The “Novel Without a Hero” Has a Heroine without a Prayer

At least for the first half of the book, Rebecca seems to be anti-prayer. For over half the novel, she never appears praying; on the contrary, the narrator suggests that she disdains prayer. First, we see Rebecca feeling constricted by the imposition of prayer under Mrs. Pinkerton’s regime: “The rigid formality of the place suffocated her: the prayers and the meals…oppressed her almost beyond endurance.” Then for the remainder of the first half of the book, she never genuinely prays.

This absence might not be such a big deal, except that she seems to stand alone in this, especially as a woman. We see people praying before meals, we hear the church bells summoning people to pray, and we notice all the servants gathering to pray. Mrs. Major O’Dowd reads her uncle’s sermons and prays from her prayer book as she brews a cup of joe for her hubby in the morning. The narrator repeatedly defines women as pray-ers. While the men fight, the women pray. While the men shed their blood, the women shed their tears as they weep in supplication.

If Thackeray privileged praying, then Amelia would be the heroine. We know she prays for God to strengthen the men, for George to come back to her, and for him to be safe. The narrator comments about her: “How long had that poor girl been on her knees! What hours of speechless prayer and bitter prostration had she passed there!” Rather than being lauded as the model woman for her prayer practices, Amelia is regarded as weak and ineffectual. Soon after she prays “Our Father” on the couch with George, he leaves her. All she can do is try to protect the holy space from Rebecca’s touch, which would ruin the memory for her. At the end of chapter 32, we see her prayers going unanswered: “Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” Earlier in the book, the narrator (who, let’s be honest, usually doesn’t hesitate to share details), refuses to share what Amelia prays, saying that her prayers “are secrets, and out of the domain of Vanity Fair, in which our story lies.”

Becky is set apart from Amelia and the other women in many ways, one of which is her avoidance of prayer. And as she is set apart, the narrator lauds her as the heroine of the novel. The illustration accompanying the narrator’s praise for her independence depicts her sleeping soundly after her husband leaves. She doesn’t need anything. She gathers her things together and doesn’t ask for help from a higher power. And she’s praised for it.

In “Thackeray and Religion: The Evidence of Henry Esmond,” John Peck notes that few critics have closely examined Thackeray’s religion, but that the author’s skepticism is evident in his works. (Not only was Thackeray a skeptic, but he also apparently abhorred religious tracts…don’t tell Charles Reade). Perhaps this skepticism prompted him to set apart as the heroine the one who sees no need for prayer.

A Tale of Two Governesses

“‘Do you suppose I have no feeling of self-respect, because I am poor and friendless, and because rich people have none? Do you think, because I am a governess, I have not as much sense, and feeling, and good breeding as you gentlefolks in Hampshire?’” (162-163). When I came across these words spoken by Miss Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair, I heard an echo in my mind of similar words from another governess with whom we have recently become familiar; I refer, of course, to none other than Jane Eyre.  Jane’s passionate speech towards Rochester in the famous garden scene where he tells her first that she must find new employment, and mere pages later, proposes marriage to her, is strangely similar to the above words that Becky Sharp directs at Rawdon Crawley.  “‘Do you think,’” Jane says with fervor, “‘that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’” (361). Yes, how similar their words are, these two governesses – and yet, how different the effect produced by them! When Jane addresses Rochester, I feel the depth of her cry, and cry out along with her; when I read Becky’s retort, I am far more inclined to respond, “Yes, Miss Sharp; your sense, feeling, and good breeding are precisely the qualities I doubt you to have, given my present acquaintance with your character.”  Why is there such a difference in what is behind the words of these two women?

