Friday, November 3, 2017

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

This post contains spoilers. 



Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is the story of two young women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. Set during and in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, the narrative covers the marriages and social interactions of these two women. The book is a biting social satire of people and norms. 

Becky is a cynical schemer and very manipulative. She lies, cheats and uses her sexuality to manipulate others. Amelia is a depressive who is innocent and mostly virtuous. Early on, Becky marries Rawdon Crawley, who is irresponsible, not very bright and often behaves unethically. Crawly worships Becky and is easily controlled. Despite his flaws, Rawdon does show some decency. For instance, while Becky is scornful and neglectful of the couple’s son, Rawdon clearly loves the boy and shows him kindness.

Amelia marries George Osborne, who, though not without some good points, is irresponsible and neglectful of her. Many of the male characters are British officers and some of the narrative centers upon the Battle of Waterloo. When George is killed in that clash, the pregnant Amelia plunges into even deeper depression. 

William Dobbin is a friend of George who waits in the background and tries to protect the widowed Amelia and her son Georgy. When he is transferred to India Amelia’s family slides into financial ruin, and Amelia is brought down with them. Eventually the two are reunited. Amelia and Dobbin represent the moral center of the book. 

One striking thing about this novel is the point of view and narration. The narrator refers to himself or herself (At one point the narrator seems to undergo a gender switch) as “I” and occasionally refers to visiting locations in the narrative and meetings with the characters. A Google search of the point of view of this work indicated that this is called first person peripheral.

The narrator is also extremely cynical, sarcastic and may be unreliable. People and conventions are skewered on page after page. Sometimes the attacks are humorous. Sometimes they are serious and sad. People’s vanity, greed, hypocrisy, etc. are all fair game. All of this seems to come naturally because the book is full of vain, greedy and pompous people. Everything, from wealth, aristocracy, the upper classes, the middle classes, the lower classes, men in general, women in general, the legal system and so much more are satirized and/or picked apart. At one point, the hypocrisy within families is examined when going through the Osborne family portraits.

“There was a picture of the family over the mantelpiece, removed thither from the front room after Mrs. Osborne's death— George was on a pony, the elder sister holding him up a bunch of flowers; the younger led by her mother's hand; all with red cheeks and large red mouths, simpering on each other in the approved family-portrait manner. The mother lay underground now, long since forgotten— the sisters and brother had a hundred different interests of their own, and, familiar still, were utterly estranged from each other. Some few score of years afterwards, when all the parties represented are grown old, what bitter satire there is in those flaunting childish family-portraits, with their farce of sentiment and smiling lies, and innocence so self-conscious and self-satisfied.”

This book is full of such passages. The work is thus a sardonic indictment on the foibles of people and society. 

However, all is not negative within these pages. I think that Thackeray provides a clue as to his own worldview when we consider who he does not tear to pieces. The characters and actions of Amelia or Dobbin are never once mocked or criticized. On the contrary, they are talked about in almost reverential tones. Both are shown to possess some flaws, but these flaws are never ridiculed or described in a harsh light. 

At one point Georgy’s upbringing under Amelia is observed,

He had been brought up by a kind, weak, and tender woman, who had no pride about anything but about him, and whose heart was so pure and whose bearing was so meek and humble that she could not but needs be a true lady. She busied herself in gentle offices and quiet duties; if she never said brilliant things, she never spoke or thought unkind ones; guileless and artless, loving and pure, indeed how could our poor little Amelia be other than a real gentlewoman!”

Such passages are common within the novel concerning both Amelia and Dobbin. I think that in these words, Thackeray is telling us what he finds moral and decent in the world. In a book filled with arrogant and prideful characters, I think that it is significant that Amelia’s humility is championed. In the end, the book is illustrating a terribly capricious world full of greed, hypocrisy and lies. A few good people, who seem to be almost beyond reproach, exist as an island against these ills. 

There is a lot going on in this book. I have barely scratched the surface above. There are major characters and subplots that I have not even mentioned. It is full of interesting ideas and themes. It has much to say about the world. It is also full of interesting characters. The plot is often engrossing, and the writing is excellent. The prose ranges from the hilarious to the poignant. This novel deserves to be called a classic. 

39 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

I often find the women in the so-called Classics a bit, well, soppy but these two sound far from being this.

A great commentary as always Brian, thank you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. William Dobbin is the one who is on the soppy side in this book.

Fred said...

