Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Symbols

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The symbols in Vanity Fair draw attention to the characters' misguided priorities.

Mirrors and Portraits

For young people jockeying for position in the world, and for older people invested in maintaining their reputation, appearance matters greatly. Mirrors, reflective surfaces, and portraits appear often in the novel, and represent characters' preoccupation with their appearance to others. For some characters, attention to appearance is a practical matter. Becky carefully curates her appearance to achieve her goals—she is especially careful to use her glance to good effect. For other characters, attention to appearance is a habitual matter, as it is with George Osborne, who is compelled to check his reflection at every opportunity. Satire itself is like a mirror—the novel holds up a reflection of readers' behavior and invites them to take a long, hard look at how they appear to others.

Mythical Women

Greek figures of mythology show up in both subtle and overt ways in Vanity Fair. In particular, allusions to mythical women draw attention to the roles of women in 19th-century England, and to the roles of female characters in the novel. Clytemnestra and Iphigenia, a mother and daughter from the Agamemnon cycle of myths, represent women's relative powerlessness and the bloodshed that results from it. To catch this symbolic meaning, readers must remember that King Agamemnon agreed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, so the goddess Artemis would allow the winds to blow the Greek fleet to Troy. Queen Clytemnestra, deceived into thinking she is about to see her beloved daughter wed to the hero Achilles, vows revenge. The analogy suggests that a woman who has no legitimate authority can be easily sacrificed; to protect herself and her interest, she may have to resort to treachery, even violence.

Entertainments

Throughout the novel, readers see characters engage in entertainments—music, drama, games, and so on. Some entertainments are wholesome, while others put characters at some kind of risk. Entertainments may lure and lull characters, who seem unwilling or unable to resist. Especially in the context of Vanity Fair—that place of delicious temptations—entertainments represent humans' inability to attend to what matters, even in a moment of crisis. George, for example, is quickly distracted by pretty baubles and becomes an easy mark for skilled card players like Rawdon. Becky's ability to entertain a crowd with her music and dancing is a tool for exploiting the elites. Although some entertainments are harmless—Amelia's piano comes to mind—entertainments in the novel are often a vice that lead to vain behaviors.

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