I believe that the reason for this difference can be found by comparing the author’s preface to each of the novels in question.  Charlotte Brontë advises certain negative critics of Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion….To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” (12).  Thackeray also establishes a certain connection between morality and his novel: “Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place, certainly…Some people consider Fairs immoral altogether” (xxxi-xxxii). However, while Brontë makes it clear that her business in Jane Eyre is the unmasking of the hypocrite who parades as the virtuous man, Thackeray emphasizes the staged, showy, mask-like quality of Vanity Fair, saying: “But persons who think otherwise…may perhaps like to step in for half an hour and look at the performances. There are scenes of all sorts…the whole accompanied by appropriate scenery and brilliantly illuminated with the Author’s own candles” (xxxii).  Indeed, “performer” and “performance” are words Thackeray uses frequently in connection with Rebecca Sharp (9, 15, 42, 74, 165), along with multiple references to her mother’s career as a stage performer and other words that suggest Becky is merely playing a part.  He also often uses the pair of contrasts “artful”/”artless” when talking about the behavior of many of the women in the novel.

The theatrical, staged quality Thackeray succeeds in giving his work and his own narrative voice is perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the story.  However, this is also why Becky Sharp fails to be accessible and relatable, as Jane Eyre without a doubt is: Vanity Fair is the height of satire.  But because of this, we cannot trust the “Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) who readily admits that his characters are “puppets” (xxxii).  We cannot sympathize with them, any more than we can be sure of the true face of someone who is masked for a performance on the stage.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

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

“That Creature” – The Unappreciated Heroine of Vanity Fair

As the subtitle of Vanity Fair is “A Novel Without a Hero,” I found myself waiting for the scene in which the narrator would reveal Amelia Sedley’s character flaw.  He wasted no time in doing so with regard to Rebecca Sharp, who does not hesitate to declare regarding Chiskick, “I hate the whole house … I wish it were in the bottom of the Thames, I do; and if Miss Pinkerton were there, I wouldn’t pick her out, that I wouldn’t.  Oh, how I should like to see her floating in the water yonder, turban and all, with her train streaming after her, and her nose like the beak of a wherry.”  (Well, Miss Sharp.  I think I understand why Miss Pinkerton disdained to give you “the high honor of the Dixonary.”)  In contrast to this disturbing introduction to Rebecca, the narrator writes of Amelia that she is “fully worthy of the praises bestowed by” Miss Pinkerton and has “many [additional] charming qualities.”   He even tells us that she is “a dear little creature” and that it is “a great mercy … that we are to have for a constant companion, so guileless and good-natured a person.”  Does this not sound like a candidate for the role of heroine?  And yet the narrator’s very next words reject the idea: “As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her.”  My question is, why not?  Why can’t Amelia be the heroine of Vanity Fair?

 
After reading two-thirds of the novel, I am convinced that it is not because Amelia possesses some inner villainy yet to be revealed.  I am more inclined to suggest that the reason is simply that she is dull.  The Miss Osbornes represent the consistent review of Amelia among the members of her own sex when they “ask each other with increased wonder, ‘What could George find in that creature?’”  Amelia does not have what it takes to thrive in the world of Vanity Fair.  Where others are disloyal, she is faithful.  Where they are designing and corrupt, she is artless and honest.  Others manipulate emotions for their own gain.  The emotions Amelia expresses are sincere.  The world of Vanity Fair doesn’t know what to do with her.  Women like Mrs. Bute Crawley and Rebecca take the world by storm.  They exercise their agency and endeavor to get what they want by their own less-than admirable efforts.  Amelia, in contrast, does not spring headlong into the fray.

 
In the context of a satirical novel, however, it is worth asking whether or not the book’s subtitle is to be accepted.  Is Vanity Fair really a novel without a heroine or hero?   I think there is reason to believe that it might actually have both: Amelia and William Dobbin, respectively.  Dobbin is Amelia’s male parallel.  He is honest, loyal, passive, and under-appreciated, as she is.  These two are not the exciting heros that the world of Vanity Fair is looking for.  They do not thrive on the empty pursuits and accolades of their peers.  In a novel that so criticizes the society it describes, the under-appreciation of Amelia and Dobbin among their peers actually functions as testimony of their heroic stand.  They are heros precisely because they do not respond to the beck and call of and receive praise from the vain world in which they live.

