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Intelligent and outrageous, self-reliant and alone, resourceful and courageous, meeting the world on its own terms and succeeding time and again, refusing to be defeated–Becky engages us with her vitality and aliveness and arouses our admiration for her resilience. An unscrupulous trickster, a liar and a cheat, a schemer and a manipulator, a swindler, a hypocrite, a betraying wife and friend, a callous mother, a gambler, and possibly a murderer–Becky has her dark side which we (and Thackeray?) have to come to terms with. Who is Becky Sharp? How finally are we to feel about her and to think about her? If our feelings and our reason produce contradictory responses, how do we reconcile them?


Becky's innocence becomes a major issue in the novel when Rawdon discovers her alone with Lord Steyne. A great deal of planning goes into making Steyne's tete-a-tete with Becky possible; her son is placed in a boarding school, Miss Briggs is sent to Steyne's country house, and Rawdon is arrested for debt. Her indifference to his welfare becomes clear to Rawdon when he receives her letter–beautiful in appearance (pink paper, light green seal, highly scented), heartless and superficial in content. Rawdon's suspicions of Becky are reawakened and he is desperate to be released.

His suspicions are confirmed when he finds Steyne and Becky alone. Becky, frightened, cries, "I am innocent, Rawdon" (page 632, chapter LIII). Is it significant that the snake image appears at this point, her hands being covered with "serpents, and rings, and baubles"? Rawdon strikes Steyne twice, throwing him to the ground. Becky sees her husband in a new light: "She admired her husband, strong, brave, and victorious" (page 633). Thackeray was enormously proud of this detail: "When I wrote the sentence, I slapped my fist on the table, and said, ‘that is a touch of genius!'" Why does she have this response when all her plans and her success are destroyed at the moment of achievement? Does she perhaps get some satisfaction in seeing the powerful, wealthy Steyne humiliated, in seeing the man who repeatedly sneered at her and held the power to fulfill her social ambitions powerless? Or is Thackeray being ironic?

Steyne vehemently denies her innocence; he has spent thousands of pounds on her. Does this necessarily mean they have slept together? Would Steyne have waited years and spent thousands of pounds without some sexual return from Becky?  Did he enjoy her company enough, did she interest him enough and was she clever enough so that he waited? If they have been lovers, why go to all the bother of setting up this evening for them to be alone and to get her son and Miss Briggs out of the house? Is Steyne's word about her guilt necessarily accurate? He erroneously accuses Rawdon of being part of a scheme to shake him down. And does Steyne live in a world and have a view of life in which innocence is possible?

Even if she has not physically betrayed Rawdon, are there other kinds of betrayal that she might be guilty of?

  • Did she intend to sleep with Steyne? Would an unfulfilled intention make her guilty? Christ taught that a man who lusts in his heart after a woman is guilty of adultery. Does this moral principle apply to Becky?
            A similar question arises in her flirtation with George at Brussels. In Brussels when Amelia accuses Becky of trying to take George away from her and of being a false friend, Becky protests, "I have done my husband no wrong" (page 361, chapter XXXI). So far as physical infidelity goes, Becky is accurate; that she intends to run off with George, who is poor and whom she holds in contempt, is unlikely. Is she stringing him along so that Rawdon can fleece him gambling? Amelia raises a different offense, betrayal of friendship, "Have you done me no wrong, Rebecca? You did not succeed, but you tried. Ask your heart if you did not" (page 361, ). Is Rebecca guilty of this offense? If so, is it a serious moral and/or emotional offense?

  • Has she betrayed Rawdon's trust and love? When he discovers the money she has squirreled away in the desk Amelia gave her in friendship (an irony?), he says, "You might have spared me a hundred pounds, Becky, out of all this–I have always shared with you." (page 634, chapter XXXI)

  • Rawdon refuses a reconciliation, "If she's not guilty, Pitt, she's as bad as guilty, and I'll never see her again–never" (page 661, chapter LV). How can Becky be not guilty but "as bad as guilty"? Is Rawdon judging morally or emotionally? Is Rawdon qualified to cast moral stones at Becky, in view of his accepting the governorship which Steyne got him because of Becky?
Thackeray leaves the question the question of her innocence open:

        What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? All her lies and her schemes, all her selfishness and her wiles, all her wit and genius had come to this bankruptcy. (page 635, chapter LIV)
Society's judgment of her guilt is unreliable, because it is not based on the facts or concern for the truth but on rumor, a priori assumptions, and corrupt values: "Was she guilty or not? We all know how charitable the world is, and how the verdict for Vanity Fair goes when there is a doubt" (pages 661-2, chapter LV).  Is this passage at least as much a comment on the corrupt values, the uncharitableness of society as a discussion of Becky?

Should much meaning be attached to a comment Thackeray dryly makes when Becky sees Steyne and other people she remembered from "happier days, when she was not innocent but not found out" (page 772, chapter LXIV).


Previous to Rawdon's confrontation with Steyne, the servants had judged her guilty, "the awful kitchen inquisition which sits in judgment in every house and knows everything" (page 527, chapter XLIV).  Later in this passage, Thackeray explains that Lord Steyne's visits reassured the servants and Raffles into giving Becky credit.  

Are servants in a position to know what is happening in a household? are they likely to know their employer's secrets? The reliability of their knowledge is called into question. The narrator warns employers, "If you are not guilty, have a care of appearances, which are as ruinous as guilt" (page 528, chapter XLIV).  Of Becky specifically, he comments that she was "guiltless very likely" (page 529, chapter XLIV).



 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 2, 2011