Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 36–38 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 36: How to Live Well on Nothing a Year

The narrator ponders how people are able to make ends meet each year in Vanity Fair. To live and survive is an expensive proposition regardless of economic background, because one's expenses tend to rise in proportion to their income. Rawdon Crawley and Becky Sharp don't seem to have any income yet are able to entertain with dinners and parties. Rawdon has quit the army, and the narrator hints that he is able to survive on an income of "nothing" by gambling. Rawdon is talented at billiards and cards, and hosts many gambling events at his home, where he earns a reputation. Becky wisely intuits, however, that the money he wins from gambling can't be counted on to keep them afloat forever.

Becky schemes how to get her family back to England, and soon the news come that Miss Matilda Crawley is dying. Rawdon sets off to pay her a final visit in the hopes of getting back in her good graces. Before he can get there, Miss Crawley dies, and Becky and their son, Rawdy, set out to join Rawdon in Brussels. Before she goes, however, Becky travels alone to London in an attempt to settle Rawdon's old debts there, and is successful in negotiating in her favor.

Chapter 37: The Subject Continued

Becky and Rawdon rent a house in London from a former butler of Miss Crawley's, Charles Raggles. Raggles still has a fondness for the Crawleys, and serves as their de facto butler during parties, while his wife supplies them with wonderful cooking—all free of charge. In fact, the Crawleys never pay the people who provide them services. This, the narrator proclaims, is "the way in which people live elegantly on nothing a year"—by taking advantage of others. For her part, Becky is more popular than ever, although "the ladies [hold] aloof from her," suspicious of how charmed men are by her wit. Her former London friends snub her, and it seems she has burned quite a few bridges. Becky also reminds Rawdon to do as she says, because she was the one to get him out of debt and installed in a nice house. She tells him he must remain friendly with his brother Pitt Crawley who gained his inheritance, because someday he will inherit his father's estate and they can visit there; if they become financially ruined, they can work for Pitt and his wife; and if Pitt and his son were to die, the estate would be theirs. For his part, Rawdon confesses she is right. He writes Pitt a letter congratulating him on his inheritance, and the two seem to be reconciled for the moment. Becky's other ulterior motive seems to be having Lady Jane Crawley help maneuver her into higher society by association. Among Rawdon's friends, Becky has earned such a good reputation that they jokingly call Rawdon, "Mrs. Crawley's husband."

Rawdon and Becky differ drastically when it comes to the relationship with their son: while Becky ignores Rawdy and leaves his nurses to take care of him, Rawdon spoils him and spends time with him; while the narrator insists that Becky is too good-natured to be annoyed, she considers this fatherly love evidence of her husband's "softness." Although Becky is fond of Rawdon, privately she believes him to be a fool and in many ways treats him like her servant. For his part, Rawdy worships his mother and is too intimidated even to speak to her. The narrator highlights how unnatural this is: "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children; and here was one who was worshipping a stone."

One day when Rawdon and his son are walking in the park, he encounters an old military friend talking with Mr. John Sedley and his grandson, who is the same age as Rawdy. Rawdon realizes that Mr. Sedley is George Osborne's father-in-law, and that the boy, Georgy, is George's son.

Chapter 38: A Family in a Very Small Way

The narrator updates the reader on what has happened with the Osbornes and the Sedleys since the war. Jos Sedley returns to India, where he impresses everyone with his thorough knowledge of every detail of the Battle of Waterloo, despite having witnessed none of it. He still supports his parents, because Mr. Sedley has not recovered financially from his bankruptcy. The narrator notes that what has befallen Mr. Sedley could happen to anyone, because much of it is luck. Amelia Sedley and Georgy live with the Sedleys, and Amelia, a doting mother who trusts no one else's methods, clashes with Mrs. Sedley over how to care for Georgy. Amelia spends large quantities of time on his care and education, and money they don't have on beautiful clothing for him.

The narrator notes that Amelia still attracts the attention of men with her weakness and softness, which also invites the scorn of women. The Reverend Mr. Binny proposes to her, but Amelia turns him down because she remains devoted to her dead husband. Soon William Dobbin gets wind that Mr. Sedley has gone into the alcohol business, and sends him as many orders from his fellow officers as he can out of his concern for Amelia's welfare. Dobbin is also forced to reveal to Mr. Sedley that George died with very little money, but he doesn't tell Mr. Sedley that he himself paid for George's burial and Amelia's return to London. Amelia has no idea how much he has done for her over the years. Mrs. Sedley, however, suspects Dobbin's love for Amelia and wishes she would consider him.

As Georgy grows up, he resembles his father in personality more and more: he is haughty and demanding, and rules over his mother. However, the narrator says that while he is like George reborn, he is also an improvement, and he adores his mother. Dobbin insists on paying for George's schooling when he is ready. Eventually, Dobbin's sisters tell Amelia he is planning to be married to Glorvina O'Dowd, Major O'Dowd's sister.

Analysis

The narrator takes great pains to outline just how Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley are able to get by financially in high society with neither of them bringing in any actual income from an inheritance or line of work. In this area of their partnership, the two are perfectly suited for one another: Becky uses her charms and manipulative tactics to lure men to their home to be entertained, and Rawdon wins all their money through gambling. Becky is also constantly scheming, such as when she uses Charles Raggles's fondness for the Crawley family to employ him and his wife, seemingly with no pay. As always, Rawdon acquiesces to her schemes, despite the fact he is increasingly referred to as "Mrs. Crawley's husband." London provides a whole new set of aristocratic challenges that Becky is eager to conquer.

As Becky and Amelia Sedley grow into motherhood simultaneously, their treatment of their children highlights some of their fundamental differences. While Amelia dotes on young Georgy with the same fervent devotion she gave his father, Becky can hardly be bothered to attend to Rawdy. She leaves him to his nannies, and only feigns interest in him in the service of impressing other people. In contrast, Rawdon develops a newfound tenderness when it comes to his son, seeming to sense on some level that he needs emotional support his mother can't provide. The fact that Becky sees Rawdon's affection as a sign of weakness implies that she is not simply an unemotional person—she is someone who has difficulty feeling an abiding attachment to others, or finding interest in anything that is not related to social climbing and financial acquisition. Amelia again demonstrates that she can be ferocious and defend herself when necessary, such as when she forbids her mother to give Georgy medicine.

Yet even as Becky's polar opposite in motherhood, William Makepeace Thackeray shines a light on the fact that Amelia's obsession with her child can be harmful as well. Becky's tense relationship with her mother causes an irreparable rift, thereby affecting Mrs. Sedley's relationship with her grandson. Her insistence on her own child-rearing regimen, as well as unreasonable spending to give her son the best, implies that Amelia is still wedded to the illusions of her life. She has built a tenuous belief system grounded in the idea that George was the perfect husband, and her child's life must be similarly perfect and not subject to reality. The narrator also implies, in her reaction to the news of Dobbin's engagement, that though she may not have romantic feelings for him, Amelia has grown used to his attention and therefore doesn't want things to change.

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