 

Works Cited

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

Complex Critiques: What Do We Do with Miss Swartz?

Thackeray clearly intends Vanity Fair to be a satirical social critique. His prologue “Before the Curtain” explicitly reveals as much, the characters introduced in the forms of puppets, dolls, and figures and the whole affair—rather fair—as a performance. Then throughout the novel, the characters cover a broad spectrum of stereotypical roles. In Miss Pinkerton we have the strict but ironically unintelligent finishing school mistress who overvalues social status and affluence, and in Mr. Sambo we have a caricature of the affable black servant. Amelia is Patmore’s unassuming, ever-loving Angel in the House, and Jos Sedley is a shallow and overindulgent dandy only concerned about himself.

As we progress through the novel, the narrator is ever-present, drawing attention to himself (I find it unlikely the narrator is female) and his omniscience in order to moralize and pass judgment on these characters. Their extreme characteristics seem to allow for easy critique. However closer examination reveals inconsistencies in descriptions that suggest these critiques are more complex than they first appear.

One particularly complex depiction is that of Miss Swartz. She is clearly “other,” specifically an ethnic other. When we first meet her, it is at Miss Pinkerton’s school. She is described as the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” (7) and upon Amelia’s (and Becky’s) departure, is inconsolable in a “passion of tears” (7) and “hysterical yoops” (10). These descriptions persist into the second appearance of the heiress as a potential suitor for George Osborne.  Nearly every time Miss Swartz is spoken of some reference to her “West Indie” appearance is made. George is the worst, his reaction to the “Belle Sauvage” (245), “Black Princess” (246), or “mahogany charmer” (250) as he refers to her is particularly distasteful. When he sees her decked out in her jewels and finery, he describes her as “elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day” (252). He pokes fun at her appearance, commenting on the “white feathers in her hair—I mean in her wool” (246).

Now to a certain extent, as with the other over-the-top descriptions of characters, the intention is criticism, and in this case it is for George.  Following one of George’s descriptions of Miss Swartz, the narrator says he is “rattling away as no other man in the world surely could” (246). The reader is meant to judge George for his close-mindedness, and yet at several points we see the narrator represent Miss Swartz in many of the same ways, referring to her as a “dark paragon” (246) and a “dark object of conspiracy” (251). He recalls her “very warm and impetuous nature” and connects it to her origins, saying she “responded to their affection with quite a tropical ardour” (251). Our understanding of how to view Miss Swartz and what exactly is being critiqued is thus complicated.

The reading is even more complicated by the positive characteristics we’re given of Miss Schartz; a vast majority originates in her wealth. She is an “object of vast respect” to the Osborne family because of her inheritance.  George’s sisters and father approve of their match because the former can imagine all the balls and Court presentations and the latter the ennobling of the family’s name. They are willing to overlook her foreignness because of the riches she has to offer. In contrast, they shun Amelia because having lost her family’s wealth, she is no longer a fit match for George. After discovering that George has defied him and married Amelia anyway, Mr. Osborne exclaims that he is “fly[ing] in the face of duty and fortune” (284). Of course the narrator explicitly criticizes this way of thinking, quipping, “People in Vanity Fair fasten on to rich folks quite naturally” (248), followed by a tangential paragraph of discussion.

In the end we are left with a conflicting depiction of Miss Swartz. She is the ethnic other, and yet Amelia is the classed other. Which was more threatening to the Victorians? Which is Thackeray and/or the narrator critiquing or mocking? Where might Thackeray’s own biases be creeping in? Miss Swartz represents just one of the many complicated social critiques that Thackeray makes throughout Vanity Fair, critiques that appear to have many layers, the satire making them all the more difficult to unfold.

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

“Some people are so touchy!”

Before I go any further, I must express my joy at finding an author who shares my concern for the plight of “those hapless creatures who suffer under the misfortune of good looks” (86).  I am pleased to observe that there are, through all the ages of mankind, men willing to–with pity in their hearts and compassion on their brows–attentively look to the needs of the unfortunate beauties of the world.

