Escaping Vanity Fair

Thackeray’s novel begins “Before the Curtain” with a depiction of Vanity Fair as an actual street fair, and ends “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (809). Vanity Fair, as a distinct place, is mentioned some 70 times throughout the novel, which is troubling. Becky is unapologetically vain, subject to vanity of multiple kinds. She possesses “The quality of being personally vain; high opinion of oneself; self-conceit and desire for admiration” and pursues “that which is vain, futile, or worthless; that which is of no value or profit,” engaging in “unprofitable conduct or employment of time” (OED “Vanity” 3a, 1a, 1b). It seems appropriate that she end the novel “having stalls at Fancy Fairs” and appears last in one of these stalls (808). However, other characters are less vain and seem equally unable to escape Vanity Fair. After all, Amelia and Dobbin’s final scene is at the Fancy Fair with Becky, albeit as spectators rather than vendors. Thackeray’s characters represent different types of vanity, and several repent of or abandon their vanity, but can any of them get out? If the novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity, can those dangers be escaped?

Amelia and Dobbin immediately trouble the idea that everyone in the novel is part of Vanity Fair. Both are humble, and both seem, initially, to employ their time profitably. Amelia seeks a marriage to George and gets it. Dobbin seeks to help George marry Amelia and the marriage happens. The audience, if we disapprove of George, may already consider the marriage “worthless” or “of no value or profit,” but the endeavors of Amelia and Dobbin don’t become clearly ‘vain’ until after George’s death. Dobbin has worked, vainly, to convince George’s father to care for Amelia and baby George, and his inability to change the man’s mind comes home to roost – as does Amelia, who moves in with her impoverished parents, more casualties of vanity and particularly of Mr. Sedley’s ‘unprofitable conduct.’ Dobbin loves Amelia, but that love is perpetually in vain, as he cannot live up to her love for a largely-imaginary George. Amelia loves her dead husband, who does not deserve it, and her son, who she cannot provide for and must give up to Mr. Osborne.

The vanity of their endeavors is most clear as they give them up. As Amelia sends George to live with his grandfather, Thackeray’s narrator comments “By heavens it is pitiful, the bootless love of women for children in Vanity Fair” (583). As Dobbin gives up on his love for Amelia, he tells her that if he cannot read her correctly, he has “loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain” before determining that “you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too” (787). After Amelia has given up her attachment to her late husband and Dobbin has stopped idolizing Amelia and acknowledged her flaws and his folly, they marry happily, and we might imagine that they have escaped Vanity Fair by making a marriage without the specific types of vanity apparent in the earlier marriages. The very end troubles this escape, placing them at a fair. Emmy observes “with a sigh” that her husband loves their daughter better than he loves her, even though “he ever said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle; or thought of a want of hers that he did not try to gratify” (809). As the narrator asks “Vanitas Vanitatu! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or having it, is satisfied?” Emmy and Dobbin seem to be back in Vanity Fair, unable to love each other as fully as we might have hoped after their long history of vain love (809).

So, does anyone escape? Rawdon seems to initially. He gives up first his vanity – his self-importance – and then his vain pursuits of gambling and drinking. He gives over financial control to his wife and focuses on raising his son Rawdon, a pursuit not entirely in vain because the younger Rawdon seems to end the novel well, inheriting all of the family estates that have been fought over. However, Rawdon is also separated permanently from his son by his position overseas, and he dies at the end. If he has escaped Vanity Fair, it is not a happy escape. Similarly, Joseph’s self-importance is replaced by a fear of Becky that humbles him, but he too is unable to escape, squandering his fortune in the same kinds of vain pursuits and speculation that brought both Becky and his father low earlier in the novel. He dies, too, as do the Sedley parents.

Ultimately, escaping from Vanity Fair is like escaping from life; it’s only accomplished by death.  Puppets go in boxes, people go in coffins, and the Fair goes on uninterrupted.

