Literature Study GuidesVanity FairBefore The Curtain Chapter 4 Summary

Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Before the Curtain–Chapter 4 | Summary

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William Makepeace Thackeray used 19 groups of chapters, ranging from three to five chapters each, when the novel was published serially.

Summary

Before the Curtain

In this short preface, the narrator presents himself as the "manager of the Performance" at a traveling fair—what today's readers might call a carnival. Crowds of people talk, eat, flirt, find themselves victims of pickpockets, and wait for a puppet show to begin. Some folks, the manager knows, disapprove of fairs—they don't attend, and they don't let their servants attend, either. But others enjoy the spectacle and scenery. To them, the manager commends his "puppets"—the characters in the novel—and expresses gratitude for their warm reception around the country. The curtain rises.

Chapter 1: Chiswick Mall

The Sedley family carriage arrives at Chiswick, Miss Jemima Pinkerton's "academy for young ladies," near London. They have come to bring Amelia Sedley and her friend Becky Sharp back with them. The young women have completed school and are ready to enter adult life, Amelia as a wife and Becky as a governess. Snobby Miss Barbara Pinkerton's letter of dismissal informs the Sedleys of the skills Amelia has mastered. Mostly these consist of ornamental activities and social graces, including "that dignified deportment and carriage so requisite for every young lady of fashion." She warns the Sedleys to keep Becky's visit brief, not only because she has a job waiting, but also because Miss Pinkerton privately despises her. Although Miss Barbara Pinkerton refuses to give the poorer girl a copy of Johnson's Dictionary—the prize all graduates receive—kindhearted Jemima Pinkerton sneaks one to her. To express her contempt for Chiswick, Becky flings it from the carriage window into the garden.

The narrator interrupts the story to praise Amelia as a sweet young woman who easily wins others' affections. However, she is also timid and tearful. She is not, the narrator says, the novel's hero.

Chapter 2: In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign

Becky revels in her rebellious action, and tells the shocked Amelia, "Revenge may be wicked but it's natural ... I'm no angel." Becky hates Miss Pinkerton for treating her like a servant while exploiting her intelligence and talents. Becky's father had taught drawing at Chiswick until his gambling and drinking habits ruined him; when drunk, he beat his wife and daughter. Her mother was a Parisian "opera-girl"—a term for young dancers in an opera company, who sometimes had wealthy lovers and were associated with sexual scandal. Nonetheless, her mother was educated, and taught her daughter perfect French. Before Becky's father died, he asked Miss Pinkerton to let Becky stay as a working pupil. Becky taught French and did so many other tasks she hardly had time to attend classes. She misses the Bohemian life she led with her father, and cries when she compares her life to that of the pampered students from wealthy families. When Miss Pinkerton demands Becky add music lessons to her tasks—with no extra pay—Becky's defiance frightens the headmistress. She immediately seeks a governess position for her unmanageable pupil to get her away from Chiswick.

Becky is petite and looks like a child, but she has already been involved in a flirtation with a young curate. The narrator informs us that her ruthless dishonesty is the result of her treatment at Chiswick: "She had not been much of a dissembler, until now her loneliness taught her to feign." Amelia is the only friend Becky, who is dismissive and contemptuous of others, has made at Chiswick. When the girls reach Russell Square, Amelia proudly shows off her home and gives Becky clothing and jewelry. Becky ferrets out information about Amelia's older brother, Jos Sedley, who has made good money working for the East India Company, and who is currently on sick leave at his apartments nearby. Becky feigns sisterly love for Amelia as she sets her sights on Jos.

Chapter 3: Rebecca Is in Presence of the Enemy

Jos Sedley, an overweight dandy of a man, sits by the fire reading the paper. When the girls enter, he leaps up, blushing. Amelia introduces her brother, and Becky whispers how handsome he is—but loudly enough for him to hear. A shy bachelor, Jos looks for reasons to flee the room, but as Mr. John Sedley arrives, Becky makes eye contact with Jos, who decides to skip dinner with a friend and escort Becky to the family table instead. The narrator reminds readers that without parents to make the proper arrangements, Becky must go husband-hunting herself.

Mrs. Sedley has had spicy dishes of curry prepared for her son, who has grown to like them in India. Becky agrees to try one and pretends to like it as her mouth stings, so Jos feeds her a chili as well. When she cries, "Water for heaven's sake, water!" the male Sedleys laugh at their prank, and Becky plays along. After dinner, Mr. Sedley warns his son about Becky's motives, but Jos denies them. He hears the girls singing at the piano and thinks to join them, but overcome by shyness, he decides to attend a theater show instead.