That said, I find myself wondering more about the men of Thackeray’s novel than the women. When Becky Sharp chooses to dream about a soldier, I applaud her bold and frank pursuit of marriage (56). “I don’t think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally…entrusted by young persons to their mammas, recollect that Miss Sharp had no kind parent to arrange these delicate matters for her” (19). For a woman like Becky Sharp to snag a man, she has to know what she wants. Indeed, this sort of aggression is necessary even for women with mammas. Amelia’s blissfully demure pursuit of Lt. George Osborne very nearly lost her the catch.

I wonder, however, how much of that blame is hers and how much Lt. Osborne’s. It is very easy to say that George is entirely unfair is his mistreatment of Amelia, but “don’t girls like a rake better than a milksop?” (96). It was these adventures that allowed George to become, “famous in field-sports, famous at a song, famous on parade….adored by the men…He could spar better than Knuckles; and was the best batter and bowler, out and out, of the regimental club. He rode his own horse…and won the Garrison cup at Quebec races” (93). He may not have been an especially attentive lover, but at least he was interesting. He was cruel, to be sure, but was this very cruelty not encouraged by Amelia who allowed George to see “a slave before him in that simple yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power” (154).

Now, to be sure, I don’t want to defend the Lieutenant. He’s absolutely a scoundrel, but I’d like to know why he’s a scoundrel. His willingness to discard Amelia due to her lack of wealth is problematic, but no more than Becky Sharp’s willingness to wed Jos–a man who has no redeeming qualities aside from his wealth. And then, of course, his willingness to disobey his father in order wed Amelia surely must count in his favor.

Similarly, what makes Osborne any different from Captain Crawley? Crawley gambles (though he wins),  drinks, races, and is generally a rake. His wife even refers to his characters flaws affectionately, referring to him as a “naughty good-for-nothing man” (122). Of course, once he’s married he settles down: “that veteran rake, Rawdon Crawley, found himself converted into a very happy and submissive married man” (134). What do we make of this difference? Is Crawley a scoundrel reformed through the virtues of his wife? This is problematic as a.) it buys into a dangerous willingness to place responsibility firmly on women and b.) Becky Sharp may not be the most virtuous of influences.

So I don’t know what to do with Lt. Osborne. He’s absolutely a jerk, but I don’t see why he should be any worse than the rest of the characters. I think this may be Thackery’s true genius: the sympathetic characters are sympathetic because he makes them appear so, not because they truly are and vice versa. We are only told one side of the story, and different sides often tell entirely different stories–especially when dealing with love.

Vanity Fair’s Scheherazade

 

When the young Miss Sharp first makes her appearance on the stage of Vanity Fair our faithful narrator paints her a pernicious and impudent little wretch hurling the goodwill of Miss Jemima back out the departing carriage window at the unoffending schoolmistress.  No doubt Rebecca Sharp, or ‘Becky’ as she is affectionately known to her schoolmate Amelia, has her less flattering characteristics, lying, hypocrisy, jealousy, scheming, to name just a few, but it is also equally as evident that life has not always been kind to the young lady.

At the time of the novel Becky has recently been orphaned and given over to the care of the stuffy Miss Pinkerton.  As a result of her poverty, Becky is treated with no small amount of disdain at school as she explains to Amelia, “For two years I had only bad insults and outrage from her. I have been treated worse than any servant in the kitchen. I have never had a friend, or a kind word…”  (12). And indeed, the previous scene wherein both young ladies depart the school is marked by an outpouring of grief for the one and a general disinterest in the other. Yet school is not the only place where life has treated Becky unkindly; even when she was under the care and protection of her parents her life was troubled. The narrator tells us that Mr. Sharp was “a clever man, a pleasant companion, a careless student; with a great propensity for running into debt, and a partiality for the tavern. When he was drunk he used to beat his wife and daughter, and the next morning, with a headache, he used to rail at the world for its neglect of his genius” (12). Constantly in debt, Becky’s artist father marries a French opera-girl (which I think the reader is supposed to understand is euphemism for some sort of saucy dancer) who promptly dies in Becky’s early childhood and is then followed to the grave by Becky’s father.