No Man is an Island Entire: Vanity Fair, Community, and Melancholy

For pages and pages, disaster after disaster hits our characters, as they marry the wrong people (or don’t marry at all), fight with relatives, and race into bankruptcies. In the end, however, (spoiler!) Amelia and Dobbin end up together and have a lovely little family, seemingly safe from money problems. Yet the novel starts with a theme of melancholy and ends with a sad refrain, asking “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” (809). This—along with the many misfortunes and rapid ending—raises the question: how sad is Vanity Fair?

As I read, I kept waiting for the reversal that would fix things and redeem the characters (and the hours spent reading), but when that reversal comes, it feels rushed and incomplete, and I almost would rather it not happen: Amelia and Dobbin seem like they should, at this point, stay apart. (Or at least change more before coming back together.) I don’t want to overgeneralize my experience, but it seems troubling that any readers would cheer against the match that so much of the novel has been building to.

Part of the answer seems to lie in the development of solitude and community in the novel. From the start, Vanity Fair presents a vision of life that is solitary at its core, despite the many characters filling its pages, for each of the main characters lives apart from the rush and movement of the world in some fashion. This is set up from the very beginning, where “as Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and, looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place” (5, emphasis added). He sits; the fair bustles, and that contrast creates a type of sadness and emphasizes his solitary nature.

Similarly, Thackeray presents us with multiple communities and bonds that should be true and beautiful and provide community, yet don’t. Even though Amelia and Becky are very different mothers, their bond with their children ultimately does not provide much fulfillment or community: both give up their children (though for very different reasons), and Amelia’s George does not mourn her absence, and Becky’s son rejects her after being rejected himself. The bond between a mother and a child should be close, but Thackeray shows it as one-sided and painful. In a similar way, the husband and wife pairs are shown as failing at community; Becky looks down on her husband who loves her, and they never truly understand each other; George fails Amelia, and Amelia does not know him truly till the end. Female friends are notoriously treacherous (Amelia and Becky as the prime example, but Thackeray often expounds on women’s hatred of each other), and male friends fail each other (see George and Dobbin, who deceive each other). Other prominent examples of loneliness appear on pages 29, 196, 211, 245, 292, 533, 535, 607, 625, 669, and 751. Can anyone love truly and be loved truly in return?

That background sets up the ending of the novel and the “happy” marriage. Amelia’s and Dobbin’s community seems incomplete and very imperfect: in the end, they go to a fair with their children, but are not grouped together as a couple (though they are before they are married—see page 729, where “this couple were very decently contented”), and Dobbin is more connected to his daughter than Amelia. Amelia notices this, thinking that he is “fonder [of Janey] than he is of me,” even though “he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle; or thought of a want of hers that he did not try to gratify” (809). This expresses that type of alienation that is very much part of this novel.

At this point, we’ve learned the deeply flawed nature of these human, Vanity-Fair relationships, so it’s not surprising, though it may be saddening, that Amelia is not content in this relationship and that Dobbin may or may not be. They seem independent, individual, and alone, even within this familial community. In contrast, Donne writes that “no man is an island entire of itself” and asserts that “any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind.” Vanity Fair’s characters seem to fight against this and pretend that they are not, in fact, involved. Does this stem from the rise of the modern, atomic individual? Individualism is developing more and more in the nineteenth century, and in this way, Becky and the self-centered characters could be participating in that development.

What I am not sure about is how Thackeray desires us to read this: does he wish to negate the possibility of a charitable, life-giving community? Or can one read Vanity Fair as portraying the despair of alienation as support for a charitable community and an attempt to teach us how to create one? Could we combat vanity with true community? Or is that too redemptive of a reading? The narrator is slippery, and I’m left unsure. A friend said that reading Vanity Fair made him feel dirty and despairing. I am still trying to decide what I think of it in general, but I do think that Vanity Fair is ultimately sad—how can it be otherwise, when it portrays each character as an island entire, left isolated and disconnected from others, even though yearning for community?

“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.”

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.