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.