THEMES IN VANITY FAIR
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
- 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
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
- 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,
and diligent, and by having a certain culture and education. Amelia,
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
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.