Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 39–42 | Summary



Chapter 39: A Cynical Chapter

Back in Hampshire, Reverend and Mrs. Bute Crawley are adjusting to their lack of expected inheritance from Miss Crawley, and Mrs. Bute does her best to conceal their financial situation publicly. What everyone doesn't see, however, is how vigilantly Mrs. Bute trains her daughter in the ways of high society in order to keep up appearances. Pitt and Lady Jane Crawley pay Sir Pitt Crawley's estate a visit, and the old man starts off their reunion by insulting Lady Jane's mother. One of Sir Pitt's servants, Miss Horrocks, seems to have usurped his widow's place, wearing her clothes and conducting the affairs of the staff. Sir Pitt becomes ill not long after their visit, and Mrs. Bute visits the estate just in time to find Miss Horrocks attempting to go through Sir Pitt's valuables for herself.

Chapter 40: In Which Becky Is Recognized by the Family

Pitt and Lady Jane move into Sir Pitt's estate, bringing Jane's mother Lady Southdown with them. Sir Pitt passes away after his illness, and Pitt takes over the estate. He and Jane argue with Lady Southdown over whether to invite Becky to the funeral, which causes Lady Southdown to threaten to leave the estate in a huff. Pitt is relieved, however, that he has now established himself as the head of the family. He has Lady Jane write to Rawdon, inviting him and Becky to Sir Pitt's funeral. When she receives the invitation, Becky is ecstatic because this means her plans to have Lady Jane present her to high society is underway, and also that Rawdon might be given a seat in Parliament.

Becky, with the help of Miss Briggs, who has become her servant, begins making travel plans. Miss Briggs has found her way into Becky's service almost by accident after seeing her on the street, and when Becky realizes Miss Briggs is living off of a healthy legacy endowment from Miss Matilda Crawley, she invites her to move in. Within six months, Miss Briggs has loaned Rawdon and Becky £600.

Chapter 41: In Which Becky Revisits the Halls of Her Ancestors

Becky and Rawdon's return to the estate makes Becky feel as though she is no longer an impostor, but that she is returning to the place of her ancestors. They are both silent as they enter the gates, thinking of their own pasts. Lady Jane and Becky take kindly to one another, and Becky wins her over easily, although Lady Southdown treats her coldly. Becky uses information Lady Jane gives her to then attempt to manipulate her way into Lady Southdown's good graces. She feigns an interest in her medical advice and religious persuasions, and Lady Southdown begins to thaw toward her. Pitt treats Becky respectfully, because he realizes she has played a large part in his inheritance by marrying Rawdon.

At Sir Pitt's funeral, the narrator points out that he had almost no friends and that his family is merely going through the motions of mourning because they didn't care for him, either. As Becky rides around the country of her youth, she thinks that she would be able to be a good and generous person if she were the wife of a country gentleman, like Lady Jane. Becky is also struck by the fact that she rose up out of her younger circumstances because of her "brains," and because she considers people of the world "fools." The narrator wonders if Becky has ever considered that she might have ended up just as happy if she had remained honest and humble.

Chapter 42: Which Treats of the Osborne Family

The story returns to Mr. John Osborne after a considerable amount of time. He has grown increasingly unhappy and moody, and is weighed down by his increasing age, ailments, and loneliness. When Mr. Osborne's marriage proposal to Miss Swartz is rejected, he redoubles his efforts to find suitable husbands for his daughters. However, he unwillingly creates a rift between him and his daughter Miss Maria Osborne when he oversteps his bounds while negotiating her marriage to Frederick Bullock. His relationship with his daughter Miss Jane Osborne is also strained due to his curt treatment of her. Mr. Osborne is furious when he discovers Miss Jane is having a secret romance with the teacher who is giving her art lessons, Mr. Smee. Mr. Osborne punishes Miss Jane by telling her he will never allow her to marry—she must instead become the lady of the house.

Dobbin continues his ongoing campaign to unite Mr. Osborne with Amelia and his grandson, Georgy. Although Amelia hesitates, she allows Dobbin's sisters to take Georgy for an outing, unaware that they are, in fact, taking him to visit Miss Jane Osborne with the hope that a bridge may finally be built between their families. Secretly, Amelia is still upset about Dobbin's engagement, and is further upset when she discovers Georgy was taken to visit his aunt. After Georgy and the Dobbin sisters leave, Miss Jane tells Mr. Osborne about the visit—and how much Georgy resembles his father.


The new shifts in the Crawley family's tenuous relationships marks a shift in Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley's life to come. They are no longer live independently abroad; they are now part of a wealthy family. Becky does her utmost to ingratiate herself to Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane Crawley, should it come in handy in the future. Becky's return to the Crawley estate is also a psychologically triumphant one for her, as "it seemed as if she was not an imposter any more, and was coming to the home of her ancestors." Becky has changed since her days as a governess, and now sees herself as an equal to the rest of the Crawleys.

Yet the death of Sir Pitt Crawley, like the death of Miss Matilda Crawley, reveals how rarely these family members are fond of each other. Rather, they feign interest in one another with ulterior motives in mind. It seems that only in death is the true nature of relationships between people revealed. Becky can hardly contain her disdain for life at the Crawley estate, yet she pounces on the opportunity to get into Lady Jane's good graces, because she can elevate Becky's standing in society. The narrator notes that if Becky was ever confronted with the consequences of her actions, "she was accustomed to walk round them, and not look in." To truly examine herself would require her to examine the ruinous effect she has had on people for her own gain.

Mr. John Osborne seems to have calcified in the years that have gone by, tortured by his guilt over George Osborne's death. This directly affects his relationships with his daughters and, in turn, their own marriage possibilities. Throughout this section, the narrator emphasizes there are few genuine relationships in Vanity Fair—when they do appear, such as between Major O'Dowd and Mrs. O'Dowd, they are all the more striking. For the most part, marriages are transactional and highly strategized.

William Dobbin, despite his impending engagement, cannot quit fussing over Amelia's well-being. His former altruism changes into something more akin to desperation and masochism. He pays off George's debts secretly, and never reveals it was he who paid for George's funeral and got Amelia back to London. At a certain point, his martyrdom begins to transform into something frustrating: it's not clear why he carries such an enduring torch for Amelia, and her obliviousness to it—and his own eligibility in the eyes of those around him—makes his continuing affections seem self-sabotaging.

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