When critics call William Makepeace Thackeray’s characters in Vanity Fair lifelike, they are using that term for a subtler meaning than it usually conveys. His people are not true to life in the sense of being fully rounded or drawn with psychological depth. On the contrary, readers sometimes find their actions too farcical to be human, as in Jos Sedley’s ignominious flight from Brussels after the battle of Waterloo, or too sinister to be credible, as in the implication that Becky poisons Jos to collect his insurance—totally out of keeping with what readers learn about her in the previous sixty-six chapters. She may be a selfish opportunist, but she is not a murderer. Thackeray’s characters are lifelike if “life” is defined as a typological phenomenon; when readers shrug their shoulders and say, “that’s life,” readers are indulging in a kind of judgment on the human race that is based on types, not individuals, on the common failings of all men and women, not on the unique goodness or evil of some. Insofar as all people share one another’s weaknesses, everyone is represented in Vanity Fair. Human banality levels all. That is the satirical revelation that Vanity Fair provides—that is the way in which its characters are lifelike.
Thackeray’s general approach is comic satire; his method is that of the theatrical producer, specifically, the puppeteer. In his prologue, he calls himself the “Manager of the Performance” and refers to Becky, Amelia, and Dobbin as puppets of varying “flexibility . . . and liveliness.” Critics usually interpret this offhanded way of referring to his principal characters as a vindication of his own intrusions and asides; as a reminder to the reader that he, the author, is as much involved in the action as any of his characters. Nevertheless, readers should probably take a harder look at Thackeray’s metaphor: He is a puppeteer because he must be one; because his people are puppets, someone must pull the strings. The dehumanized state of Regency and early Victorian society comes to accurate life through the cynical vehicle of Thackeray’s puppeteering. Sentimentality and hypocrisy, closely related social vices, seem interchangeable at the end of the novel when Thackeray gathers all the remaining puppets: Amelia and Dobbin, a “tender little parasite” clinging to her “rugged old oak,” and Becky, acting out her newfound saintliness by burying herself “in works of piety” and “having stalls at Fancy Fairs” for the benefit of the poor. “Let us shut up the box and...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)