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Several pages before the novel actually ends, Thackeray writes a fake ending, to satirize conventional happy endings. He deliberately throws in a repetitious series of cliches often used for endings–the vessel is in port, the hero gets what he yearned for all his life, and the bird comes home and sits on his shoulder billing and cooing. Then Thackeray's prose swells into a crescendo of sentimentality and more repetition: "This is what he has asked for every day and hour for eighteen years. This is what he pined after. Here it is–the summit, the end–the last page of the third volume" (page 817). Then he bids goodbye to Dobbin and Amelia, and of course slips in the reference to her as a parasite. The repetition points up the lack of real meaning and the indulgence of emotion for its own sake. Unwary readers, in his day and ours, accept his statement and emotion at face value, ignore the parasite reference, and so miss the satire. Not even the fact that the novel was published in two volumes, not three, alerted some of his contemporaries. The style and sentimentality of Thackeray's false ending are similar to passages that Dickens wrote.

The actual ending bears no resemblance to conventional happy endings. Dobbin no longer loves Amelia, and she knows it. There is no poetic justice, i.e., the virtuous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. The resilient Becky has wormed her way back into respectable English society, presumably on the money she may have murdered Jos for. The novel at last concludes with a pessimistic statement which may be applied to almost all, if not all the characters: "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!" which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" (page 822). Consider....

  • Dobbin gets his desired Amelia after acknowledging that she is not worth his devotion and that he wasted his life yearning for her.
  • Amelia's desire to marry Dobbin is fulfilled, but her desire arises far too late, for she has worn out his love for her.
  • In little more than a week after Amelia's marriage to George, the narrator can ask about her, "Was the prize gained–the heaven of life–and the winner still doubtful and unsatisfied?" (page 303).
  • Becky may have regained her respectability again, but will her Bohemian nature, with its need for excitement and risk, be satisfied for long with a staid conventional life?

With the last sentence of the novel, Thackeray reduces his characters to puppets, artifacts which are controlled by the puppet master or the narrator as stage manager . Ordinarily such a puppet image would undercut our sense of the characters' reality, but does it in this case? Is Thackeray deliberately juxtaposing different levels or kinds of reality? The literal reality is that the characters, like puppets, are created, but at the level of truth to human nature and fidelity to society's functioning are the characters real?  Or have the characters taken over their own lives and become "real"?  There is evidence that Thackeray had a sense of their physical existence; he wrote, in a letter to a friend,

I am going today to the Hotel de la Terass (at Brussels) where Becky used to live, and shall pass by Captain Osbornes lodgings where I recollect meeting him and his little wife who has married again somebody told me: but it is always the way with these grande passions. Mrs. Dobbins or some such name she is now: always an overrated woman I thought O–how ludicrous it is! I believe perfectly in all these people & feel quite an interest in the Inn in wh. they lived.


Ironically, Vanity Fair does end conventionally with the marriage of two major figures, Amelia and Dobbin, and certainly the course of "true love" does not run smooth in this novel. But Amelia and Dobbin do not, finally, feel true love for each other.  Rather, Dobbin feels true love for his daughter and next, perhaps, for his book on India.  If Amelia has finally come to experience true love, has it brought her happiness?

It is not in marriage that Dobbin and Amelia achieve the acme of happiness in their lives; that may have happened much earlier in the novel, during their stay in Pumpernickel. Thackeray suggests, "Perhaps it was the happiest time of both their lives, indeed, if they did but know it–and who does? Which of us can point out and say that was the culmination–that was the summit of human joy?" (page 740). Of course, novelists have no hesitation in presenting marriage at the end of their novels as the culmination of human happiness, and they have been doing it since the mid-eighteenth century.

Furthermore, Thackeray violates the marriage-as-happy-ending by having his four major characters marry early in the book. He contrasts the experience of real life with the falseness of literary conventions:

As his hero and heroine pass the matrimonial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain, as if the drama were over then: the doubts and struggles of life ended: as if, once landed in the marriage country, all were green and pleasant there: and wife and husband had nothing to do but to link each other's arms together, and wander gently downwards towards old age in happy and perfect fruition. But our little Amelia was just on the bank of her new country, and was already looking anxiously back towards the sad friendly figures waving farewell to her across the stream, from the other distant shore. (page 303)


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

March 4, 2009