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Like Austen in Emma, Thackeray in Vanity Fair identifies the place or status characters have in society and the nature of their relationship to society. Unlike Austen, who portrays the limited world of Highbury, Thackeray fills his novel with people, places, and travel. Almost all his characters are individualized, no matter how briefly they appear. We know their attitudes, their values, their hypocrisies and pettiness, their class, their desires and feelings. Taken together they make up the society that Thackeray calls Vanity Fair.

His characters also satirize the institutions they serve or represent: Lord Steyne and Sir Pitt Crawley (both the father and the son) show up Parliament, the rotten election system, and the aristocracy; religion is satirized with the Rev. Bute Crawley (the Church of England) and with Mr. Pitt Crawley and Lady Southdown (Dissent); the army leadership is satirized with General Tufto; the Colonial and foreign service, with Joseph Sedley, Rawdon Crawley, Mr. Pitt Crawley, and Tapeworm; the financial system, with Osborne senior. Excluded, however, are the working class, the poor, the homeless and the destitute.

In view of his characters' vitality and their representing major institutions, is it tenable to suggest that society is the real protagonist of Vanity Fair?

The Hero

Even though Thackeray subtitles his novel A Novel Without a Hero, readers in Thackeray's day and in ours want a hero, and many assign the role to Dobbin. Does Thackeray in fact regard him as the hero of the novel or even as a hero? If you see Dobbin as the hero, then the subtitle and the narrator's references to the novel's having no hero are part of Thackeray's satire of novelistic conventions and manipulation of the unthinking or careless reader. Is there any doubt that George Osborne is used to satirize the conventional hero?


The question of whether the novel has a heroine is more complex. Amelia seems to be the conventional heroine–sweet, passive, self-sacrificing, gentle, tender, and loving. And Thackeray calls her a heroine–at times, but he contradicts himself at other times and says she is not a heroine (he also refers to Becky as a heroine and not a heroine). In addition, he repeatedly calls Amelia "weak" and "selfish." Of Dobbin's faithful love and decades-long submission to her, Thackeray wrote to a friend that finally "he will find her not worth having." Thackeray wrote his mother that

"My object is not to make a perfect character or anything like it. Don't you see how odious all the people are in the book (with the exception of Dobbin)–behind whom all there lies a dark moral I hope. What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that is a cant phrase) greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue."

Does this judgment apply to Amelia? Does Thackeray admire her wholeheartedly or admire some of her traits and behavior but not others? If she is not the heroine, is Thackeray using her to expose the selfishness of the conventional heroine?


Becky has much more appeal than Amelia for most readers, as Thackeray acknowledged:

The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints, and lively on the wire; the Amelia Doll, though it has had a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist... (x, "Before the Curtain")
Born with no advantages, in a society that values rank and wealth, Becky makes her way to the highest levels of society through her own resources, with determination, intelligence, hard work, and talent. She is resourceful and bounces back from every reversal. At the same time, her behavior and character are morally indefensible; she constantly manipulates others, she lies, she cheats, she steals, she betrays Amelia, and perhaps she even commits a murder. As the novel progresses, some readers feel that she becomes more dangerous and villainous. If so, was Thackeray upset that so many readers found her attractive? Does a change in her portrayal reflect ambivalence toward Becky? was he both attracted to her energy and courage and repelled by some of her actions, for instance? Or is the perception that her characterization changes false?

Dyson explains Becky's appeal in terms of the corrupt nature of society and her role in that society:

..surely we do admire Becky, and legitimately, however glad we are to be outside the range of her wiles? The fact is that she belongs to Vanity Fair, both as its true reflection, and as its victim; for both of which reasons, she very resoundingly serves it right. Like Jonson's Volpone, she is a fitting scourge for the world which created her–fitting aesthetically, in the way of poetic justice, and fitting morally, in that much of her evil is effective only against those who share her taint. Dobbins is largely immune to her, since he is neither a trifler, a hypocrite nor a snob. The other characters are all vulnerable in one or other of these ways, and we notice that those who judge her most harshly are frequently the ones who have least earned such a right.

A question arises about Becky's innocence in the last portion of the novel. Specifically, is she innocent of adultery? and/or of murder? Thackeray offers a variety of opinions from self-interested and self-righteous observers, who range from the servants to the highest levels of fashionable society; the narrator's opinion remains ambiguous. It is important to keep in mind that though what characters say about one another is significant, their judgments may reveal more about the speaker or about society's values than about the person being discussed; thus, the opinion offered may not be trustworthy. The question of Becky's personal innocence raises a larger question; how important or meaningful is the question of her innocence, in view of how universally corrupt society is and how selfish the people judging her are? Who in this society is innocent?

Character Development

Do the characters change or develop in any significant way? or do we merely come to know them better as Thackeray reveals more details about them? Edwin Muir describes Thackeray's presentation of his characters as a gradual "unfolding in a continuously widening present"; the characters have the same weaknesses, vanities and foibles throughout, the only change being "our knowledge of them." The character who seems to change most is Rawdon Crawley, but how great is his change actually? If he does change significantly, are his love for Becky and his love for his son a sufficient, convincing reason for his change?


Day 1

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

Day 2 Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Attitude Toward Women
Day 3 Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
Day 4 Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Becky's Innocence
Day 5 Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
Album of All the Vanity Fair Drawings


February 15, 2011