Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 15–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15: In Which Rebecca's Husband Appears for a Short Time

Sir Pitt Crawley is indignant at Becky Sharp's revelation that she is already married, and asks, "Who'd ever go to marry you without a shilling to your fortune?" Becky grows emotional, and tells Sir Pitt she is still grateful to him for everything he has done for her and to "let me be your daughter"—important and foretelling words. He speculates that perhaps Becky's husband has left her, and softens a bit toward her, telling her she can still be the governess for his children. At that moment Miss Matilda Crawley enters, having been informed of Sir Pitt's proposal by Mrs. Firkin and Miss Briggs, who were eavesdropping. Miss Crawley is confused to discover Becky has turned down the proposal, and asks her if she doesn't think their family is good enough for her to marry into. Neither Sir Pitt nor Becky repeat the revelation that she is already married. Miss Crawley posits that Becky must be in love with someone else, and sets to find out who it is. Becky tells her she couldn't accept Sir Pitt's proposal because of his age, not to mention the fact they haven't even held a funeral for his recently deceased wife yet. Miss Crawley doesn't quite buy Becky's excuse, and probes further to find out who the real object of her affections is. Becky admits there is some truth to this, but that she can't reveal whom just yet. By herself, Rebecca quietly vents her frustration at having lost the opportunity to be "my lady": she couldn't have known Lady Crawley would die so soon. Once she is alone again, Becky pens a letter to Rawdon Crawley telling him what has transpired, and to meet her the next day "in the usual place"—for it is he to whom she is married.

Chapter 16: The Letter on the Pincushion

The narrator claims that "how [Rawdon and Becky] were married is not of the slightest consequence to anybody," because where there is a will, there is a way. He also points out that many men of high stations have fallen in love with their cooks, maids, and governesses before. According to the narrator, Rawdon's decision to marry Becky is actually one of the most honest acts of his life. For his part, Rawdon, deeply infatuated and pliable by nature, immediately agrees to follow Becky's lead in revealing their marriage to everyone. At dinner, Miss Crawley reassures Becky she can stay on with her indefinitely, and that there is no need to return to Sir Pitt's service. The two women have a close and happy evening, and the narrator says that if Rebecca and Rawdon had begged Miss Matilda Crawley for forgiveness at that moment, they would have received it instantly. The next morning, the maid discovers a note left in Becky's room. Miss Briggs reads the letter, in which Becky reveals that she is married to Rawdon and has gone to be with him. She also begs Miss Briggs to break the news to Miss Crawley. Mrs. Bute Crawley arrives just in time to hear the news, and claims she has always believed that Becky was "an artful little hussy." After Miss Crawley enters the drawing room, Martha breaks the news of Becky's letter to her, but Miss Crawley can hardly fathom it and grows hysterical, taking to her bed. Sir Pitt Crawley flies into a rage when he finds out, and Rawdon asks Becky, in their new lodgings, what will happen if Miss Crawley doesn't forgive them. She promises him, "I'LL make your fortune."

Chapter 17: How Captain Dobbin Bought a Piano

An estate sale auction takes place at the home of the Sedleys, who have recently vacated it and whose property is being sold off—although the actual location only gradually becomes clear. Dobbin is in attendance and spies Becky and Rawdon together nearby, causing him to feel surprised and disappointed. He outbids them on a piano, despite the fact he doesn't know how to play one. Meanwhile, Amelia's father, Mr. John Sedley, declares bankruptcy. Miss Matilda Crawley has yet to forgive Rawdon and Becky, and refuses their letters and visits. Becky has her own private reservations about Rawdon's level of intelligence but keeps it to herself, feigning complete interest in his stories and jokes. The narrator notes that "the best of women ... are hypocrites," hiding their true thoughts and feelings in order to keep the peace.

Chapter 18: Who Played on the Piano Captain Dobbin Bought

Amelia's preoccupation with George continues. Her mother observes that he and the Osbornes have been neglecting Amelia since the news and is determined to throw a party to show they can keep up. Suddenly Mr. Sedley breaks the news of his bankruptcy to her and is surprised when instead of getting angry, she consoles him. However, she realizes the news will break Amelia's heart. Amelia, for her part, has the nagging sensation that George is perhaps more selfish and indifferent than she gives him credit for. One of Mr. Sedley's most ferocious creditors is also none other than George's father, who also decides to break off George and Amelia's engagement. Amelia is heartbroken, and the narrator advises ladies to "be shy of loving frankly" if they want to be respected, and to "have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair."