With this chronology in place it is more difficult to fault Rebecca Sharp for her less than charming behavior, in fact once we learn more of Becky’s history it is clear to see that many of negative character traits can be seen to be borne of necessity in order to aide her in not only her survival, but her advancement. Once settled at Amelia’s house the narrator tells us that “our beloved but unprotected Rebecca determined to do her very best to secure the husband who was even more necessary for her than for her friend” (21).  And then the narrator tell us, in the manner of details revealed that are pertinent to the development of the story, that “She had a vivid imagination; she had, besides read the Arabian Nights and Guthrie’s Geography” (21).  It can be easily concluded then that the young girl has a familiarity with the storyteller’s ability to affect and improve her own fate.  We have seen that the young girl already has practice amusing her father and his friends with caricatures, dialogues and mimicry, why not put those talents to a more advantageous use, namely procuring a husband and a social position for herself?

To this ends, our Victorian Scheherazade tells stories of herself, her parentage, her peers and her elders to woo and charm several figures, each occupying King Shahryar’s position of power over the girl to weedle herself into more favourable positions. Becky’s ability to enchant her listener mirrors the Persian princess of the tale who saves her own life by wooing the paranoid King through the telling of tales.  Though we condemn Becky for her willful misleading of others, her ‘storytelling’, it is obvious that in a society that gives little thought or assistance to those without social or monetary connections this storytelling is as vital to sustaining Becky’s life as it was Scheherazade’s.

 

Aside: Dobbins is also revealed to have read and loved the tales told in Arabian Nights but I am less sure of the connection to draw here, except that these unloved kidlets are doing some serious escapism?

Thackery and the Art of Snark

One of the themes we have studied this semester has been the metanarrative feature of the narration, how the story is being told. In Vanity Fair, never has the narrator been more of an overt presence, even including the notorious Charles Reade. An interesting contrast occurs in chapter 8 of the novel, and I shall expound upon that.

Hitherto the narrator has been a third person, commenting upon the events as they transpire while dictating them to us. Thackeray seems to be the narrator, peppering the prose with allusions to current events, popular culture, and urban landmarks presumably to foster a rapport with the audience. It has the effect of hearing a story told by a friend or neighbor, with whom you can assume common knowledge of the immediate landscape, thus necessitating the copious footnotes on virtually every page. All well and good; I like that aspect of it since it gives me a feel for the psychology of the writer as well as his understanding of the populace’s aesthetic in consuming literature.

What I don’t appreciate is the commentary on the very circumstances the narrator (Thackeray) purports to communicate to us. For instance, I found it extremely hard to sympathize with the inimitable Miss Sharp as I read thanks to the cutting snarky remarks he layers over her character. Just before Ch. 8, Becky is in the new digs, Sir Pitt’s mansion, on the first night, and surveying the portraits in the room, she sees a fellow “in a red jacket like a soldier. When she went to sleep, Rebecca chose that one to dream about” (72). The implication here is that Becky is so mercenary and calculating in everything she does to the ends of social climbing that she even decides what would be most advantageous, and therefore more pleasant, to dream about; it’s slightly ridiculous to think that she can choose what her subconscious mind will kick up during her slumber.

Chapter 8 is all the more interesting since it offers direct insight into Becky’s character and mental cogitations, even if filtered through her letter to the witless Amelia. Becky is appropriately catty in places and denigrating of Pitts and Crawleys, but she never reveals the true mercenary nature that will stop at nothing to secure a husband and stability through riches. I hesitate to draw such sweeping conclusions from such a small sample (having not read the entire tome), but this section, coupled with the following conclusion to the chapter, makes me question Thackeray’s execution of the narrative and how much he relies upon commentary as opposed to illustration: telling instead of showing.

