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A concern in Thackeray's writing, as in the writing of many other middle-class Victorian novelists, is the question of who and what a gentleman is. The traditional concept of a gentleman is a man of family and fortune who does not work; it is a class-based concept which excluded most middle class men. Having in mind this definition, Thackeray said that it took three generations to make a gentleman. The middle classes, which were growing in number, wealth, and power, did not want to wait to be accepted as gentlemen. To make the concept of the gentleman more inclusive, writers identified character and moral values as the criteria for recognizing a gentleman. Thackeray uses both concepts of the gentleman in Vanity Fair. He uses the older definition ironically in connection with characters like Lord Steyne and Sir Pitt Crawley, both the father and the son; the new definition is applied to the honorable–and honest–William Dobbin.


Fashionable society accepts Lord Steyne as indisputably a gentleman even though his immoral lifestyle is notorious. Despite his open womanizing and other vices, his "distinguished courtesy" toward his wife in public "caused the severest critics to admit how perfect a gentleman he was, and to own that his Lordship's heart at least was in the right place" (page 576). Appearance and status are what matter in determining who is a gentleman, not character or virtue or the whole life of a man.

In private, where society cannot see or hear his treatment of his wife or other female dependents, Steyne is heartless or ungentlemanly. He savagely abuses his wife, Lady Steyne, and daughter-in-law, Lady Gaunt, verbally to force them to invite Becky to their home. Moreover, "To see his wife and daughter suffering always put his Lordship into a good humour" (page 757). To emphasize the irony, Thackeray uses Steyne's title, "his lordship." When Lady Gaunt defies him to strike her, he replies, "I am a gentleman, and never lay my hand upon a woman, save in the way of kindness" (page 575). He is brutal in his advice to Becky, when she reveals that she has cheated Miss Briggs out of her money and ruined her financially: "‘Ruined her? Then why don't you turn her out?' the gentleman asked" (page 571). In both of these incidents, the term "gentleman" is used ironically for satiric purpose; Steyne is simultaneously--and ironically--a sadistic brute and a perfect gentleman. This concept of the gentleman contrasts with the newer one Thackeray espouses.


Thackeray explicitly identifies what the true gentleman is and who of his characters is a true gentleman. On the one hand, his concept democratizes the concept of the gentleman because a man of any class who has the requisite character and integrity could be a gentleman. On the other hand, Thackeray sets such a high standard for the gentleman that very few men actually fit his definition of a true gentlemen, though there are many who regard themselves and are regarded as gentlemen using the standards of Vanity Fair. Thackeray distinguishes between the few true gentlemen and the more numerous group whose claim to being gentlemen is based on externals, not virtues:

        Perhaps these are rarer personages than some of us think for. Which of us can point out many such in his circle–men whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who can look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and the small? We all know a hundred whose coats are very well made, and a score who have excellent manners, and one or two happy beings who are what they call in the inner circles and have shot into the very centre and bull's-eye of the fashion; but of gentlemen how many? Let us take a little scrap of paper and each make out his list.
        My friend the Major I write, without any doubt, in mine. He had very long legs, a yellow face, and a slight lisp, which at first was rather ridiculous. But his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble (page 740).


The new concept of the gentleman can degenerate into the recognition of appearance, position, wealth, and a conformity to decorum. Sir Pitt Crawley, the son, is the model of the prig who places money and advancement before generosity, honor, and kindness. He is able to listen to Rawdon's request for help and sympathize with him after Rawdon assures him he is not asking for money. On this occasion, Thackeray describes Sir Pitt, ironically, as "a real old English gentleman, in a word–a model of neatness and every propriety" (page 636). He is wearing a starched cravat with his dressing gown!

