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This list of themes is intended as a guide in your reading, not as a definitive or complete list.
  • Vanity. Vanity, which takes a variety of forms, is a major motivation of individuals and characterizes society. Consider the following definitions of vanity from the OED: "Vain and unprofitable conduct or employment of time"; "The quality of being foolish or of holding erroneous opinions"; "The quality of being personally vain; high opinion of oneself; self-conceit and desire for admiration." Another meaning of vanity could possibly be the vanity mirror; this meaning relates to the use of mirrors in the text and the drawings.

  • Society's values. Individuals and society are driven by the worship of wealth, rank, power, and class and are corrupted by them. Consequences of this worship are (1) the perversion of love, friendship, and hospitality and (2) the inability to love.

  • Selfishness. Everyone is selfish in varying degrees. As little Georgy ironically writes in an essay. "An undue love of Self leads to the most monstrous crime and occasions the greatest misfortunes both in States and Families" (page 698, chapter LVIII). The selfishness of characters like Becky, Jos Sedley, and Lord Steyne is obvious; however, even apparently selfless characters like Amelia, Dobbin, and Lady Jane are selfish, though to a much lesser degree.

  • Illusion and reality. Is it possible to distinguish between illusion and reality? Motivated by self-interest, the characters practice hypocrisy, they misrepresent themselves both to others and to themselves, and they lie. Some characters deliberately choose their illusions or fantasies over the truth. Thus, every character deludes others and/or is self-deluded (does this pattern include the narrator?).

  • Heroism. Men and women are not heroic; the heroic poses and pretenses of characters, literature, and society are consistently deflated.

  • Fiction versus reality. The false portrayal of human nature and activities in novels, romance, and literary conventions is distinguished from real life. The subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero, Thackeray's identifying various characters as the hero or heroine, and the marriages of Amelia and Becky early in the novel--all violate novelistic conventions. George Osborne parodies the conventional hero. Is Thackeray's shifting narrator a satire of the literary convention that "novelists know the truth about everything" (p. 37, chapter III)?

  • Married and parental relationships. In a novel of domestic life, there are no happy marriages because of the egotism, selfishness, folly, and false values of individuals and of society. Similarly, selfishness, vanity, snobbery, and/or materialism affect every child-parent relationship.

  • The gentleman. Thackeray rejects the older concept of a gentleman as a man of rank and leisure, i.e., a member of the gentry or aristocracy. The true gentleman, as well as the true lady, is recognized by moral character, by being considerate, benevolent, and diligent, and by having a certain culture and education. Amelia, Lady Jane, and Dobbin are among the few real ladies and gentlemen in this novel.

  • Time. Thackeray's concern with time has caused him to be called the novelist of memory. The action is set in the past, and the narrator compares and contrasts the past with the present as he moves between them; occasionally he tells us a future event or outcome. The characters' memories of the past help to characterize them in the present. Thackeray also shows the effect which the passage of time has on the characters. His concern with time is reflected in the structure; the narrator occasionally interrupts the chronology, jumps back in time, and returns to the point where he stopped the chronology.


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

Feburary 15, 2011