Brian, actually I found both Amelia and Dobbin a bit overdone. Perhaps it's only in comparison to the other characters who are so far off in the other direction. However, that quotation you provided, the one describing Amelia as mother, does seem a bit soppy.

Did you think Becky's renunciation at the end believable?

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Haven't read Vanity Fair but the character that tends to get mentiined alot in association with this book is Becky Sharp. Amelia though sounds like a kind hearted character that readers will enjoy meeting as well. I understand Charlotte Bronte was a big fan of Thackery.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - The characters in this book really are exaggerations. I think that plays out in several ways including vanity, virtue, sentimentally, etc.

Becky's contrition at the end did not seem realistic, but in a way, it fits in with the tenor of the novel. In the end we are told that it was all a puppet show.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I did not know about Bronte.

Becky is indeed a great character who is fun to read about. If I was writing a more balanced analysis of the book I would have written about her more.

James said...

Another great review of a classic. The two most memorable aspects of the book for me were the authorial voice and the character of Becky Sharp. I also remember the contrast between love and money. In the end the world in the novel seemed to be not too much unlike our own.

Suko said...

Wonderful commentary! It's difficult to "scratch the surface" in regards to such an outstanding classic work. Most importantly, the writing is excellent and full of depth.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. The not so hidden narrator was outstanding as was Becky. I do recognize the vanity and vacuousness in our world. However, I think that there is more then a bit of good and decency. I think that the good stuff may be a little more common then Thackeray recognized.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - There really is so much to this book. I could write multiple posts on it.

Mudpuddle said...

from reading this and other Thackeray productions, i've thought that one of his delights is to extrapolate the social behavior of his characters to the point of grotesquerie... leading to some perhaps uncomfortable speculation concerning his, T's psyche... just saying... great, close read, review... tx a bunch

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle. Grotesquerie is a really good word. Though I did not find this book as over the top as most Dickens novels.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, I listened to this book on an audio years ago and it's one I'd like to visit again - I'll read the book next time. I was surprised at how enjoyable it was as I was expecting it to be dull. It has a similar plot to Gone With the Wind but I've read that Margaret Mitchell said she had never read Vanity Fair. The character of Dobbins was an interesting one to follow throughout the course of the book.

Fred said...

Brian, yes. It did fit the tenor of the novel, even if it didn't fit Becky, or so it seemed to me.

And, of course, all stories are really puppet shows. But, the best stories convince the reader of the opposite. (See Don Quixote)

JacquiWine said...

I recently read something where one of the characters was described as a bit of a Becky Sharp. Even though I'm not very familiar with Thackeray's novel, I knew enough to understand that the character in question was rather cynical and manipulative. It's interesting how some figures in literature can have a 'life' or meaning beyond the context of their original story. Great commentary as ever, Brian.

JoAnn said...

This is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review... so many characters, plots, and subplots, you can't possibly cover it all! I read this as part of a readalong a few years ago and, surprisingly, found it both readable and enjoyable. As usual, I enjoyed reading your post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - Dobbins was very interesting. Though virtuous he was weak just did not assert himself enough. He eventually realized this himself.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui. It is striking howl Becky Sharp is well known and influential. Characters like her have indeed become part of our culture.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn- In terms of plot there is so much going on in this book. That is one reason I like to hone in on something in particular that interests me.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you for this illuminating review, Brian. Unreliable narrators are my favourite. I have never heard of 'First Person Peripheral'. I will do some homework to see if the technique was employed by any other writers. I am beginning to brace myself to read classics because of encouraging reviews like yours. Thank you again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Deepika - I also had never heard of First Person Peripheral. There u=is a Wikipedia entry on it here that includes examples of other writers who have used it

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-person_narrative.

The narrator of this book is truly one of the highlights of this book.

thecuecard said...

Hi Brian, I too will have to read up from Wiki on First Person Peripheral as I'm not familiar with it. You make this classic sound very good. I have not read it but wonder do Becky and Amelia know one another? Are they friends? They seem very juxtaposed in the story. cheers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - First Person Peripheral is interesting. Amelia and Becky are friends for a good part of the book. Amelia eventually sees though the harm that Becky is doing.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review, Brian.

I read this book a year or so ago and found it much as you said. The most fascinating character of course is Becky. She's simply amazing in her ability to connive and her cruelty reminds me a lot of the female anti-hero in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Are there really people who spend their lives trying to use and abuse others? I'm sure there are but I hope I don't fall into their clutches.

