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Thackeray again and again points out that the folly, social climbing, hypocrisy, cruelty, avarice, lovelessness, and selfishness exhibited by individual characters have their origin and counterpart in society as a whole. These values are learned early, as the anecdote of the three children happily playing, until told that the sister of one of them had a penny. All three ran to ingratiate themselves with the penny-holder and followed her, "marching with great dignity," toward a lollipop stall (pages 262-3, chapter XXIII).

To show the connection between the individual's values and behavior and society's, Thackeray often generalizes from a particular situation or an individual's action to the behavior and value of society. He universalizes the greedy fawning of the Crawleys over Miss Crawley's £70,000 into a common behavior in society: "What a dignity it gives an old lady, that balance at the banker's! How tenderly we look at her faults if she is a relative" (page 104, chapter IX).  He also identifies himself and the reader with this greed and obsequious behavior; note the "we" and the "you" with which the narrator addresses the reader throughout this passage.  Vanity Fair is, after all, a mirror in which the reader is expected to see himself or herself.


Using this technique of generalizing from the individual, he exposes the mercenary and impersonal basis of marriage in an acquisitive, money-oriented, status-conscious society.

Becky's desperate attempt to lure Jos into marriage gives Thackeray the opportunity to discuss society's institutionalization of husband hunting, which "is generally, and with becoming modesty, entrusted by young persons to their mammas" (page 32, chapter III). He then lists the approved and conventional activities by which young ladies find husbands. Amelia's idolatry of George is contrasted with Miss Maria Osborne's feelings for her fiancé or, to be more accurate, for his financial and social standing, which leads to a discussion of mercenary marriages in fashionable society (pages 134-5, chapter XII). Maria, the narrator notes, would be as willing to marry the father as the son.  Her fiancé, Frederick Bullock, Esq., is equally mercenary and refuses to marry unless Maria's dowry is increased; he changes his mind only after Mr. Osborne moves some of his money out of the Bullock firm and threatens to horsewhip Frederick whereupon Frederick's father and the senior partners of Bullock, Hulker, and Bullock urge him to go through with the marriage. The horrors of marriages arranged for financial and family considerations are revealed by the Steyne family's alliances (pages 555-60, chapter XLVII).


The dominant class in this novel, as it was increasingly in Thackeray's society, is the middle class, and the middle class is the mercantile, capitalist society. The predominant middle class value is money, as exemplified by Mr. Osborne. The consequences of this focus are spiritual and intellectual emptiness, a twisted morality, and corrupted emotions, particularly the inability to love and an incapacity for friendship. When Mr. Sedley commits the offense of losing his money, Osborne, a long-time friend, bitterly turns against him. The Osborne home, with its display of wealth and lack of love, is dreary and soulless. Things, material objects, dominate this house, and Mr. Osborne uses his children as objects to fulfill his own needs; George, his favorite child, is to fulfill his social ambitions by marrying wealth; J;ane, his elder daughter, to attend to his personal needs and house.

The volatility of the economic system and the unpredictability of financial markets are illustrated by Mr. Sedley's bankruptcy; he is ruined because Napoleon escaped from Elba. The pervasiveness of gambling in this novel reflects life in the Regency period; it serves as more than a historically accurate detail–it is another expression of economic unpredictability and instability.


Those who do not have fortunes but want to live a fashionable life resort to credit. Credit is such an important feature of society that Thackeray devotes two chapters on "How to Live Well on Nothing a Year" (Chapters XXXVI and XXXVII). While giving close attention to Becky and Rawdon's sharp practices, these chapters constantly describe other individuals who also live on credit and who typify the middle and upper classes.

Many tradesmen who trustingly extend credit are cheated and sometimes ruined. After Waterloo, the English are greatly respected throughout Europe for their wealth and trusted as honorable. Becky and Rawdon are "among the first of that brood of hardy English adventurers who have subsequently invaded the Continent and swindled in all the capitals of Europe" (page 433, chapter XXXVI). This abuse of credit and trust not only continues to Thackeray's day but extends to other abuses and crimes:

there is now hardly a town of France or Italy in which you shall not see some noble countryman of our own, with that happy swagger and insolence of demeanour which we carry everywhere, swindling inn-landlords, passing fictitious cheques upon credulous bankers, robbing coach-makers of their carriages, goldsmiths of their trinkets, easy travellers of their money at cards, even public libraries of their books. (page 433, chapter XXXVI)
Spending other people's money to maintain a position in fashionable societiy, which is really what credit is in Vanity Fair, brings no stigma no matter how much misery defaulting causes. People willingly attend Becky's little parties, even as they gossip about how she pays for them. When a "noble nobleman" fails because of a debt of 6 or 7 million pounds, the public perceives his ruin as "glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin" (page 439, chapter XXXVII). But his ruin has implications for many others; Thackeray asks,

But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady's dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who pledged all he is worth, and more to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed... (page 439, chapter XXXVI)
Thackeray does not present everyone who extends credit and is consequently ruined as a complete victim.  Mr. Raggles and the servants in the Crawley househouse become victims, at least in part,  because of their own corrupt values:

          And I shame to say, she would not have got credit had they not believed her to be guilty. It was the sight of the Marquis of Steyne's carriage-lamps at her door, contemplated by Raggles, burning in the blackness of midnight, "that kep him up," as he afterward said; that even more than Rebecca's arts and coaxings. (pages 528-9, chapter XLIVS)
Thus, Raggles's ruin--and the non-payment of the servants' salaries--is caused mostly by a belief in Becky's adultery, not by a guileless trust. Even if Raffles and others like him extend credit willingly or even half-heartedly, is their punishment disproportionate to their extending credit? Financially ruined, Raffles is jailed, all his assets are seized, and his wife and chidlren becomes homeless.

