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At Brussels, Becky is a social success and moves in the highest military circles, though there is a suggestion of impropriety in the Crawleys' sharing a suite with General Tufto, in which their rooms are "very close indeed to those of the General" (page 333, chapter XXIX).  Ever the social climbing snob and egotist, George pursues her and imagines he has made a conquest. At the Opera, he does not see the "queerest, knowingest look" Becky gives him, communicating that she is making a fool of the General, because George is "lost in pompous admiration of his own irresistible powers of pleasing" (page 331, chapter XXIX).

Honest Dobbin, neither a snob nor an egotist, sees the truth about Becky, who dislikes and fears him because of his clear vision and her inability to manipulate him. He sees her as a humbug who "writhes and twists about like a snake. All the time she was here, didn't you see, George, how she was acting at the General over the way?" (chapter XXIX, page 332). Thackeray uses the snake image to describe the note "coiled like a snake" in the bouquet George hands Becky (page 338, chapter XXIX) and to describe Becky as a siren (pages 759-60, chapter LXIV). The snake image is also associated with Becky in two initial drawings: Becky as siren in Chapter LXIV and Becky as snake in Chapter XIV (she is snaking her way into Miss Crawley's favor).

The call to battle comes during the ball. Thackeray chooses to describe, not the heroics and gallantry of a battle which determined the fate of Europe and England, but the varied reactions of civilians, soldiers setting off for battle and soldiers returned from battle. His anti-heroic attitude is also reflected in the initial drawing for Chapter XXX. A blind man (the military and the politicians) is about to fall into a stream (a pun on Waterloo). Might the drawing also apply to Thackeray, who professes an inability to describe battle, as well as apply to civilians, who have no idea what is happening on the battlefield? Is it ironic that a church stands in the background?

By and large, the civilians and soldiers in Brussels are selfish, venal, cowardly, hypocritical, and/or snobbish:

  • George writes his father a farewell letter in which love is mixed with pride, snobbery (the pretentious seal which the Osbornes had appropriated), and selfishness. He temporarily feels regret at having squandered his money because Amelia will be left in poverty if he dies and at his plan to run away with Becky: "Good God! how pure she was; how gentle, how tender, and how friendless! and he, how selfish, brutal, and black with crime! Heart-stained, and shame-stricken, he stood at the bed's foot, and looked at the sleeping girl. How dared he–who was he, to pray for one so spotless! God bless her! God bless her!" (page 340, chapter XXIX). This is all well and good, but very soon he is relieved at parting from her and eager for the battle: "‘Thank Heaven that is over,' George thought, bounding down the stair... his pulse was throbbing and his cheeks flushed: the great game of war was going to be played, and he one of the players. What a fierce excitement of doubt, hope, and pleasure! What tremendous hazards of loss or gain! What were all the games of chance he had ever played compared to this one?" (page 350, chapter XXX).
  • Becky pretends distress at Rawdon's going off to war; but once he is gone, she promptly falls asleep (does the expression on her face in the drawing hint that she is at all distressed?). Later she reviews her financial position with satisfaction, light-heartedly visits Amelia, and extorts a small fortune from Jos for her horses.

  • Representing the middle classes and the aristocracy respectively, the cowardly Jos and equally cowardly Bareacres, like large numbers of their compatriots, decide to flee. The image of Lady Bareacres and company sitting in their stately coach without horses and in all her pride of rank is unforgettable.

  • Amelia, in her selfish and abject devotion to George, is utterly useless as he prepares to leave for battle. She wallows in misery, so that she becomes a burden to others, who must look after her. How are we to read Thackeray's description of her suffering, "No man writhing in pain on the hard-fought field fifteen miles off, where lay, after their struggles, so many of the brave–no man suffered more keenly than this poor harmless victim of the war" (page 375, chapter XXXII)? Though helping to nurse the wounded Stubble keeps her from brooding over her fears, she listens to him only when George is mentioned and when George isn't, she thinks about him.

  • Jos's servant, Isidor, looks forward to appropriating all of Jos's clothes after the British are defeated. The cowardly Belgian soldiers, represented by Pauline's admirer, flee, lie about their bravery under impossible conditions, and spread rumors of a Brtish defeat. Anticipating Napoleon's victory, a vast number of Belgians reveal their hypocrisy and their true sympathy for Napoleon.

Not all the characters lack kindness and concern for others. The good-hearted, if comic, Peggy O'Dowd prepares her husband's clothes and coffee, thinks of the "bad dinner those poor boys will get" (page 364, chapter XXXII), and tends to the self-incapacitated Amelia. Rawdon takes what actions he can to provide for Becky's financial well-being should he not return and rides off to battle quietly, thinking of her. It is Dobbin, not George, who extracts a promise from Jos to take care of Amelia if the British lose.  It is also Dobbin who sends a message to Amelia, after the first battle, that George is all right.

Thackeray's handling of Waterloo develops his central theme and title; the most momentous events are a continuation of Vanity Fair. All is vanity, down to the ostentatious monuments that are mass produced for the war dead. Carved on George's monument are the "pompous Osborne arms" and the Latin motto, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country" (page 417, chapter XXXV). The motto is especially ironic because George's death is stripped of any military glory or heroism; it is relegated to a subordinate clause after a series of ordinary, subdued details–Brussels is quiet, night falls, Amelia is praying, and George lies dead. Although Mr. Osborne loved his son and grieves for him, his vanity and selfishness do not allow him to forgive George for not apologizing: "Old Osborne did not speculate much upon the mingled nature of his feelings, and how his instinct and selfishness were combating together. He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way" (page 420, chapter XXXV).

Not even death releases the hold which Vanity Fair has on us.


A true-life detail that Thackeray could well have used about the looting of corpses after the Battle of Waterloo is the Waterloo teeth.  One way false teeth were made at the time was to use real teeth, taken from corpses.  Waterloo provided not only a wealth of corpses, but corpses of young men who had sound teeth.  So many false teeth were made from the teeth pulled at Waterloo that false teeth came to be called Waterloo teeth.


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