austen hotspot e bronte hotspot e bronte hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot dickens hotspot eliot hotspot eliot hotspot eliot hotspot hardy hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot



After the confrontation scene with Rawdon and Lord Steyne, Becky undergoes a social and financial degradation on the Continent. At first, she tries valiantly to re-establish herself in respectable English society, even though she is snubbed by English ladies. Generally, once she finds a niche for herself, she is rejected because of her past, her reputation, and the persecution of Steyne's hirelings. In this regard, she is a victim. Her need for excitement and attention also contributes to her failure; taken under the wing of the eminently respectable Mrs. Eagles, she grows bored, and "the life of humdrum virtue grew utterly tedious to her before long" (page 767). For stimulation, she practices her wiles on young Mr. Eagles on holiday from Cambridge, and Mrs. Eagles asks to her leave.

Becky's sharing an apartment with a female friend was unsuccessful, but she enjoyed living in a boarding house, because "Becky loved society and, indeed, could no more exist without it than an opium-eater without his dram" (page 767). As she is forced to move from one place to another, one style of life to another, one set of companions to another, she deteriorates into "a perfect Bohemian ere long, herding with people whom it would make your hair stand on end to meet" (page 769). Becky sinks back into the demimonde. When men are forward with her, she reflects that they would not have dared to treat her so if Rawdon were present and misses his protection Reading between the lines, we see that Becky travels with swindlers, disgraced gentlemen, and pseudo-gentlemen and may have sold her sexual favors. Thackeray repeats shocking rumors about her but confirms none of them. When she turns up in Pumpernickel, she is somewhat slatternly in dress, gambles, and drinks, behavior that would have shocked respectable society and Thackeray's readers. Her "wild and roving nature" (page 777) suits her for this life.

Ever the opportunist, Becky seeks to ingratiate herself with Jos and Amelia. Nevertheless, Amelia's frankness and kindness seen to touch her: "She returned Emmy's caresses and kind speeches with something like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine" (page 786). Do the words "something like gratitude" and an "almost genuine" emotion suggest anything about Becky's nature and her capacity for friendship? It is jarring to Becky to have to lie immediately to Amelia, though she unhesitatingly lies about her son.

She appreciates and enjoys the comfort and simplicity of the Sedley household, for "wanderer as she was by force and inclination, there were moments when rest was pleasant to her" (page 803). When Dobbin urges Amelia not to admit Becky into her household, Becky feels no animosity toward him, because he is acting openly in a fair fight. She is even able to appreciate his virtues and deprecate Amelia's treatment of him. When Dobbin leaves, she acts to keep him for Amelia; she writes a note asking him to stay and later shows Amelia George's note. Her action does not cause Amelia to call back Dobbin, because she has already summoned him; however, it is important in forcing or perhaps allowing Amelia to face the truth of George.

This part of her history and behavior is consistent with Becky's characterization from her first appearance at Miss Pinkerton's school until the disastrous confrontation. Does Thackeray change her characterization and/or his attitude toward her in the last section of the novel, as many readers believe?


In the last part of the novel, does Thackeray unexpectedly present a darker or evil Becky? If so, why the sudden change? Was he perhaps distressed at how many readers were attracted to Becky? or disconcerted at how much he himself was drawn to her bohemianism? or nervous about possible outcries from his squeamish public? If her characterization does not change suddenly, then Becky's destructiveness and viciousness must have been present all along.

What might account for a change in Becky (assuming she does change)? Circumstances, such as her youth, her early opportunities, her drive for respectability and social success, might have inhibited the expression of her darker side. After her social fall, she leads an increasingly degraded life. Marginalized socially, she consorts with social outcasts, is driven by economic need, and perhaps finds life more difficult with age. Under the pressures of a bohemian, demimonde life, her malevolence might well emerge. Other explanations are possible; I offer this one as a stimulus for your thinking, not to limit you to it.

Those who see a change point to the narrator's comparison of Becky to the Siren, which they claim presents her in a harsher light than before. Certainly Becky appears as repulsively malevolent and horrifyingly dangerous in this passage:

In describing this Siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the waterline, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the Siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it, those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better. (pages 759-60)

Whether the characterization of Becky as Siren is consistent with the younger Becky, it is certainly consistent with the perhaps-murderous Becky of the last pages. Does she murder Jos? The text is ambiguous, deliberately so. There is no hard evidence against her, merely Jos's terror of her, her greed for money manifested in her unsuccessful speculations with his money, and the insurance company's suspicions. Her potential for murder is hinted at in her triumph at Steyne's party, where she plays Clytemnestra so convincingly that the audience is horrified. Steyne believes she could commit murder, as Clytemnestra did.

If the text is ambiguous about Jos's death, the illustration of Jos's last conversation with Dobbin is not. Though in the text Becky is not present, in the drawing she is lurking in darkness, holding a barely visible cup (suggesting poison?), with a malevolent expression on her face.  This drawing depicts Becky's second appearance as Clytemnestra.

Becky first appears as Clytemnestra in the charades at Lord Steyne's party and is a great success in fashionable society. In her first appearance as Clytemnestra, she is demure and innocent, modestly looking down while holding a knife, seemingly under the protection of her husband, who towers over her. Has she changed drastically since that party, or was her demure manner part of her performance, with the knife expressing her true nature?

Becky's last appearance is as a virtuous, respectable matron sitting behind a booth, to the consternation of Amelia and Dobbin, who recoil from her. What impression does the drawing of this incident, which is reproduced in your text, make? Consider Becky's expression and body language. Is this an appropriate last appearance by Becky?



Day 6 (W, Feb. 20)

Thackeray, Vanity Fair. pp. ix-170
Overview of Thackeray and Vanity Fair
The Narrator, the Reader, and Ambiguity
The Structure
Thackeray's Illustrations

Day 7 (M, Feb. 25) Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Attitude Toward Women
Day 8 (W, Feb. 27) Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
Day 9 (M, March 4) Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Becky's Innocence
Becky's Presentation at Court (Video)
Day 10 (W, March 6) Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
First paper due


March 4, 2009