The moral corruption and callousness resulting from the premium placed on wealth, ostentation, and status have spread throughout society, from the aristocrat to the servants. Thackeray uses the narrator to speak for society to express society's values: "‘I' is here introduced to personify the world in general" (page 42, chapter IV). The narrator asserts that society is filled with people who cannot pay their debts; they are so numerous that, if they were banished, "why, what a howling wilderness and intolerable dwelling Vanity Fair would be!" (page 603, chapter LI). Society is built upon an economy of squandering other people's money for one's own enjoyment and finally ruining oneself and others: "Thus trade flourishes--civilization advances; peace is kept; new dresses are wanted for new assemblies every week; and the last year's vintage of Lafitte will remunerate the honest proprietor who reared it" (page 603, chapter LI).


Regarding others as commodities or objects to be used for one's own ends is widespread, almost universal, in this society. Miss Crawley uses Miss Briggs, Becky, and her relatives to amuse herself and drops them without a pang when they no longer suit her needs. In turn, she and her fortune are a commodity which her relatives want to secure for themselves. After a stroke incapacitates Sir Pitt and his son takes control of the estate, Sir Pitt becomes a worthless object and is kept out of sight.

Things, possessions are more important than people. Ironically, people's possessions outlast them or their wealth, as shown by the numerous auctions resulting from bankruptcy or death. Things express what passes for love in Vanity Fair; Becky receives scores of gifts ranging from flowers to gloves and watches. The narrator dryly comments on the amount of  jewelry which men purchase for women they are pursuing while their wives do without.

As a mother Becky, who expresses neither love nor interest in her son, becomes an object for him. He admires her appearance and her possessions: "She came like a vivified figure out of the Magasin des Modes–blandly smiling in the most beautiful new clothes and little gloves and boots. Wonderful scarfs, laces, and jewels glittered about her.... She was an unearthly being in his eyes, superior to his father–to all the world: to be worshipped and admired at a distance" (449, chapter XXXVII). There follows a list of things in her room which define her for little Rawdon.


The narrator at times presents spending money in a favorable light. The narrator (or is it Thackeray?) seems pleased that Amelia is not above enjoying her shopping spree on her honeymoon; he asks, "Would any man, the most philosophic, give twopence for a woman who was?" (page 306, chapter XXVI). Shopping makes her mother happy for the first time since the bankruptcy. Is he being ironic? is this an expression of his view of women? Buying things seems to be connected to love or at least attracation when the narrator says that he would purchase all Mr. Lee's conservatories for one kiss from Amelia.


One of Becky's weaknesses is the desire to be respectable and accepted into "the best" or fashionable society. As a token gesture toward the rules governing a lady's behavior, she hires, but does not pay, Miss Briggs to be her companion. She achieves her goal of respectability after she is presented to King George IV at court. This presentation vouches for her social status and, of course, her character, so that some of "the best" foreigners and "the best English people too" visit her. The emptiness of her achievement soon manifests itself; "Her success excited, exalted, and then bored her" (page 597, chapter LI). Listening to the best people talk "about each others' houses, and characters, and families–just as the Joneses do about the Smiths," she wishes she were doing anything else, "oh, how much gayer it would be to wear spangles and trousers and dance before a booth at a fair" (page 598, chapter LI). "The best society" is no better, is not more interesting, nor is it different from lesser people, except in social status and wealth. Becky's tendency to Bohemianism or even disreputableness is implied in her reference to being a dancer.

Fashionable society is snobbish and hypocritical in addition to being uninteresting. Its members accept Becky after her presentation, with no more concern about her character. Lord Steyne, whose immorality is generally known, is courted by fashionable society; the most respectable, such as the Right Reverend Doctor Trail and the self-righteous Sir Pitt Crawley, flock to his parties. The narrator comments, "In a word everybody went to wait upon this great man" (page 560, chapter XLVII). In what sense is the despicable Steyne a "great" man?


The respectable world and the fashionable world have a shadow or opposing world, that of the demimonde [demimonde: a class of women who are not respectable because of sexual promiscuity or indiscreet behavior]. It is this class of women that Rawdon pursued as a young buck; Lady Crackenbury and Mrs. Washington White, friends whom Becky cut after her presentation at court and her acceptance into the most respectable and exclusive society, are demimondaines; it is into this class that Becky is perceived as belonging to before her presentation at court and that she falls into during her later wanderings in Europe. It is to entertain the demimonde–and their aristocratic and even royal male companions–that Lord Steyne maintains his private back apartment with the gold and silver kitchen utensils. It is in the company of the demimondaine Madame de Belladonna that he dies in Naples.

Because of the prudishness of much of his audience, Thackeray could not be explicit about the world of these women. He resorted to hints and indirection. He refers to the demimondaines as "ladies, who may be called men's women, being welcomed entirely by all the gentlemen and cut or slighted by all their wives" (page 441, chapter XXXVII). The use of Lord Steyne's discreet, luxurious apartment is hinted at in the useless gold and silver cooking utensils, the approach by a back door, and the visits of the Prince and Perdita (Perdita means the lost one). Writing at the same time in a less hypocritical society, Alexander Dumas fils, in The Lady of the Camellias, explicitly details the world of the demimonde in his tale of the doomed love of the courtesan Marguerite Gautier.


 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