Vanity Fair

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From the moment she throws Johnson’s DICTIONARY, the patronizing graduation gift of her teacher, out the window of the Sedley coach, to her final pose as respectable philanthropist at novel’s end, Becky bluffs, lies, and extorts her way through life.

Becky’s foil is her schoolmate, Amelia Sedley, Jos’ sister, who is as vapid and passive as Becky is electric and aggressive. Ironically, the seemingly gentle Amelia hurts her secret, patient, and self-effacing suitor, William Dobbin, as thoroughly as rascally Becky victimizes the Osbornes, the Crawleys, and the Sedleys.

Thackeray’s fashionable world is populated by “puppets” carved so true to life that his satire almost persuades us that shallowness defines all of humanity, that banality is the great social truth. Because society as a whole fails the moral test, Becky’s struggle to climb to the top of so worthless a heap seems more futile than evil and more a waste of her magnificent energy than it does an immoral act deserving moral condemnation.

Becky’s pluck renders her ambition charming. By scaling barriers of poverty, class, arrogance, and stupidity, she acquires the aura of a revolutionary figure. She is the scourge that British materialism and complacency deserves.

Bibliography:

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Makepeace Thackeray. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contemporary critical anthology brings together essays on Thackeray’s main novels. Excellent starting place for discussion of Thackeray’s major works.

Harden, Edgar F. The Emergence of Thackeray’s Serial Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Discussion of the serial structure of five novels, including Vanity Fair, with focus upon the manuscripts and process of composition as the novels evolved. Explains how the fact that the novel was written in serial installments shaped its form.

Ray, Gordon N. “Thackeray: ‘The Newcomes.’ ” In The Age of Wisdom (1847-1864). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958. The authoritative biography of Thackeray, authorized by the Thackeray family. The two volume set contains an in-depth study of Thackeray as well as an excellent study of the novel.

Sundell, M. G., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Vanity Fair.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Comprehensive collection of six essays on such topics as characters, form, theme, and content. Eight short viewpoints give concise focus to various elements of the novel.

Tillotson, Kathleen. “Vanity Fair.” In Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander Welsh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Discusses Thackeray’s plan and purpose. The book contains two other excellent essays: “On the Style of Vanity Fair” by G. A. Craig and “Neoclassical Conventions” by John Loofbourow.

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