Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Quotes


The world is a looking-glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Mirrors real and metaphorical carry symbolic meaning in Vanity Fair. Here, the narrator issues a warning and foreshadows some of the problems Becky Sharp will face in a tit-for-tat world. Those who "look sourly" at the world, he predicts, should expect sourness in return.


A dear, tender mother ... would have extracted the interesting avowal from the bashful lips of the young man!

Narrator, Chapter 6

Becky Sharp and the Sedley family expect Jos Sedley to propose to her any moment, but Becky lacks a mother to help move the proposal along. Even sly Becky can't cross the line of social decency that would prompt Jos to speak. The role of parents in arranging her marriage is one she must fill herself, as the narrator often points out. Becky's pragmatic approach to getting her needs met drives her actions throughout the novel.


I am very fond of Amelia; I adore her ... I must have a little fling, and then when I'm married I'll reform.

George Osborne, Chapter 13

George Osborne's defensive words to William Dobbin, when Dobbin scolds him for his faithless behavior, reveal his essential selfishness, just as his frequent glimpses in the mirror reveal his innate vanity. From early in the novel it is clear who the better man is.


He saw a slave before him in that ... yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power.

Narrator, Chapter 20

When George Osborne visits Amelia Sedley, who was convinced he no longer honored their engagement, she cries in gratitude. George's response suggests a great deal about how they both view their marriage, and how George will likely treat Amelia. As for her part, Amelia muses, "He is the greatest and best of men," a claim, the narrator says, George would not disagree with. He sees himself as a "Sultan" and Amelia as a supplicant in need of his mercy and grace.


Where have you been, wretch? Here is Emmy crying her eyes out for you. Are you coming to fetch me for the quadrille?

Becky Sharp, Chapter 29

Becky Sharp's scandalously flirtatious behavior at the ball is intended not only to impress men but to put other women in their place—beneath her. Even Amelia Sedley—whom Becky professes to love as a sister—must be subjugated. She scolds Amelia for not visiting her, then scolds George Osborne for neglecting his wife, and then has George abandon Amelia to dance with her. "Women only know how to wound so," the narrator comments, accurately labeling Becky Amelia's "remorseless little enemy."


The King took notice of her yesterday at the Tuileries, and we are all jealous of the attention which Monsieur pays her.

Parisian great lady, Chapter 34

When Rawdon Crawley and Becky Sharp travel with General Tufto to Paris, Becky not only charms the men but even "all the French ladies." Her French is excellent, her personality lively, and her behavior not as scandalous, the narrator suggests, among Paris's elite. A high-ranking lady writes a letter to Miss Matilda Crawley, full of praise for her niece-in-law—even the king, his brother, and his sister want to know her. The letter, however, infuriates Miss Crawley, a respectable lady whose good name Becky has exploited in Paris.


You and I ... may drop into this condition one day: for have not many of our friends attained it? Our luck may fail.

Narrator, Chapter 38

Commenting on the Sedleys' fall from comfort and plenty into proud but dire poverty, the narrator reminds readers that such falls can happen to anyone who crowds the streets in Vanity Fair.


I have a gentleman for my husband ... But am I much better ... now ... than ... when I ... wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar?

Becky Sharp, Chapter 41

Visiting Queen's Crawley after Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane Crawley inherit it, Becky Sharp pauses to assess how far she has come in her quest for wealth and how far she still has to go. She muses, too, on how money makes it easier to choose moral actions. The narrator wonders, too, whether "it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman."


He looked her full in the face ... 'You never kiss me at home, Mamma,' he said, at which there was a general silence and consternation.

Rawdy, Chapter 45

One of the more damning aspects of Becky Sharp's behavior, for William Makepeace Thackeray's original readers, is her lack of maternal love. Previous chapters show her mistreating and neglecting her son. In this scene, she makes a show of kissing him to impress the other women in the room. This incident suggests her willingness to use Rawdy in her schemes, and the look in Becky's expressive eyes—"by no means pleasant"—suggest future violence against her son.


There were times when she believed herself to be a fine lady and forgot that there was no money in the chest at home.

Narrator, Chapter 48

The narrator wryly points out that even the day of Becky Sharp's great triumph—when she is presented at court—is a day of doubt for her. She knows, as no one else does—not even Rawdon Crawley—how easily she could be revealed as a financial fraud. And yet, the narrator admires her ability to carry on the hoax, observing how her posture and attitude "would have befitted an empress."


But Rawdon Crawley ... struck the Peer twice over the face ... and flung him bleeding to the ground. [Becky] admired her husband, strong, brave, and victorious.

Narrator, Chapter 53

One of the novel's most exciting moments comes when Rawdon Crawley confronts Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne. Rawdon, an easygoing man for most of the novel, can only be pushed so far. His attack on Lord Steyne will cost him dearly, but in this moment, Becky seems to see Rawdon's potential for the first time. When he calls her, she comes right away, trembling, and when he tells her to take off the jewels Steyne gave her, she does so immediately.


How many thousands of people are there ... doomed to endure this long slavery? ... who strive, fast, watch, and suffer, unpitied, and fade away.

Narrator, Chapter 57

Amelia Sedley's fall from fortune is slow and grinding, as the narrator presents it in Chapter 57. Her life is one of want, work, and loneliness. The narrator drops his satirical tone to call for genuine sympathy and compassion for people who have fallen on hard times. Such hard times can come—as the novel's events and commentary suggest—to even the most privileged. "Oh, be humble, my brother," the narrator warns, "in your prosperity!"


You don't know what she endured ... If she took your son away from you, she gave hers to you ... she loved hers ten times more.

William Dobbin, Chapter 61

William Dobbin, who before hastened George Osborne's marriage and disinheritance, has learned how to speak out effectively. His care for Georgy, and his tender recounting of all Amelia Sedley has suffered reconcile Mr. Osborne to his daughter-in-law, and his influence secures Amelia a future of comfort and security.


Was she most grieved because the idol of her life was tumbled down ... or indignant that her love had been so despised?

Narrator, Chapter 67

Becky Sharp breaks character for Amelia Sedley's sake, as the novel comes to a close, to keep her from being tempted to marry one of the army men interested in her. She reveals the truth about George Osborne. Amelia's reaction—a flood of tears the narrator can't pin down as "sweet or bitter"—is made even more ambiguous by the revelation, a few sentences later, that she has already written to William Dobbin to call him back. Becky "screamed with laughter" at this bold act by her timid friend.


Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?

Narrator, Chapter 67

These words, which come at end of the novel, may well serve as a summation of the book's central idea. Readers might consider the characters as they play out their lives in the novel. How many could answer yes to these questions?

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