In the conclusion to Ch. 8 the narrator inserts the following: “But my kind reader will please to remember that these histories in their gaudy yellow covers, have ‘Vanity Fair’ for a title and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretentions” (83). He continues, warning the reader what kind of story he’s telling and of what quality the characters are (84). This convention of reminding the readers that they’re reading a made-up story is certainly jarring, much more so than Stoker’s little asides or even Reade’s ham-fisted moralities. On the one hand, it is in keeping with Thackeray’s snarkiness, elbowing the reader with a wink, saying, “Get it?” after every joke. On the other hand, does it arouse questions about the very nature of literature as perceived by the Victorians? Did they enjoy having that overt acknowledgement of the artificiality of the proceedings? Or did they like to imagine that the person writing the tale really thinks himself as an actual person and not an invention of an author? Even in Jane Eyre and Mary Barton the narrator would step out of the recitation of events to address the reader directly; was this just a convention of the times or did it reflect the sensibility that Victorians wanted a more honest form of literature, one that admitted the contrivance of a storyteller telling a fictional tale?

Vanity Fair: The Narrator Revealed

It is probably justified to say that the narrator in Vanity Fair might be the most important character to the novel. The narrator has a very strong impact on what the reader thinks and how they analyze the context of the story.

 

The first thing that caught my eye as I began reading the novel was the fact that the narrator seemed to be kind of sarcastic. As he/she began describing Amelia Sedley in the first chapter, it started off wonderful. Amelia was described as “one of the best and dearest creatures that ever lived” and “good-natured”. However, the narrator then takes a sharp turn and begins to slam Amelia by letting us know she had many imperfections like her nose, cheeks and the fact that she was pretty much an idiot.  When Rebecca Sharp comes into the picture, she is described as witty as well as beautiful despite her much lower social class. This is a very interesting point because the narrator seems to keep this mindset throughout the book. He/she is almost like a defender of the poor and a critic of the rich.

 

The next thing that was very interesting was the fact that the narrator almost took different forms during the story. At one point the narrator seems to be speaking directly to you as he/she is describing the probable reaction of Jones, the social club snob, concerning the content of the novel. Then the speaker will go to a very descriptive voice as he describes the characters. The narrator also displays a wise all-knowing voice. It seems the narrator knows something about everything and everyone.

 

As far as the gender of the narrator is concerned, I am actually leaning to the speaker being female. The point that really sold me in this is around the beginning of chapter three when Rebecca’s “husband hunting” is described. To me, it was as if the narrator was old, wise, poor, and was kind of relating to Rebecca while she was trying to look for a husband all on her own.

 

Nevertheless, the narrator seems to definitely, (at least at this point), on the side of Rebecca and the lower class. She is being made out to be very witty and determined. As far as the wealthy class goes, the speaker seems to be constantly poking fun at their lifestyles and norms.

The Narrator sees you…

The narrator seems to have placed himself from the story and sets himself as a commentator along with you, the reader. We find these properties especially evident as we see numerous comments that seem out of place in the story. It seems like the narrator is taking a second to explain what we should be feeling and, if we are not thinking as he does, making fun of us for being sentimental. It is also noted that he does not seem to pick a side as to being sentimental or satirical. He often calls the reader childish for being sentimental or criticizes the reader as being heartless for laughing at situations when Amelia shows emotions. When Becky is seen as weeping, we want to feel a sense of sympathy, but the narrator is quick to place a comment that berates such compassion. It is almost as if the narrator can see our emotions before we can.
These direct addresses to the reader seem to be a sort of lack of faith that we are experiencing the book as Thackeray originally intended. It also shows that he understands that people read books with a different history than the person who picks up the book next. I find this intriguing and often times find myself wondering why he feels the need to guide us through our thoughts on this book. This has neither effect on me, in the case of bringing me closer or distancing myself from the text. I find that I am able to keep a balance of keeping just enough distance between the story and me to where I am able to experience the emotions of the characters without losing sight of the literary prowess that Thackeray possesses and makes use of in his book Vanity Fair.

Can we trust our narrator?

