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Literature: Vanity Fair
Mr. Joseph Entangled
William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-48) is a multiplot novel tracing the varied fortunes of the charming (but vicious) Becky Sharp and her sometime friend, the beautiful (but blank) Amelia Sedley. During the Napoleonic era, the novel's many characters travel throughout Europe—fighting battles, scheming, and looking for cash. As the title suggests, the novel satirizes the social and sexual pretensions of a thoroughly dissolute High Society. The reader meets adulterers, gamblers, and con(wo)men of every description, only some of whom get their rightful comeuppance. Although readers, both in the Victorian Era and since, have sometimes found Thackeray's treatment of Amelia to be gushingly sentimental, Vanity Fair can be exceptionally hardheaded in its attacks on moral hypocrisy and romantic cliches. The subtitle may be ironic, but it's also serious: even the honest soldier William Dobbin, who is the closest thing the novel has to a moral center, doesn't end the novel unscathed.

Notably, the novel was first published with Thackeray's own illustrations, some of them crucial to the plot.

Vanity Fair has been filmed and televised several times, beginning with a silent film released in 1911. The most famous of these adaptations is Becky Sharp (1935), which inaugurated the Technicolor era. Mira Nair's 2004 film version, starring Reese Witherspoon, turned Becky into the real heroine.

Not to be confused with the Fashion Magazine with the same name.


Tropes used:

