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.