‘Vanity Fair,’ the novel without a hero…or heroine

Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

vanity fairThus ends William Makepeace Thackeray’s saucy, sarcastic, insightful novel about the citizens of Vanity Fair, a place of appearances, wealth, social status, and hypocrisy. The denizens of this part of Vanity Fair are the incorrigible Becky Sharp, the naive and kind Amelia Sedley, the steadfast and honorable William Dobbin, the vain Joseph Sedley, scoundrel George Osborne, and the dim-witted gambler Rawdon Crawley—among a host of others, a whole cast of vivid characters that the narrator, himself a character in the novel, eviscerates at every turn. I’ve written briefly before about my first impressions starting this novel, and now that I’ve finished, I have to say my biggest takeaway is my varying loyalties and sympathies to the two female characters in the book, who are extreme opposites: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley.

Rebecca Sharp is the ultimate female anti-hero: a social climber, manipulative, dishonest by default, a terrible mother, a gambler, and a cheat. Her most famous description/line is:

…Though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude…Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist…This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody…”

Then there is Amelia Sedley, a woman from a merchant’s family who is gentle, naive, kind, and blind to the faults of the man she adores. Her most famous description is:

But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature. And a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort that we are to have for a companion so guileless and good natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather too short than otherwise and her cheeks a good deal too round and red for a heroine…”

Clearly, something is going on here with the virgin/whore dichotomy; on the one hand, it’s clearly implied that Becky is carrying on some kind of affairs with men to further her husband’s career and financial standing. On the other, Amelia is steadfast to the memory of her husband, hardly willing to look at another man after he dies for fear of betraying him, even though he almost jilted her when he was alive.

vanity fairEven though Thackeray made clear lines between these women, it’s not clear if he wants readers to love Amelia and hate Becky. In fact, he portrays Becky with bad qualities mixed with a few good, and Amelia with very good qualities mixed with some bad.

As far as who I rooted for throughout the book, I found myself cheering Becky on through every misdeed, every terrible thing she does, every time she treats someone like dirt just so she can get to the top. I cheered her on because she’s so very clever, and so in my mind, I feel like she deserves to have her cleverness and scheming pay off. Up until the end, where she does something very bad.

I also found myself cheering Amelia on through every hardship she endures, every time she feels sorry for herself, every time she moons over her dead husband’s portrait, because I sympathize with her gentle, sad soul. My reaction to these two characters made me realize a lot about myself, and made me figure out a little more about what was going on in Thackeray’s mind at the time.

Rebecca’s actions are definitely disapproved of, but Thackeray also doesn’t hold Amelia up as a paragon of womanhood, either. Amelia has her faults, most notably the way she strings along William Dobbin for years, taking advantage of his love for her. She casts him off when he has finally had enough of her toying with his emotions, and it’s Becky who tries to reunite William and Amelia, even though it has nothing to do with herself, and she hates Dobbin anyway.

Throughout it all, every single character in this cast is satirized in some way, and human faults and foibles are set on a main stage. It’s a hysterical, satirical novel you won’t ever forget.

But my kind reader will please to remember that this history has “Vanity Fair” for a title, and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.


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