The narrator in Vanity Fair by William Thackeray seems to know our characters pretty well. Now it is up to the reader if they should take what the narrator says as the truth or their biases opinion of them.  When it comes to the narrator and Amelia it is almost a conflict. The narrator depicts Amelia in many diverse aspects.  In the beginning of the story Amelia is shown as this young sweet girl. She is pretty and comes from a well to do family. Everybody loves Amelia and all the girls want to be her friend and just soon after the narrator call her a “Silly thing.” (5) Then goes on to say that that she cries too much. The narrator dismisses her and as the narrator is annoyed by her childish ways or just maybe she is just an emotional girl.

The reader will find as they continue reading we see the narrator throw comments and remarks about Amelia that at which are not to kind. In chapter twelve the narrator apologizes that Amelia is boring but it is to blame because she is a good nice person.

These conflicts of praise and remarks make the reader confused on which should they feel about Amelia?  Can the narrator be trusted on being a truthful third party to this novel. Having the narrator feed us side comments like these about the characters do how some favoritism toward Becky and is this fair to the reader?

Switching Allegiance and Tone

In Vanity Fair, the narrator’s attitude toward his characters can be hard to follow. One minute he sympathizes with a character’s situation and the next he unmercifully criticizes their actions and motives. The narrator’s attitude toward Miss Rebecca Sharp changes very drastically throughout the book. The narrator has no problem pointing out how sly and manipulative her actions are toward Amelia when she writes her letter to gain sympathy and to her employers at Queen’s Crawley to gain favor in the house. Then the narrator demands sympathy for this orphan, justifies her actions, and is outraged the reader could judge such a poor girl so critically. This makes the narrator seem like a hypocrite for pointing out her flaws in the first place. His descriptions of Miss Sharp’s unkind intentions leave the reader unable to fully trust her. This makes me question what the narrator wants the reader to think of Miss Sharp and it seems he has not entirely made up his mind about her.

The narrator switches from an informative to a mocking tone, and his sarcasm may be lost on the reader if they don’t pay close attention. The narrator discusses how the Baronet and his brother don’t get along unless their rich sister is visiting. The narrator suggests “reversionary spoil – make brothers very loving towards each other… what a fine and durable thing Love is among worldly people” (p 100). As readers we are surely not supposed to think the narrator is praising this selfish and superficial behavior. However, the narrator writes in such a sarcastic manner that his message is not completely clear to the reader. This leaves the reader uncertain of whether they can trust anything the narrator says and fearful that he has falsely described other characters.

Hello Becky I’m your Narrator

Our faithful narrator has been is definitely quite a character when It comes to his personal thoughts when it comes to the characters he talks about. In chapter 1 when we first are introduced to Rebecca “Becky” we read as she throws the dixonary given to her by Miss Jemima out the window. Our narrator actually enjoys Becky’s behavior by his tone of voice beginning the second chapter calling it a “heroical act” (9) and going into a play by play description. He seems to have  a very favorable view of Becky. In Chapter four he say “but poor dear Rebecca had all this work to do by herself.” (26). In the same chapter the narrator gives a much more character grasping story to Becky’s love life compared to Amelia’s.

The effect on me as the reader is quite clear, while Amelia is still a favorable character to read about, I start to favor Becky while reading the story compare Amelia. It really shows his favor when reading onward to chapter 9 When Becky was with Mr. Cawley, he speaks to us and asks the question “Could our heroine suppose that Mr. Cawley was interested in her?” (95) For saying that this is a book without a hero, he certainly identified his favorite girl as one for us.

Poor Lady Crawley

The pitiable Lady Rose Crawley may not be a significant character in the grand scheme of Vanity Fair, but her presence and introduction by the narrator reveals characteristics of Britain’s pristine upper class that may have not been emphasized. The narrator makes his viewpoint on Sir Pitt Crawley quite clear, in Chapter 8 on page 76, through Becky’s letter to Amelia.  Becky describes Sir Pitt as an “old, stumpy, vulgar, and very dirty man, “ which all goes against how the elite and aristocracy of that time then behaved and appeared.

