Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 30–32 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 30: "The Girl I Left Behind Me"

The narrator claims not to be a "military novelist," and as such, hangs back from the regiment's experience at the front in order to tell the story of the women left behind. Mrs. O'Dowd prepares Major O'Dowd's travel kit for his imminent departure, while Becky Sharp is able to see Rawdon Crawley off without much feeling or sentiment. Before he leaves, they discuss their finances, and Becky reassures him everything will work out. Rawdon totals up his possessions and their worth for her, displaying what the narrator characterizes as a newfound selflessness and deep-seated concern for another. After his departure with General Tufto, Becky gets ready for bed, and the note George Osborne left her falls out of her dress. She falls asleep comfortably, and when she wakes in the morning she goes over everything Rawdon has left that can provide her with income if he doesn't make it back from the front. The narrator notes that "no man in the British army ... could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties" than Becky.

William Dobbin pays Jos Sedley a visit to say goodbye before he leaves, on the assumption that he is nervous he will never see Amelia again, but his ulterior motive is to eavesdrop on George and Amelia. He begs Jos to look after Amelia and comfort her, and especially to escort her safely out of the country if their troops are defeated. Dobbin catches a final glimpse of Amelia, and is tortured that he can't soothe her himself.

Chapter 31: In Which Jos Sedley Takes Care of His Sister

Jos finds he is somewhat relieved by George's absence, because he felt his brother-in-law overshadowed him in their household and treated him dismissively. The servants in the house furtively wonder what will become of all the expensive items should George not return home from the front. Isidor, a greedy and resentful servant of Jos, informs his master that there are reports the French are winning. At that moment, Becky drops in to visit Amelia, and fusses over Jos with great concern for him not to join the army. Jos is annoyed, because Becky has hardly paid him any attention since she and George arrived—he believes she just wants his attention now that everyone else has left. At the same time, he is flattered by her attention. He reminds her he must stay in order to care for Amelia, and Becky barbs him with the accusation that his heart was once false to her. She also tells him that Rawdon Crawley has spoken cruel words about him, because he is jealous that Becky once had feelings for Jos. Becky sees how much this revelation has entranced Jos, and thinks to herself that at least now she has a seat in his carriage should they need to flee Belgium.

Amelia is shocked to see Becky enter her room, but her surprise quickly gives way to a feeling of anger, and she asks Becky why she has come. Becky worries to herself that Amelia has discovered the letter she slipped to George at the ball. Amelia accuses Becky of coming between her and George, despite what a good friend she has been to Becky. She tells Becky she is a "false friend and false wife." Becky leaves, warning Jos that somebody should stay with Amelia because she is unwell. The narrator says that Becky actually does like Amelia rather than not, and doesn't wish her ill. In her own way, Becky is flattered by Amelia's reproaches—they mean she feels defeated by Becky's superior charm and merit. Mrs. O'Dowd visits Amelia to offer her comfort, and stays to dine with Jos. As they sit down to eat, they are alarmed to hear the sound of cannons firing in the distance.

Chapter 32: In Which Jos Takes Flight, and the War Is Brought to a Close

The scene in Brussels after the cannons are fired is one of chaos and noise while everyone tries to figure out what is happening. Friends of the French believe their triumph is near, and as his servant reports back news to him, Jos grows fearful, and asks Mrs. O'Dowd if she should get Amelia ready. Mrs. O'Dowd doesn't understand that he is planning their escape, and grows scornful when he invites her to join them. She tells Jos she and Amelia will stay where they are until they hear orders from Major O'Dowd. Jos's servant informs him there are no horses left in Brussels anyhow. Regulus, a British soldier and friend of one of the Osbornes' servants, flees the front and reveals that the British army is overwhelmed and soon to be defeated. He also claims that George's regiment was "cut in pieces." Jos resolves to go out and get more information but suddenly remembers that the mustache he has grown will make him look like a soldier, and he instructs his servant to shave it off, quickly.

