Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 51–53 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 51: In Which a Charade Is Acted Which May or May Not Puzzle the Reader

After Becky Sharp's introduction to Lord Steyne's friends, she quickly finds a way to receive an invitation to their parties and dinners. Her singing is sought after, and her impeccable French skills gain her access to events at the French embassy. Lady Fitz-Willis, one of society's most renowned and impressive ladies, pays the Crawley home a visit, thus conferring the highest society approval on Becky, and silencing her naysayers at long last. Predictably, now that Becky has achieved what she has set out to do, she grows restless and bored without any kind of challenge in front of her.

Yet as the Crawleys grow in recognition and respect, so do inquiries into their financial state, particularly due to the lavish parties Becky throws. Speculations abound, and none of them are particularly flattering: there is a rumor that Pitt Crawley and Becky are in a secret romance, and another that Becky hustles Rawdon Crawley's friends for money. What no one knows is that Becky is just as shrewd and calculating as ever, able to swindle free food, liquor, and servants from her connections. The narrator interjects that before the reader might judge her, they might also realize even the wealthiest people use illusion and deception to appear richer than they are.

At a charades party at Lord Gaunt's, full of exotic Eastern costumes and storylines, Becky wins over the crowd once again with her skills, and the fuss over her separates her from Rawdon after they act out a series of characters together. She leaves without him, not realizing that right after she is gone, he is arrested in public for not repaying their debts.

Chapter 52: In Which Lord Steyne Shows Himself in a Most Amiable Light

In a flashback before Rawdon's arrest, the narrator notes, "When Lord Steyne was benevolently disposed, he did nothing by halves," and he extends this disposition to the Crawleys by offering to pay for Rawdy's schooling at an elite boarding school. Although Rawdon is reluctant to agree, he knows it will be beneficial and so he acquiesces. After Rawdy leaves, Lady Jane Crawley pays Rawdon a visit, and he is relieved he has someone with whom he can relate to over loving and missing his son. Becky, for her part, doesn't even kiss her son goodbye when he departs. Yet Rawdon is able to see his son every weekend, and takes him to see plays and visit with Lady Jane and the cousins, an activity which only increases Becky's disdain for them.

Lord Steyne pressures Becky again to let Miss Briggs go, not realizing she never paid back her debt with the money he gave her. When Becky is reluctant, he begins to suspect something is amiss, and sets out to investigate. When he learns that Becky claimed she owed Miss Briggs twice as much as she actually does, he begins to realize the depths of her manipulation, and also wonders how much Rawdon knows. With this mounting evidence, Lord Steyne asks Becky about her lies, but she only tells another lie: it is Rawdon's fault. Lord Steyne has Miss Briggs moved to another household, and the general suspicion around Becky mounts—even Pitt and Lady Jane suspect something is going on between Becky and Lord Steyne.

Pitt finally confronts Becky, and tells her she is destroying the Crawley reputation and name, but Becky dismisses him and continues to do as she pleases. Pitt's hands are tied because the king—whom he works for in court—is close with Lord Steyne, and so ignoring him is not possible. Before he leaves London, Pitt cautions Rawdon yet again to keep an eye on Becky. Rawdon demands that she stop attending parties without him; when she begins to pay more attention to him and to enjoy his company again, he softens, feeling that things have returned to the way they were early on in the marriage.

Chapter 53: A Rescue and a Catastrophe

When Rawdon is arrested, he is forced to confront his creditors, but he doesn't alert Becky as to what has transpired until the following morning, when he writes her for money to get him out of jail. The whole day passes before Becky sends Rawdon his desk of money, which is not enough to pay the debt; the rest, she says, Lord Steyne will loan them when he can. Rawdon, who assumed she would have sold her jewelry instead, is shocked and suspicious. He then asks Pitt to send him the remaining money he needs to be released. Lady Jane delivers it to the jail herself, which causes Rawdon to grow emotional over her kindness—he tells her that he is a better person for knowing her and having his son, and he wants to continue to be better. When Rawdon finally arrives back home, he discovers Becky and Lord Steyne are alone together, holding hands. The narrator has dropped hints that Becky and Lord Steyne may have conspired together to get rid of Rawdon by having him arrested. Becky feigns innocence, which only angers Lord Steyne—he thinks this is a trap that the couple has set to compromise him, and he reveals to Rawdon that he has given Becky jewelry, clothing, and money. Rawdon slaps him and rips Becky's jewelry off, then demands the keys to the box where she is keeping the money Lord Steyne gave her. When Rawdon opens the box, he finds all kinds of love tokens from other men, as well as a large amount of money. Rawdon declares he will pay off Lord Steyne and Miss Briggs at once, and informs Becky he is leaving. Becky is in shock in the aftermath of his departure, briefly considering committing suicide when she realizes how thoroughly she has been exposed and how little she is left with.

Analysis

The narrator depicts Becky Sharp in this section at the high and low points of her usual cycle—excitement when she has something to gain or win, and boredom and discontent immediately after she gets it. He hints with foreshadowing that "glory like this is said to be fugitive," meaning that the story of her rise and fall will come on the heels of her getting everything she ever wanted and then losing it. Throughout Becky's long history of manipulation and schemes, she also managed to rack up an enormous amount of debt that is finally catching up to her and her family.

The flashback in Chapter 52 serves to up the stakes for what Becky stands to lose should her deceptions come to light, and Lord Steyne is on to her with regard to how she manipulated him out of the money he gave her. Interestingly, rather than be angered by the lie, Lord Steyne only respects her con, and thinks more highly of her. However, more people than ever are taking notice of her affairs, and even Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane Crawley seem to have finally caught on to the ruinous effects of Becky's actions on the family name. Yet the narrator hints that Becky may, in fact, be pulling off her greatest manipulation yet—for, through a rippling effect, both her son and Miss Briggs are finally out of her way, which can only please her. With Rawdon Crawley's arrest, it seems she can finally be rid of everything she feels is keeping her down.

But the stakes are high, and Chapter 53 finds Becky's careful world of deception tumbling down around her. It's the moment readers have been waiting for as her lies and manipulations have mounted, and the stakes of what she has to lose grows higher. The revelation when Rawdon opens her box of tokens and money reveals that not only did she manipulate Lord Steyne, but she also has secretly kept money meant for their son and other debts. The psychological motivation behind this hoarding of money is puzzling, for there seems to be quite enough money for her to have paid off their debts and gotten the creditors off their backs, and some of it has been in her possession for years. The reader can only assume that Becky was hoarding the money for a possible future without Rawdon, or that her impoverished childhood has led to an unhealthy obsession with keeping as much money in her possession as possible. It is an odd, irreconcilable fact that seems to hint at a greater level of turbulence in Becky's psyche than she is willing to acknowledge.

Even after being exposed by Rawdon, Becky can't seem to bring herself to admit any wrongdoing—even as her husband walks out the door, she still proclaims her innocence. What she is clinging to is not an attempt to save her marriage but to save the standing in society she has worked so hard to achieve.

This chapter marks the most profound turning point in the novel thus far, for the reader now knows that life for Becky and Rawdon—and particularly their relationship—can never be the same again. It is telling and heartbreaking that Rawdon's biggest grief over this discovery is not her affair but her constant selfishness. He laments, "You might have spared me a hundred pounds, Becky, out of all this—I have always shared with you." He is devastated that her selfishness has required their family to live on the tightrope of poverty, costing even their son hardship for no apparent reason. It's as though Rawdon is finally coming to terms with the fact that Becky does not see him as her equal.

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