Monday, October 3, 2011

Victorian Literature: Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray subtitled his novel "a novel without a hero," and that's almost true. There are few decent people in his story of scheming and social climbing. It's really a dual novel, recording the mirrored careers of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. They start the story together, just having left school, but Becky is a poor governess and Amelia is a fairly wealthy young lady. Amelia doesn't get quite as much story space as Becky does--she's one of the few virtuous characters, but she isn't very active and Becky's constant ambition is the focus of the story. Amelia comes into her own later on, though.

Becky Sharp is a sociopath, albeit a charming and amusing one. Thackeray hints at dark events in her childhood which she does not dare to remember. Perhaps as a result, she has virtually no conscience and sets out into the world to get as much as she can with her brains and her charm to assist her. She works constantly to gain a place in high society, which she finances with lots of debt and lies. Thackeray sets her in company with leering old men and jealous women, most of whom are in nearly as much debt as she is. The ton of England is satirized as Vanity Fair, a constant tussle of people who care for nothing but money and appearances, trying to cheat anyone they can.

Amelia, Becky's foil, is a good and unselfish woman, lost in this world. She is good at loving, but not at going out and fighting for a living. The hardened folks of Vanity Fair simply despise her, but the one really virtuous man in the novel sees her true worth. He is the real hero of the story.

Thackeray has quite a bit to say on the lot of women in his society, and exhorts his readers to consider how few rights they have and how much most of them have to put up with. Of course he also constantly points out the evils of debt, gambling, cheating, and general inconsideration of others.

I liked Vanity Fair much more than I thought I would! It's a memorable story and enjoyable satire.

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