Mr. Osborne, made brutal and self-righteous by egotism and pride of success, represents the middle class capitalist who sees the world in terms of money, judges people by their wealth, and uses his children to fulfill his social ambitions and enhance his sense of self-worth. He raises his son to be a gentleman, who not surprisingly turns out a self-centered, self-satisfied, superficial snob. He is in the process of ruining his grandson with extravagant indulgence. Ironically the chapter which describes Georgy's life in the Osborne mansion is titled "Georgy is Made a Gentleman"; in reality, his crass, ignorant grandfather is making Georgy less of a gentleman than he starts out as by encouraging his self-importance and by not providing boundaries to guide him. Fortunately Georgy is redeemable. It is true that he has been indulged by his mother, that his egotism has been fostered by her idolizing him, and that he is being turned into his father even by her. Nevertheless he has benefitted morally and emotionally by being raised by a true lady who has many excellent qualities; he is, after all, the recipient of her love, kindness, humility, selflessness, and tenderness. Obnoxious as Georgy can be, he nevertheless has sterling qualities, as shown by his generosity to and tender feeling for the beggar boy whom he gives money to–before his attendant can chase the boy away. Circumstance favors his being saved from his father's character with the elder Osborne's death and the guidance of Dobbin, whose sterling nature George is gentleman enough to perceive.


Redefining the gentleman requires redefining the lady, so that the lady, too, is no longer a class-based concept. Like the gentleman, the lady must have character and be virtuous, though the nature of her character and her specific virtues differ from those of the gentleman. Amelia exemplifies the true lady for Thackeray, in a passage discussing her raising Georgy::

He had been brought up by a kind, weak, and tender woman, who had no pride about anything but about him, and whose heart was so pure and whose bearing so meek and humble that she could not but needs be a true lady. She busied herself in gentle offices and quiet duties; if she never said brilliant things, she never spoke or thought unkind ones; guileless and artless, loving and pure, indeed how could our poor little Amelia be other than a real gentlewoman!" (page 664).
Lady Steyne, suffering, pure, and passive, is also a true lady; Lady Jane Sheepshanks, who develops more depth and character as the novel progresses, comes to be another true lady.


The new concept of the lady, like that of the gentleman, can degenerate into the recognition of appearance, position, wealth, and a conformity to decorum. As Amelia exemplifies the new true lady, so Becky expresses the corrupted concept of a lady, a concept whose criteria would be easier to meet and would undoubtedly be more widely acceptable:

        "It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife," Rebecca thought. "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery and count the apricots on the wall. I could water plants in a green-house and pick off dead leaves from the geraniums. I could ask old women about their rheumatisms and order half-a-crown's worth of soup for the poor. I shouldn't miss it much, out of five thousand a year. I could even drive out ten miles to dine at a neighbor's, and dress in the fashions of the year before last. I could go to church and keep awake in the great family pew, or go to sleep behind the curtains, with my veil down, if I only had practice. I could pay everybody, if I had but the money. This is what the conjurors here pride themselves upon doing. They look down with pity upon us miserable sinners who have none. They think themselves generous if they give our children a five-pound note, and us contemptible if we are without one." (page 499)
Becky's idea of a lady is based on externals–money, clothes, and socially-acceptable behavior, without the virtues and character which should motivate that behavior. The satire is clear. But Thackeray introduces ambiguity by wondering in the rest of this paragraph whether Becky is right:

And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations–and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so. An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton; but put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf. (pages 499-500)
Is this Thackeray speaking or a narrator, a persona who is not expressing Thackeray's view? Is Thackeray expressing a pessimistic view about human nature and our capacity for goodness and honesty? The small number of gentlemen would be explained by such a view.Or is he challenging the smug, reasuring belief his readers may hold of their own righteousness? This passage upset many contemporaries, because it assumes that honesty comes from self-interest and sufficient wealth not to be tempted rather than innate goodness. Thackeray justified this passage to G.H. Lewes, who was offended by it:
I am quite aware of the dismal roguery wh goes all through the Vanity Fair story–and God forbid that the world should be like it altogether: though I fear it is more like it than we like to own. But my object is to make every body engaged, engaged in the pursuit of Vanity and I must carry my story through in this dreary minor key, with only occasional hints here & there of better things–of better things wh it does not become me to preach.
Thackeray felt some unease with the role of moralist and preacher because he seldom lost sight of his own flawed nature and regrettable past actions. He had personally experienced Becky's view and feelings. In 1839, when he was facing poverty after the loss of his inheritance, he wrote his mother about a wealthy "good, sober, and religious" friend, "a fine English squire"; he added that "if I had 3,000 a year I think I'd be so too."


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