Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 5–7 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5: Dobbin of Ours

The narrator takes readers to Swishtail Seminary to introduce William Dobbin, another central character in Vanity Fair. Dobbin is clumsy and shy, and a slow learner who is held back several times—reasons enough to tease him. When the boys learn, however, that his father is a grocer, they nickname him "Figs," and torment him for belonging to the merchant class. Also attending the school is a gentleman's son, Cuff, an athletic boy to whom everything comes easily. Cuff lords it over other students. One day, Dobbin prevents Cuff from bullying a younger boy, George Osborne, for failing to sneak alcohol onto school grounds. Dobbin and Cuff fight as the boys look on. Dobbin finally prevails, winning the admiration of the boys and becoming George's friend and protector for life. Dobbin discovers George is good at math and finishes his education in good form. This history explains why Dobbin is invited to the young people's outing to Vauxhall. Dobbin is in town, home from deployment in the West Indies because he came down with yellow fever. He is as big and ungainly as a man as he was as a boy, but is now a respected military man in George's regiment.

When Dobbin sees Amelia Sedley, now a young woman, for the first time in years, he is smitten. But Amelia's heart belongs to George, and George has Dobbin's unending loyalty. As for Becky Sharp, Dobbin knows immediately what sort of woman she is.

Chapter 6: Vauxhall

George, Amelia, Jos Sedley, Becky and Dobbin go to Vauxhall, a popular public garden where visitors eat, watch plays, and are entertained by various musical acts. Amelia and Becky hope Jos will propose. Only Dobbin, stuck carrying the girls' shawls, is left out of the excitement. The couples separate to stroll and talk, but when they join up again in a theater box, Jos still has not proposed. Instead, he eats too much and then calls for a bowl of rack punch—a sweet alcoholic mixture—and drinks it all himself. Unsteady and belligerent, Jos makes a scene, grabbing Becky by the waist and singing that she's his "dearest diddle-diddle-darling." Dobbin must get him to a carriage and back home.

The next morning, Becky nervously awaits the outcome of events. Jos, hung over and unable to recall the previous evening's events, stays at his apartment. George lies to Jos, telling him he beat up a coachman while drunk, until Dobbin explains what really happened. As they leave for Russell Square, George tells Dobbin he won't let Becky make a fool of the family. Ashamed of his behavior, Jos sends a note to Amelia saying he is leaving for Scotland. It's the "death-warrant" for Becky's hopes, and Amelia weeps as she gathers little presents for Becky to take with her to her job. Mr. John Sedley makes Becky a gift of cash, and even George adds a gift, at his sister's urging. But Becky knows George sabotaged her plan.

Chapter 7: Crawley of Queen's Crawley

The narrator introduces Sir Pitt Crawley by mocking his family lineage. The Crawleys became noble in the Renaissance, when Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed the beer at Crawley during a "progress"—a royal tour through the country. She raised Crawley's ancestor to the bottom rank of nobility, a baronetcy, and assigned the area two seats in Parliament—because of beer. Now Queen's Crawley is a run-down country estate run by a careless baronet.

As John, the Sedleys' groom, drives Becky to the Crawleys' London house, she imagines the kind of man a baronet must be—refined and elegant. At the house, a sloppily dressed, poorly groomed man grudgingly helps her with her trunk, and leads her into a grungy room. She is shocked to learn the baronet is Sir Pitt Crawley, a man of poor appearance who speaks in a low-class dialect. Crawley supplements his income by bringing (and winning) lawsuits, and expects Becky to assist him. For now, he sends her to bed, remarking, "It's a big bed ... Lady Crawley died in it." Becky inspects every cupboard and drawer of the large room for information about the family. Early the next morning, they take a coach to Queen's Crawley, and Becky notices that Sir Pitt refuses to tip the driver.

Analysis

The long flashback to Swishtail Seminary not only introduces William Dobbin, but also reveals much about George Osborne's character. Even as a child, George displays the class snobbery that marks so many of the novel's characters. When Dobbin comes to his defense, George is "rather ashamed of his champion." He'd almost rather take Cuff's bullying than be associated with Dobbin. Their subsequent friendship is more a matter of George letting Dobbin admire him. Even in young adulthood, having seen Dobbin in capable service, George downplays his friend's merits. Dobbin's father, the grocer, is now a wealthy alderman (an elected city leader and an example of the increasing power of the middle class), but he still isn't a gentleman. As the novel progresses, readers become aware that George's snobbishness also reveals his insecurities. The class above his—the nobility—is much more remote than his is from Dobbin's. Dobbin's father may be a grocer, but George's is a merchant—both are commercial professions. The question of who is truly a gentleman or a lady is a theme throughout the novel.

Chapter 5 also gives the narrator an opportunity to comment on the education of children. Swishtail Seminary is a fictionalized version of Charterhouse, a boys' school William Makepeace Thackeray attended as a child. The names and people and places in the novel carry a little extra meaning. The headmaster at Charterhouse took every opportunity to whip the students—to swish their tails. The endemic bullying and discipline common in schools for boys leads the narrator to comment, "If people would but leave children to themselves; if teachers would cease to bully them ... small harm would accrue."

Chapter 5 makes clear how large and intrusive a role the narrator plans to take in the novel. Not only does he narrate all events, comment often on characters' behavior, and offer social critiques, he also actively engages and even scolds readers about their habits and expectations. The narrator is hardly a detached observer, omnisciently relating characters' thoughts and feelings. His is the dominant voice, and he often gets right in the middle of the story. The narrator gets in sly digs at writers of potboilers (an inferior work of art or literature created merely to put food on the table) as he teases readers about their preferences. This interruption is only one comic device the narrator uses to suspend readers, delaying the moment when Becky Sharp's plan is shattered. Unnecessary character descriptions and interactions also postpone the climax of this section as well. For example, the narrator suggests that Jos Sedley's fast heartbeat might signify his attraction to Becky or simply his unfitness, as an obese man, to stroll through a garden.

Chapter 7 further develops the theme of what makes a gentleman or a lady. Beyond the fact that the Crawleys are noble merely because Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed a beer one day, Sir Pitt disappoints Becky in every way as a baronet. In addition to his sloppy appearance and poor diction, he is vulgar and stingy. Even the choice to take a public coach to Queen's Crawley speaks to his miserliness. Sir Pitt and Becky aren't dissimilar, although this is disguised by the differences in their manners and speech. Both grasp and wring every advantage out of a situation, and both are driven by fear of want. In addition, both lack the respect of the house's servants. Becky had ingratiated herself with the Sedleys' servants initially, but when she leaves, they are glad to see her go. They believe she stole many little things from the Sedleys (though Amelia Sedley insists Becky's stash is a result of gifts). The servants also resent that a girl not much above their own social rank set her sights on Jos. It's an insult to the family, and thus to them. Every social stratum depicted in the novel has its own substrata—every person demands his or her own level of respect.

The prominent presence of servants, however, implies something hypocritical about Becky's "poverty." She cannot live a life of leisure because of her poverty, and Amelia pities her, but the servants who support these leisurely lives work hard, and they are not pitied or considered "poor."

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