  • Affably Evil: Becky, for the most part.
  • All the Little Germanies: The setting of the "Am Rhein" section of the novel.
  • All There in the Manual: Or, rather, in the illustrations. Most famously, while it is hinted in the text that Becky may have murdered Jos, it is much more strongly suggested in an illustration.
  • Apathetic Teacher: Becky who was hired to be the governess and teacher of Sir Pitt Crawley's daughters. She is lackadaisical about their education and describes them as "very thin insignificant little chits."
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The appalling Marquess of Steyne. Also, Sir Pitt Crawley, who is a classic "bad baronet."
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Massively averted. Becky ignores her child, Amelia spoils her son because of his rotten father, and ultimately Amelia realizes that Dobbin's affections are mostly tied up in their daughter.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted with Becky but played straight(ish) with Amelia. Dobbin looks horsey, but is the most noble character in the novel — in fact, the subtitle can be taken to mean both that the novel has heroines and that Dobbin doesn't look the way a hero "should."
  • Being Good Sucks: Dobbin spends the entire novel doing good things, virtually all of them going unrecognized and unrewarded; in fact, Amelia ascribes some of them to her Jerk Ass beloved, George. To make matters worse, Dobbin gets his "reward," marrying Amelia, only after he has ceased to value it.
  • Betty and Veronica: Amelia and Becky.
  • Broken Pedestal: It is only very near the ending when Becky gives Amelia physical proof that George was planning to run away with her, that Amelia comes to realise that her beloved husband wasn't the perfect angel she had spent years thinking of him as.
  • Child Hater: Becky, who is as icy as Amelia is overindulgent where children are concerned. She is cold towards her son Rawdon at best and abusive at worst, and she makes fun of her husband's obvious affection for him. When she visits her in-laws she mocks fun of Lady Jane for reading a storybook to the children. Earlier she described the little girls under her charge at Sir Pitt's as 'completely insignificant.' Whereas Amelia was mourned by the younger students at Miss Pinkertons' school when she left, nobody wept over Becky's departure.
  • Cool Old Lady: Subverted with Miss Crawley who likes the company of clever lower-class young people until they forget their place, as Becky does when she marries Rawdon.
  • Deconstruction: Amelia pretty much deconstructs the Purity Sue Victorian novel heroine. Sure, she's nice and well-intentioned, but she's also a Horrible Judge of Character and can be pretty oblivious to others' feelings.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Becky, on a rare occasion when she shows concern for someone other than herself. She knows that the only thing keeping Amelia from marrying Dobbin is Amelia's blind devotion to her deceased husband George. Becky breaks George's spell by showing Amelia the letter he wrote to Becky asking her to run away with him. Amelia weeps but is relieved to be freed from her delusions.
  • Dead Guy Junior: When George dies in battle, Amelia names her son after him.
  • Deliver Us from Evil: Averted or subverted with Becky. She shows no love to her child, and this demonstrates how nasty and utterly self-seeking she is.
  • Dirty Coward: Jos initially grows a Badass Moustache to try to attract women, but shaves it off and hides when he hears that Napoleon is slaughtering the British troops. It's because of this detail that, as with other characters, his pitiable features are balanced by some really unsympathetic traits/actions.
  • Dirty Old Man: Sir Pitt Crawley
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Poor Dobbin.
  • Downer Ending: Amelia has finally married Dobbin, but he does not love her nearly as much as his daughter; Jos Sedley is dead, quite possibly at Becky's hands; and Becky is playing the part of a virtuous widow, once again working her way into society.
    "Ah! 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."
    • Mira Nair's film subverts the Downer Ending by having Becky head off to India with Jos.
    • Also, there is some debate on whether the ending is completely unhappy or whether it can be read as more like Amelia and Dobbin have their eyes open, and so are relatively happily married, but far from Sickeningly Sweethearts. The text is in the direction of straight Downer Ending, but it leaves a bit of room for something happier.
  • Evil Redhead: Becky; Lord Steyne
  • Fat Bastard: Jos
  • Femme Fatale: An unusual example in that Becky, small and sandy-haired, isn't particularly beautiful or sexy. It is her wit, vivaciousness and intelligence that virtually every man in her vicinity find irresistible.
  • Freudian Excuse: Becky's father beat her and her mother and basically encouraged her to act as a Fille Fatale as a way of getting his debtors to hold off their demands for repayment.
  • Generation Xerox: To the extent that the novel has anything of a happy ending, it's because the younger generation shows signs of being better than their parents' generation — George the younger is set on the right path by Dobbin, so doesn't end up a jerkass like his father, and Rawdon the younger is willing to take care of his mother (but not see her), showing himself to be less reprehensible than either of the two previous baronets, the Messrs. Pitt.
  • Girl of My Dreams: Amelia for Dobbin, although he eventually comes to his senses.
  • Gold Digger: Becky.
  • Grande Dame: Thackeray displays a number of haughty, humourless old ladies in the novel — for instance, Miss Pinkerton, Lady Bareacres, and Lady Southdown.
  • Heel Face Door Slam: George, to a degree. He claims to regret some of his treatment of Amelia right before dying at Waterloo, but it seems unlikely that he really would have changed for the better had he survived.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Rawdon.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Phil Glenister plays Dobbin in the BBC miniseries.