Chapter 4: The Green Silk Purse

For a few days, Jos stays away from his parents' home. Becky carries on her act as Amelia's loving friend, earning Mrs. Sedley's gratitude. She even flatters the servants, earning their goodwill. Jos shows up again on the day Amelia's drawings, the results of her lessons from Becky's father, arrive from Chiswick. Becky cries over them, persuading all of her loving memory of her father, and thanks the family for their kindness. But Jos, she teases, shouldn't have fed her the curry. She gives his hand the smallest squeeze as she forgives him. At dinner that evening, she teases him about every dish, to everyone's delight. But Mr. Sedley enjoys a crueler humor and mocks his son's weight. After dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Sedley talk about Becky's designs on their son. Mrs. Sedley thinks Becky is not good enough for her son, but Mr. Sedley is amused by Becky's pursuit of Jos, and is also glad Becky is at least a white Englishwoman, rather than a native Indian.

The next day, George Osborne—the Sedleys' godson and informally betrothed to Amelia—arrives. The young people recall old times and sigh over Becky's imminent departure. When George and Amelia go to the piano, Becky draws Jos out and feigns breathless interest in his experiences in India. As they talk, she knits a green silk purse "for any one who wants a purse." Amelia persuades Becky to sing and play, which she does well, ending with a song about friends who must part in sorrow. Jos begins to think Becky is just the girl for him. In the morning, he shows up before lunch—with flowers for both girls. He asks Becky to sing again, but she must finish her purse and asks him to hold the yarn. The chapter ends with Jos seated across from Becky, "his arms stretched out ... and his hands bound in a web of green silk."

Analysis

Chapters 1–4 were the first installment of Vanity Fair when it appeared serially. William Makepeace Thackeray knew he had to hook readers fast to make sure they would be back to buy the second installment, so he wastes no time. At a rapid pace, the narrator introduces characters, presents their situations, and hints at or states their goals; the particulars of people and situations feel somewhat convoluted. He also peppers the narrative with his comments and critiques. Most of all, he draws readers' attention to the novel's central character, Becky Sharp. After writing Vanity Fair, Thackeray confessed to a particular fondness for his "little Becky doll"; clearly the narrator admires Becky and excuses some of her actions. Yet Becky is a problematic character—deceitful, manipulative, and remorseless. Why she is that way is a major question in the novel, but these early chapters suggest that early poverty and the necessity of self-reliance have hardened her from a young age.

The famous opening line of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice could easily apply to Becky: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Becky is out to find that man, come what may, and supply his want. Her goal is not only socially acceptable but, for women of her time, socially mandated. And as in Pride and Prejudice, it's a goal in which parents invest heavily. The Osbornes and Sedleys have reached an agreement regarding George Osborne and Amelia Sedley's future, but later in the novel, this arrangement is threatened when the Sedleys lose their wealth. But Becky has no parent and no surrogate to help her find a husband. Repeatedly, the narrator asks readers to excuse her behaviors. When she squeezes Jos Sedley's hand, he takes it as a "little involuntary, timid, gentle motion of regard on the part of the simple girl," but readers see it for the immodest manipulation it is. The narrator reminds readers, "If a dear girl has no dear Mamma to settle matters ... she must do it for herself."

It is true that Becky has been disadvantaged and mistreated. On the other hand, "poor dear Rebecca," as the narrator calls her, has never learned a moral code to temper her strong survival instinct. Self-preservation drives her, and "the dismal precocity of poverty" equips her. Becky has her wits, her eyes—which enthrall men young and old—and the social graces she mastered at Chiswick. She is as smart or smarter, as talented or more so, and certainly more capable than the wealthy daughters at Chiswick, yet they all snub her—for no reason but for accident of birth. This fact is not incidental: it is a vital part of Thackeray's social criticism. Throughout the novel, the narrator pauses at times to chide the wealthy for thinking they deserve comfort and opportunity, while those who are poor do not. Situations change suddenly, the narrator points out, as readers see characters undergo reversals of fortune. It's not Becky's fault she was born into poverty and neglect, and to scorn her desire to better her circumstances is unkind.

Still, Becky will spend the remaining 63 chapters of the novel testing and breaching the limits of acceptable behavior, making it impossible to see her as merely a victim of circumstance. There is an important point to be gleaned here: people are not inherently heroes or villains. Intelligence and capability, in Becky, go hand in hand with contempt and deception. Amelia has the good intentions that Becky lacks, but she is not intelligent, and she is naive to the point of delusion.

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