Outside, the city is full of British soldiers straggling back in. On the other side of the city, Becky is able to get her revenge on a high-society neighbor, Lady Bareacres, by turning down her offers to buy Rawdon's horses in order to flee. Becky taunts Lady Bareacres by telling her she won't sell her horses for the Lady's largest diamonds, but the French will surely enjoy them when they arrive. Suddenly Becky spies Jos, and decides she will allow him to buy her horses as long as she can ride one. She bargains an enormous sum from him, and calculates that between the horses, her possessions, and a widow's pension she should be able to be independent if necessary. Jos decides to flee at once, and tries to prepare for his departure in secret so as not to face Amelia and Mrs. O'Dowd.

Wagons begin bringing the wounded back into the city, and one stops in front of the Osbornes'—it's carrying Tom Stubble, an ensign serving under Major O'Dowd whom Dobbin had instructed be taken in at his home to recover. George is still safe, and Tom praises Dobbin for taking care of him. Tom's arrival also helps distract and preoccupy Amelia from her worry. Jos stays put for the moment, but brings his newly purchased horses into the courtyard in case he needs to leave quickly. After another cannon goes off, he makes the decision and leaves alone, despite encouraging Amelia to come with him. Only 10 miles away, George Osborne has finally been killed in battle.

Analysis

The narrator's insistence that he is "not a military novelist," and that he will focus on those left behind, is striking. The battle to which the men are heading is, we will find out later, the Battle of Waterloo, but the war itself is only shown to the reader secondhand, through the reports of other characters, and unless the reader is familiar with the context of the battle, it's not clear what exactly is going on.

Nonetheless, the impending war brings out different aspects of each character. As witnessed in the last section, George Osborne finds himself repenting for his treatment of Amelia as his sense of mortality looms, yet he is also excited for the chance to experience battle. The narrator leads the reader to wonder whether his change of heart over his actions is sincere or merely spurred yet again by the possibility of loss. William Dobbin, for his part, deals with his own sense of foreboding the only way he knows how: by worrying about Amelia Sedley, making Jos Sedley solemnly swear to take care of her should anything bad happen to him or to George. When it comes to the wives who will remain behind, the situation shines a spotlight on the ways in which each woman approaches the world in general: Becky Sharp is already scheming unsentimentally about the possibility of Rawdon Crawley not returning home; Amelia is beside herself with worry over George's fate; and Mrs. O'Dowd, a career soldier's wide, seems the most well-adjusted of them all.

Yet it also heightens many underlying tensions, such as when Amelia at last confronts Becky over her emotional affair with George. This confrontation portrays Amelia in a new and somewhat impressive light, and changes the nature of her relationship with Becky, who seems to suddenly realize she has been seen for who she is. However, Becky does seem to take some comfort in the fact that "even [Amelia's] hard words, reproachful as they were, were complimentary—the groans of a person stinging under defeat." Scheming and selfish though she is, Becky cares how other people see her—even if they are not under her charms, she wants them to admire her and see her superiority. Once Rawdon is gone, Becky turns her easy charms on Jos in the event she will need him to help her flee the city—there's even some suggestion that she is hedging her bets in case she becomes a widow and needs another husband. For his part, Jos is an easy target for her flattery. Jos is increasingly depicted as being just as self-serving as Becky, caring more about his own life than with keeping his sister safe.

While the main characters sort out their affairs and relationships, the narrator also takes care to highlight the ways in which even those from a lower social class scheme to get ahead. In Chapter 31, Jos's servant, Isidor, plots with little emotion as to how he will take Jos's belongings if he is to flee the city or come to any harm. Here, William Makepeace Thackeray shows that in Vanity Fair, the main goal is to get ahead, even if it means climbing over someone's body on the way up.

Isidor's calculations are echoed in Becky's calm and cool accounting of everything she will be able to sell if Rawdon should die in battle, and she is pleased with the prospects. In her defense, the narrator notes in Chapter 30, "Knowing how useless regrets are ... [Becky] wisely determined to give way to no vain feelings of sorrow." From this the reader can infer that Becky has learned this way of coping as a survival technique in a world that seemingly cares little about her own outcome. Therefore, she must keep a cool head so that not only can she survive, she can flourish.

Then tragedy strikes: George dies in battle. Although the narrator cautioned in Chapter 30 that this novel would not be depicting any military or war scenes, these chapters make clear that war affects everyone, not just those who fight it. As the battle ramps up, the reader only hears tales of the fighting from soldiers straggling back from the front, causing confusion and panic. George's death isn't described in detail but rather as a simple and concise statement: "Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart."

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