Why is Thackeray's Vanity Fair called a "Novel without hero"?

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lynnebh's profile pic

lynnebh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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What is a hero? Is it a super-human being? Is it someone who is noble and courageous and performs feats that nobody else can perform? Is it someone who saves someone else? Is it someone who overcomes extraordinary obstacles? Is it someone who achieves something that nobody else can?

If any of these apply to Becky Sharp, then perhaps she really IS a hero.

Although Thackeray subtitled his novel A Novel Without a Hero, there are some critics that have argued that Becky Sharp is more than just the protagonist - that she is both a hero and a villain at the same time. Thackeray used her character to condemn the society in which she lived, the society in which she tried to climb the social ladder. In spite of the awful things she does throughout her life to achieve wealth and status, she is honest with herself about her motives. She is a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it, regardless of the consequences. Then, when she rises to the top and achieves her goals, she is struck with a sort of  "ennui" - evidence that a society that espouses that wealth and status equal success is empty and meaningless - full of "vanity", like the town Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress, after which this novel is entitled.

If society is the villain and not Becky, a case can be built that Becky is heroic because she succeeds in conquering society, even though the prizes it offers are, in Thackeray's view, not worth it. Becky, though, possesses many heroic qualities: she is smart, she is brave, she is bold, she has perseverance. True, she is also immoral, conniving and manipulative, but is this not society's fault? Are these not the qualities that the society forces her to resort to in order to rise?

If you contrast Becky with some of the great female characters of literature (Emma Bovary, Thomas Hardy's women characters such as Tess, etc.), you will see that while these women were destroyed or subdued by their societies, Becky overcomes hers, even if it is a hollow victory for her in the end.

Is Vanity Fair a novel without a hero, then? Is Becky an anti-hero - someone like Holden Caufield who lacks many of the traditional qualities of a hero but with whom the reader identifies and even admires?

I am playing the devil's advocate here to give you some ideas of what various critics have had to say about this novel. You must decide what YOU think, and then write your essay proving your point. Make sure you use specific evidence from the novel to support your views. You could write a good essay on any of these ideas, and perhaps you have some of your own.

See the link below for a discussion of the novel.

mkcapen1's profile pic

mkcapen1 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Although his novel is considered one without a hero, there are two protagonists, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley.  Becky longs to make a life in society with no inheritance or social status.  She initially meets Amelia’s brother Joseph and woos him.  She hopes he will ask her to marry him.  He would have were it not for Amelia’s boyfriend who looks down upon Becky as a money and fortune seeker.

Becky later serves as governess to another man.  She ends up moving in with his relative and meets his son whom she later loves and marries.  His gambling habits and own weaknesses for wealth lead them both to ruin

Amelia is passive and loving but not very smart.  She loves George so deeply.  As Becky begins to rise in wealth, Amelia’s father becomes bankrupt.  George marries her anyway, but at one point tries to run off with Becky.  Amelia becomes pregnant.  George is sent off to war and dies.  Amelia has to raise her child alone, but with the support of Dobbins, a friend of George’s who loves her.

Amelia and her son live in poverty with her parents.  Eventually Amelia makes a very hard decision to allow her son to be raised by his grandfather so that he can have better advantages in life.  She has made the ultimate sacrifice as a mother.  To me this action has made her a hero.


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