more admissible for George to have high opinions of himself, for he is constantly deluged with some form of admiration or another from people surrounding him, whether direct or indirect. We see a glimpse of George’s fashion sense when he buys a pin for himself, using the money he had borrowed from Dobbin to get a present for Amelia. The selfishness of such an act aside, this very stripped-down example is in direct contrast to Joseph’s tendency to go overboard with adornments. With the simplicity of the pin as an accessory, Thackeray shows that George needs only a minor embellishment to draw out the comeliness that he naturally has.