Meanwhile, Dobbin defends Amelia's honor and character to his sisters, who mock his affection for her. Before they can worry too much about whether Dobbin will propose to Amelia, news breaks that Napoleon has escaped from Elba, and Dobbin and George are called to battle. George shows Dobbin the letters and gifts Amelia was forced to return to him, and Dobbin is overcome with emotion by her sweet nature. Dobbin had gifted Amelia the piano he bought at the auction, which she believed came from George. For his part, George feels a pang of guilt for not appreciating Amelia enough while they were engaged. He writes her a letter asking to see her, and calling her his dearest love and wife, and delivers it to her house in person.

Analysis

Chapters 15–18 deepen William Makepeace Thackeray's aim to show the double-faced nature of many of Vanity Fair's inhabitants. The stratified lines of society and class divide deeply, and the inherent tension is never too far below the surface of each character's actions and motivations, despite how they might outwardly behave in order to get ahead. The revelation that Rawdon Crawley has married Becky Sharp is a shock and betrayal to the Crawleys, a scandal of huge proportion due to her low standing in society as a governess. Although the reader is well aware of Becky's manipulations to gain access to the Crawley family and its social standing, the narrator also hints that her determination is to be admired—she has done what she set out to do, almost flawlessly. Moreover, the entire episode reveals their hypocrisy, for Miss Matilda Crawley has repeatedly insisted that birth and status are meaningless, and Sir Pitt Crawley himself was willing to marry his governess. Always thinking ahead, Becky even anticipates Miss Crawley's rejection and has planned long-term on how to win her back over. She believes that based on the foundation she laid with Miss Crawley when she took care of her—and the fact that Rawdon is her favorite heir—she will certainly leave her estate to them.

The narrator reveals quite plainly that Becky has not entirely married for love when it comes to Rawdon. Although she is affectionate and in ways seems fond, her private dismissal of his "lack of brains" is disdainful, as is her assumption that she will have to do all the heavy lifting of social and financial maneuvering. There is also no doubt that, despite being cut off from Miss Crawley's fortune, Becky leads a more privileged life with Rawdon than she did before. Rawdon, while not rich, is a gentleman's son who can buy on credit, and is so in awe of her wit and charm that he will do whatever she tells him to. The narrator pays Rawdon, who is genial but also uses gambling to fleece people (and isn't very concerned about the welfare of others) a backhanded insult disguised as a compliment when he notes that "Rawdon's marriage was one of the honestest actions which we shall have to record in any portion of that gentleman's biography." When their marriage is revealed, Becky's true remorse at not being able to marry Sir Pitt becomes clearer—had she been able to accept Sir Pitt's proposal she would have had a title (Rawdon, as a younger son, will not inherit baronetcy or property) and been able to live a much more comfortable existence than the one she will have to fight for with Rawdon.

After the Sedleys' bankruptcy is revealed, the narrator demonstrates how money is the main lens through which characters in Vanity Fair view each other. Mr. John Sedley becomes blacklisted from his social and business circles, making it nearly impossible for him to regain any financial footing. Mr. John Osborne wastes no time in abandoning his old friend, and spreading harsh rumors about him in order to justify George ending his engagement to Amelia. It is only through Dobbin's involvement that George is convinced to marry Amelia—a situation all the more heartbreaking for the fact that it is Dobbin who is so tenderly in love with Amelia. His concern for her is one of pure altruism and sacrifice—although it is not flawless, either, because he encourages her marriage to George, someone he knows to be unworthy and selfish. For her part, Becky shows little concern for what she knows to be Amelia Sedley's family's financial undoing, even bidding on their auctioned-off goods. Perhaps even this one friendship of Becky's was never more than a self-serving strategy.

Finally, Thackeray begins to set Vanity Fair against the historical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and places each character in contrast with it. How each character deals with the revelations and outcomes of the war reveals a great deal about their personality.

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