With the role of Sir Pitt in mocking one aspect of society laid out for the reader, the introduction of his wife, who possesses no “talents, nor opinions… nor amusement,” (Ch. 9 page 85) and has become nothing more than “a mere machine in her husband’s house of no more use than the late Lady Crawley’s grand piano” (Ch. 9 page 86) helps expand on Thackeray’s ridicule of the upper-echelon of British society during that time period.  While Sir Pitt’s late wife was born of noble blood, his new wife was born of a tradesman.  Plucking her from her social circle, she became an aloof outcast in an unforgiving society where neither her previous friends nor the aristocratic fellows would associate with her.

Thackeray uses the narrator’s contrast between the happy and emotionally fruitful life she could have lead with Mr. Peter Butt to her current, dismal life as a social reject.  The narrator’s comments on how “a title and a coach and four are toys more precious than happiness” (Ch. 9 page 86) accentuates those ridiculous ideals of sacrificing joy for a rank, a commonplace practice during those times.

 

Maybe this novel isn’t for emotional girls

When I read a novel it’s like I’m committing to an adventure; I never really know exactly what I’m getting myself into.  Sometimes I find the adventure horrible and quit (unless of course I have scholarly obligations).  Other times I press on to the end.  One expectation I do have however, is that the narrator is my friend and companion throughout the journey.  With Vanity Fair I have thrown out this assumption and quite frankly he is starting to irritate me.  Though because the narrator is so frequently unreliable, I will say my irritation is mellowing down to a level of amusement. I’ve decided that this could be Thackeray’s clever way of keeping me awake because I am not at all bored (which is saying a lot for a girl who doesn’t regularly read British literature of the 1800s in her spare time).

Being a woman and realizing how complicated my gender can be, I’m particularly interested in Amelia and Rebecca’s relationship.  Really though, it’s the narrator’s inconsistent commentary of Rebecca that I’m most attentive to.  I was very willing to believe “the girls they loved each other like sisters” (pg 27).  At this point I felt very comfortable with the novel’s direction…and then I read the next sentence.  The narrator weakened my sentimental feelings slapping me with the idea that “Young unmarried girls always do if they are in a house together for ten days”.  Suddenly their sisterly bond is not special but rather hastily developed.  Now I have to realize that their relationship (like any relationship that moves fast) could end as easily as it began.

So I’m thinking…I want my good feeling back!! …and I won’t put this book down until I get it.  But maybe that’s Thackeray’s intention… and who knows if he’ll give me my feeling back!  Maybe this novel isn’t for girls that like love and honesty and sincere emotions along with simple acts of kindness.  But being the emotional and overly hopeful girl that I am, I will look forward to my happy ending.

Joseph: The Great Compromise

The narrator portrays Joseph, Amelia’s brother, as a fat, gaudily dressed, yet shy young man with a propensity for alcohol. He is on leave from work, back from his Indian Trading post which provides him with a large sum of money. He uses this money to shower his sister and guest, Becky, with gifts such as Indian shawls. Becky Sharp sets her aim on him with the intent to court and marry him. The narrators comments when describing Joseph’s response to the advances of Miss Sharp make him seem clumsy: “Gad, I’ll pop the question at Vauxhall” he said to himself at the end of chapter four.
The Narrator makes it apparent that Joseph’s pathetic shyness keeps him from asking for her hand in marriage during the most romantic scenes of the Vauxhall ball. The couples sit down for dinner and Joseph displays actions true to his prescribed character by the narrator; he gets belligerently drunk off of Rack Punch. He even inappropriately touches Rebecca, which causes such a scene that the two couples needed to head home early than intended.
The portrayal of Joseph is important to the storyline because it shows just how badly Rebecca wants to be married, as opposed to being a Governess for her life. Without the narrator’s emphasis on this character’s flaws, it is hard for the reader to realize the sort of compromise Becky is willing to make by trying to marry him.