  • Hollywood Costuming: When Thackeray was drawing his illustrations to the story, which is, of course, set in the Napoleonic era, he appended a note to the text explicitly stating, "I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous," (!) and so clothed them in the fashions of the years of the novel's serial publication (1847-1848).
  • Jerk Ass: George Osborne, Amelia's husband. He caps his jerkishness by asking Becky to elope with him weeks after marrying Amelia.
    • George's son George isn't what you'd call a nice young chap, either.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: E.g., "In Which Miss Crawley's Relations Are Very Concerned About Her."
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title "Vanity Fair" is taken from The Pilgrim's Progress. It was originally a fair held in the sinful town of Vanity that sat athwart the road to Heaven.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Mama Bear: Amelia, when she tears into her mother for giving baby Georgy soothing syrup. Subverted in that Amelia is presented as overreacting and needlessly alienating her mother.
  • Maternally Challenged: Becky, who has trouble remembering her son's age.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Becky Sharp, obviously.
    • "Dobbin" was a common name for horses at the time (Dobbin is a little horse-faced).
    • The Marquis of Steyne is both filthy and an utter pig.
    • Lampshaded in the novel by the Crawleys, who name their sons to curry political favor. The name Crawley, however, is itself a straight example of the trope.
    • George Osborne: George IV, the king at the time the novel was set, was notorious for being a selfish, depraved jerk. It's no coincidence that Osborne shares his name. Also, Osborne contains the word "snob," which is also not coincidental. (Incidentally, Thackeray invented the word "snob.")
    • Lady Jane Sheepshanks, until she finds her spine and calls Becky out on her evil ways.
  • Nice Guys Finish Last: Dobbin's problem for most of the novel.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Steyne is based on the third Marquess of Hertford, to the point that Thackeray's illustrations of Steyne look like Hertford.
  • Parental Abandonment: Becky and her son, Rawdon.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Both Becky and Amelia run into this problem; in Amelia's case, George Osborne's father makes up for it in his will.
  • Plucky Girl: Becky, who never gives up no matter how bad things get for her. Subverted in that Becky's pluck often involves her hurting and exploiting people who have been decent to her.
  • Professional Gambler: Becky's husband Rawdon Crawley makes what little money he has this way.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The Marquis of Steyne arranges to have Captain Crawley made governor of remote Coventry Island after Crawley catches his wife Becky in a compromising position with the Marquis.
  • Redemption Equals Affliction: Becky's first good deed - opening Amelia's eyes - came only when she lost everything she had unscrupulously worked for.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Thackeray's narration veers into this quite a bit, especially when he's describing Becky's more "enterprising" moments.
  • Secret Relationship: Becky and Rawdon Crawley.
  • Self-Made Man: Plays out in an interesting way with the Osbournes', Sedleys', and Dobbins' backgrounds. The Osbournes made their way into society the earliest in the novel's past, and really hate people remembering that they ever worked for their money. Thus, George's father betrays Amelia's father when his financial situation sours, and George is contemptuous of Dobbin for being new money.
  • Shrug of God: In a famous interview, Thackeray was asked if Becky murdered Jos. Thackeray's response? "I don't know."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Sliding very much to the cynical. Even the nicest people in the novel turn out to be somewhat problematic.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Becky, though she isn't of noble birth, but she earns the lady status.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Subverted with Amelia, who is sweet but also very gullible and selfish.
  • Spoiled Brat: Georgy Osbourne, thanks to his mother's and grandfather Osbourne's overindulgence. Dobbin's firm but kind treatment of him straightens him out, however.
  • Stupid Good — Amelia tends to believe in untrustworthy people such as George and Becky. She is not in the least skeptical when Becky says she is heartbroken over being separated from her child even when Becky gets his age wrong.
  • Starving Artist: Becky's father, who is also a physically abusive drunk. Becky's rough start in life explains to some extent why she is so ruthless and scrupleless as an adult.
  • The Pilgrim's Progress: A much darker version, in which none of the characters manage to get themselves beyond Vanity Fair.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Amelia's best moment. The morning after George leaves to fight Napoleon's army, Amelia thoroughly tells Becky off for brazenly flirting with George, disregarding her own husband's safety and ignoring all of Amelia's earlier kindness towards her. She remains estranged from Becky for years but naively reconciles when she hears that Becky has been unwillingly separated from her child.
    • Lady Jane has a similar moment when she throws Becky out of her house after Becky tries to manipulate Lady Jane's husband, Sir Pitt, into helping her.
  • Villain Protagonist: Becky Sharp.
  • What Does She See in Him?
    • Amelia and George.
    • In Dobbin's case, this is a What Does He See In Her.
    • George's older sisters and other women sometimes wonder what so many men see in Amelia, but this is largely attributed to jealousy. It is pointed out by the omniscient narrator that Amelia only as popular as she was at her school because there were no men around.
    • An in-universe example is Becky and Rawdon — people constantly wonder that she is married to such a bore.

Under Two Flags 19 th Century LiteratureVampire City

alternative title(s): Vanity Fair
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