I agree with Mudpuddle that the characters can stretch towards the grotesque (and I agree with you that Dickens was worse at that) but at the same time I think he was pulling people out of proportion in order to better present us with the foibles of human nature and how the system back then was set up.

On the one hand Becky is a horrible person, on the other hand she could be seen as a survivor who figured out how the system was rigged.

I still hated her.

Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think there are people like Becky out there. But luckily they are rare. I also do not think much of her as a person, but what a literary character!

I really need to read The Grapes of Wrath.


Have a great week!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Sorry, Brian. I meant East of Eden.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Oh yes! Cathy from East of Eden was some character. She really was in class by herself. One of the most malevolent out there.

Caroline said...

I didn’t read your whole review as this is one of the classics I reall want to read. I’m glad you liked it so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- I try to be careful with spoiler warnings :) If you read this, I would love to know what you thought.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT analysis as usual, Brian!!

Reading your very insightful post, I am now full of regret that I have actually never been that interested in reading this book. It sounds SO fascinating!

I love how Amelia's and Dobbin's moral, decent behavior is contrasted with that of the other, very flawed characters. Although these two have their own flaws, as you pointed out, they are still people to be held up as exemplary. And I think you're right -- with these two characters, Thackeray is giving the reader a glimpse of his own values and worldview.

The two quotes you have included show that Thackeray's prose is EXCELLENT. I can see why this book is considered a classic! Indeed it is!

Another thing that now makes me want to read this novel is that I've just remembered that Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë's biggest literary heroes! In fact, I did a bit of Googling, and found out more -- he praised "Jane Eyre" when it was first published, and in gratitude, Brontë dedicated the second edition of her masterpiece to him.

So this will be my first (early, I know, lol) New Year's resolution: read "Vanity Fair"!!

Thanks for your incisive commentary!! HAPPY WEDNESDAY!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria - The prose style in this book is really special. It is entertaining and funny at times, at other times it is terribly sad. These contrasts work very well together.

I was just reading about the Thackeray and Charlotte Bronte myself. I always find it interesting when great writers talk about each other. Have a great day!

baili said...

Sounds really appealing as basically story about common people with common situations always attract me more.
clashes between right and wrong and struggle among virtues and flaws is so appealing to me .
i have to dig little more about writer ,may be can find such more topics from him.
though according to your own opinion you revealed less of this great novel yet whatever is told ,is told so wonderfully and provokes to find and read the book

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - So much of literature is concerned with issues of right and wrong as well as virtue and lack of virtue.

Thackeray wrote a lot of books but none reached the level of fame as this one. I have not written anything else by him.

HKatz said...

Definitely on my reading list. Interesting, that passage you excerpt about Amelia's humility does sound like it has a mocking tone, though maybe because I'm not reading it yet as part of the whole book. Humility is important (and there's too little of it) but being an utterly self-effacing doormat is also not good (though it was an ideal pushed on women). In general, I like finding kind characters who don't have to be written as saints or angels to convey their kindness.

As for the excerpt about the family portrait - wow, that is cutting and rings true for things I see now too. The narrator also sounds interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Though I am wondering if there is any irony in that passage, Amelia's personality is kind to everyone and is meek. In so some ways she is a doormat. If this is ironic it is making fun of the way that she is. There may be things going on in multiple levels in this book.

JaneGS said...

I love this book--so glad you read it! I've read it three times, and enjoy it more each time. The Victorians group at GoodReads is considering it for a January readalong, and I will most likely join in. So much to consider, dissect, and enjoy.

I love the narrator--yes, the tone is sardonic, but you are right, he spares those who are truly worthy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - It is indeed a book worth loving. If you reread it and post about it I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Sheree said...

Oooh, some really interesting thoughts here! It's funny, I didn't get the impression that Thackeray was quite as kind to Amelia and Dobbin as you suggest. Perhaps it's just my bias as a reader (because I found both characters awfully dull and resented their moralising and martyrdom - maybe I'm more of a "Becky"? haha), but I thought, for instance, their lack of a "happy ending" (they go on to lead quite boring, miserable lives if I remember correctly) might have been Thackeray's way of saying that being "virtuous" isn't the be all and end all. It's really interesting to see how we all read these classics differently, thank you so much for sharing your review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sheree - Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Your interpretation of the characters in this book may be getting at an entirely different level then I got at. Perhaps the so called virtuous characters were dull and self righteous. It is an intriguing way to look at this story.