Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Themes


Lies and Pretense

In "Before the Curtain" (preface), the frame of Vanity Fair is explained. It points out that the entire story is a play in which costumed puppets act out roles as if they were real people. When the curtain comes down, the play ends, and the puppets—only collections of wood, metal, and cloth, after all—are returned to their crate. Within the novel, character after character performs, as the puppets do. They play deceitful roles to achieve their goals, and harm other characters in the process. Lies are a social construct—they require someone willing to be dishonest and someone willing to accept the dishonesty. Characters accept these parts for reasons ranging from naïveté (as in Amelia Sedley's case), to hope of gain or fear of loss (as in Mr. John Sedley's), and to pride of person (as in the case of many characters—from Isidor, Jos's comically vain valet, to Miss Jemima Pinkerton, with her puffed-up résumé). It is only Becky Sharp, who is cynical and has few delusions, who is never seriously deceived. In short, it takes two to lie and deceive successfully.

Both Lord Steyne and Becky pretend to benefit the other while grabbing all that is within reach, but neither is fooled by the other's motives. In other cases, innocents suffer because of lies, as when Rawdon Crawley ends up in debtor's prison because Becky has kept their finances shrouded. This lie is particularly tragic because it results in Rawdon leaving his beloved son behind to be raised by Sir Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane Crawley. Rawdon, who could hardly stand to send his child to school for a day, never sees the boy again. Yet Rawdon doesn't escape complicity in the deception. He benefits from Becky's absence, and from her success in wooing patrons. All the while, the people who see through pretense and reject the lies—William Dobbin and Lady Jane Crawley in particular—are often disregarded because the truth they would tell is uncomfortable.

The Price of Ambition

Becky Sharp is not the only character in the novel who believes the end justifies the means, and that collateral damage is unavoidable. "I'm no angel," she declares to Amelia early on, and promptly begins to prove her claim, feigning sisterly love for Amelia in hopes of attracting Jos Sedley's affection. As she moves from city to city, and household to household, Becky leaves dismay behind at best and destruction at worst; and for a time, seems to emerge unscathed. She is not the only character who uses others to rise in society, or to put the brakes on a fall. Mr. John Osborne, Mr. John Sedley, and Mrs. Bute Crawley are just three others who are willing to make others pay a price for their ambition. The novel, as the narrator says, lacks heroic characters, and one complaint after its debut was that the novel was overstuffed with "schemers ... [and] world-wise, perfidious" people from whom, in the real world, readers would "shrink ... as from a contagion." Yet as William Makepeace Thackeray himself responded to the reviewer so concerned about contagion, a goal of the novel was to make a ruckus about cruel ambition, to "howl to a congregation of fools" who value human love so little. The characters whose ambition drives them to use and discard others suffer in the end, while those who act generously and on behalf of others are rewarded. But even as ambitious individuals are punished, the status-hungry world of Vanity Fair is never seriously challenged: people still seek out the wealthy and powerful, and shun those less fortunate or more obscure. The theme of the price of ambition acts as a warning in a novel full of critiques of human vices.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Regency society (during which the novel's action is set) and Victorian society (the context in which the novel's first readers encountered the story) imposed rules of behavior for ladies and gentlemen. In fact, as the 19th century proceeded, such social expectations became stricter. Adequate income was a necessary, but insufficient, condition for someone to claim the title of gentleman. By reaching high and low in the social ranks for his characters, Thackeray suggests that a man of great wealth, like the elder Sir Pitt, may be a man of low moral character. At the same time, a man of limited influence, like William Dobbin, may prove the better-mannered man among his wealthier peers; Dobbin's excellent judgment and moral behavior actually becomes a kind of social currency, allowing him to gain greater distinction and respect. But regardless of wealth, ladies and gentlemen were expected to recognize and abide by social boundaries of behavior. For example, it is acceptable, Rawdon thinks, for his charming wife to shine in high company, but it is unacceptable for her to be found alone with Lord Steyne. When it becomes public knowledge that Becky has crossed that line, even debauched Lord Steyne, who was happy enough for her to cross it in private, must see to her public punishment.

Yet a paradox of the novel is that lack of wealth, or fear of poverty, drive some characters to less than genteel behavior. Becky muses she "could be a good woman if [she] had five thousand a year." And the narrator, too, wonders whether "it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman." The solution to the paradox may be found in characters like William Dobbin, who is generous with his limited income and never uses a lack of funds as an excuse to violate social mores, and Sir Pitt Crawley, who when he inherits Queen's Crawley puts his fortune to use for the benefit of the estate and those who live on it.

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