Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Part II)

*Warning, this post may contain spoilers for those who have not read Vanity Fair.

Although the writing itself was still quite humorous at many times in the second half of Vanity Fair, the second portion seemed to take on a much darker tone than the first. I suppose it is the sign of a talented writer when one can be funny and create feelings of desperation and sadness at the same time. There is so much desperation amongst the characters of Thackeray’s story. Many of them are desperate for money, but beyond that they all seem to have an acute need for acceptance, validation from someone: Dobbin from Amelia, Amelia from her son, The Rawdon Crawley’s from the Pitt Crawley’s, Rawdon from Rebecca, Rawdon Jr. from his mother, and Becky from society. Perhaps the saddest story of all is Rebecca’s treatment of her son. Her utter lack of feeling for and attention to the boy broke my heart.

Rebecca is for sure “no angel”, but despite her often cold-hearted, scheming, manipulative ways I could not dislike her, even though I wanted to. I wonder if what Thackeray says is true: “that it was only a question of money and fortune that made the difference between her and an honest woman?” If Becky had been born into money and position maybe she would not have become the great manipulator that she was. But there is also the chance that this was simply a part of her personality that she could never have escaped. Either way, I certainly got a laugh out of her presentation to the King:

“If she did not wish to lead a virtuous life, at least she desired to enjoy a character of virtue, and we know that no lady in the genteel world can possess this desideratum, until she has put on a train and feathers, and has been presented to her Sovereign at Court. From that august interview they come out stamped as honest women. The Lord Chamberlain gives them a certificate of virtue.”

I am wondering if this ceremony and certification was really a rite of passage for certain women in this society … I need to research this further as I found the whole thing to be such an interesting concept.

In the same way that I could not dislike Rebecca, I could not feel sorry for Amelia, even though I wanted to. When Dobbin finally left her, I wanted to stand up and cheer. I was shocked when he took her back despite having lost most of his real passion for her. She simply did not deserve him.

At times, the story rambles. I am sure Thackeray could have accomplished his goals in a slightly shorter form; however, this issue is no doubt a product of the novel having originally been published in monthly installments. It appears that his outlook on society is a quite dreary one, that history is destined to repeat itself due to the unwavering foolishness of human nature. I thought this was evident in the fact that there was no real happy ending in the novel. Even the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia is tainted. And what about Rebecca and Jos Sedley? It appeared to me that Thackeray was hinting that Rebecca had somehow slowly poisoned Jos for his life insurance money. Do you think it was murder?

Some last gems from Thackeray:

“Many a glass of wine have we all drunk, I have very little doubt, hob-nobbing with the hospitable giver, and wondering how the deuce he paid for it!”

“And let us, my brethren, who have not our names in the Red Book, console ourselves by thinking comfortably how miserable our betters may be, and that Damocles, who sits on satin cushions, and is served on gold plate, has an awful sword hanging over his head in the shape of a bailiff, or an hereditary disease, or a family secret …”

“To know nothing, or little, is in the nature of some husbands. To hide, in the nature of many women? O ladies! How many of you have surreptitious milliner’s bills? How many of you have gowns and bracelets, which you daren’t show, or which you wear trembling?”

“As they say the persons who hate Irishmen most are Irishmen: so, assuredly, the greatest tyrants over women are women.”

“Did we know what our intimates and dear relations thought of us, we should live in a world that we should be glad to quit, and in a frame of mind and a constant terror, that would be perfectly unbearable.”

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Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Part I)

Vanity: lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness: the vanity of a selfish life (dictionary.com)

When I decided to join Allie’s read-along of Vanity Fair, it was really on a whim as I actually had no idea what the novel was about. Right away, I was pleasantly surprised by the humor I encountered. I should not have been surprised as this work is a satirical piece; Thackeray’s commentary on 1800s English society. Gad! I like this guy! He is giving voice to what I have alluded to in other posts regarding novels set in this period: the ridiculous nature of a certain class of this society, how they amble idly through life, often living in the clouds and above their means to disastrous ends.

William Makepeace Thackeray ... is it odd that he reminds me a little of Newt Gingrich?

I admire the narration of this novel because the characters are puppets on Thackeray’s string. It reminds me of the Shakespeare quote from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” I am quite fond of Becky Sharp, although not all readers are. In truth, I am not sure why she is singled out as having the worst reputation since all of the principle players in Vanity Fair are flawed and hallow in some way, even Amelia and Dobbin. It is only a matter of to what degree.

This is a such society of contradictions. For example, the rich Miss Crawley prides herself on her liberal behavior. She tells Rebecca the following: “That was the most beautiful part of Lord Nelson’s character … he went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that. I adore all imprudent matches … what I like best, is for a nobleman to marry a miller’s daughter … I wish some great man would run away with you, my dear.” But, when her favorite nephew, Rawdon, makes that exact imprudent match and marries Becky, Miss Crawley turns her back on them both!

It is interesting reading this novel after War and Peace. Although two very different works, there are uncanny correlations between the characters of these two books. Jos Sedley and Pierre, Amelia and Marya, Rebecca and both Natasha and Helene, etc. Vanity Fair was originally published in monthly installments in 1848 while War and Peace was not published until 1869. Was Tolstoy influenced by Thackeray in some way?

Some favorite Thackeray quotes so far:

“… they hated each other cordially …”

“What a charming reconciler and peacemaker money is.”

“Yes, if a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

“I wonder is it because men are cowards in heart that they admire bravery so much, and place military valour so far beyond every other quality for reward and worship?”

“Her mamma ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her.”