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Literature / Vanity Fair

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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), the first ever feature film to use the three-strip Technicolor process. 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 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.
  • 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 Jerkass 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. Similarly, Dobbin realises that Amelia is nothing special after he marries her, having spent decades pining over her.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Deconstruction: Amelia pretty much deconstructs the Victorian novel heroine. Sure, she's nice and well-intentioned, but she's also a spineless Horrible Judge of Character and can be pretty oblivious to others' feelings.
  • 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 'stache 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 makes many passes at Becky, who's young enough to be his daughter.
    • The Marquess of Steyne, who transparently makes his moves on the married Becky and clearly isn't one for marital fidelity, is even worse.
  • 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.
    • There are also some hints that while the current generation of characters is pretty screwed, the next one might turn out to be a little wiser.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The very first we see of Becky, she bids goodbye to her school's headmistress with icy politeness in perfectly accented French, which she knows the headmistress doesn't speak, and refuses to shake hands. Then on the way out, she throws the Dictionary the headmistress's sister gave her as a goodbye present in an attempt to be nice out the carriage window. (Not, as we soon learn, that the headmistress has never done anything to deserve it.)
  • Fat Bastard: Jos, after he proves himself a snivelling coward.
  • 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 finds irresistible.
  • Foreign Queasine: Becky tries some curry for the first time in her life when staying with the Sedleys (Joseph having worked as a tax collector in India). She is not prepared for how spicy it is.
  • 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, though it backfired the first two tries.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: E.g., "In Which Miss Crawley's Relations Are Very Concerned About Her."
  • Irony: Becky's and Amelia's child-raising methods have the result of turning their sons into the complete opposite from what you might expect from their own personalities. Amelia wants all the best for her son after the death of her husband, inadvertently turning young George into a spoilt brat. Becky utterly neglects hers, causing young Rawdon to seek companionship from the more decent members of his father's side of the family and grow up to be a nice young man.
  • Jerkass: 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.
    • George Sr's father, Mr Osborne, however, beats them both by leaps and bounds. He is a ridiculously arrogant and bullying man, selfishly refusing his son a match he himself arranged when they were both toddlers, and flies into such a rage at their marriage he disowns George completely and continues hating his sweet wife even after she is widowed. His treatment to his elder daughter Jane, is much worse, telling her she will never marry since he wants her around to be his servant.
  • Jerkass Woobie: A rare invoked version. Thackeray occasionally describes Becky's (sometime crude) attempts at getting with a man as Becky having to do it all by herself since usually the mother helped with finding a man and arranging a marriage. The trope is then often skewered by Thackeray's own biting asides, which basically note it's a very thin cover for Becky trying to one-up or get the better of someone.
  • Lemony Narrator: The narrator constantly directly addresses the reader and makes remarks about his characters and their actions, often in an ironic fashion.
  • 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.
  • 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. She's a sharp woman in more senses of the word. She's quick-witted and keen, full of activity and energy, clever but kinda dishonest, she's quick to understand things and quick to react, but she's also harsh and severe.
    • "Dobbin" was a common name for horses at the time (Dobbin is a little horse-faced), especially a plodding sort of work-horse (Dobbin is slavishly loyal to Amelia).
    • The Marquess of Steyne (pronounced "stain") 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.
    • Miss Swartz is half-black (Schwarz is German for "black"), but because of her wealth has no shortage of suitors
    • The Bareacres family are near-bankrupt.
  • Mrs. Hypothetical: The narrator mocks the obsession of women who want to be My Lady Crawley and marry Sir Pitt. The house itself and his position in society are really enviable and he mentions how wonderfully are women risen to nobility respected by their old acquaintances, but Sir Pitt himself is a rather disgusting and crude man. But a nobleman nonetheless. Becky Sharp is one of them; though she happens to marry his younger son instead. At the end of the book, Becky calls herself Lady Crawley, though she never was — she is supposed to be "just" Mrs Crawley.
    Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley.
  • 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. Becky helps by distracting the marks.
  • "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.
    • Amelia herself is on the receiving end of one when Dobbin calls her out for her blinkered and foolish devotion to George despite his obvious unworthiness and her selfish and thoughtless attitude towards Dobbin himself, and bluntly informs her that she is not worth the devotion he has given to her over the years.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The Marquess of Steyne arranges to have Captain Crawley made governor of remote Coventry Islandnote  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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Stepford Smiler: Becky is the Unstable variety. Everyone likes her at first because she's witty, charming, often polite, and always able to play to someone's good side. Every single time, she manages to dupe someone out of something to her advantage, sometimes viciously, and most people only realize it after she's conned them and left; Thackeray describes one of Amelia and Becky's early heartfelt partings as "one was in earnest and the other a perfect performer" respectively.
  • 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.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: Heavily implied by the ending. Dobbin spends most of the novel infatuated with Amelia, who barely notices him and remains soppily devoted to George, despite his unworthiness. By the end of the novel, Amelia has had her eyes opened to George's flaws and has accepted Dobbin's hand in marriage — but much to her chagrin, it's suggested that by this point he's long since fallen out of love with 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 was 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.

"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."