by William Makepeace Thackeray
A poor orphan of low birth, Becky Sharp is a born hustler and almost sociopathic striver who manages to raise herself to the upper limits of high society and wealth, only to see her achievements crumble under the weight of her bad deeds. Evil temptress or misunderstood woman ahead of her time? You be the judge.
Guilt, Innocence, and Motherhood
One of the fun (or, yes, extremely infuriating) things about Vanity Fair is that it's full of mysteries and crimes that remain unsolved. We start out rooting for Becky to keep putting one over on the dolts and jerks she is surrounded by. Slowly though, she is transformed from a plucky up-by-her-own-bootstraps orphan to a horridly scheming liar.
As we rip off our "Team Becky" shirts, we are forced to wonder why Thackeray never actually reveals whether she is guilty or innocent of the crimes that cause her reputation's fiery crash. Sure, she is constantly stealing from her creditors, letting Rawdon's professional gambling fleece her friends, and pulling financial con jobs, but somehow the narrator makes these sound like comical shenanigans rather than nefarious evil.
There seem to be two things that really do Becky in: first, the accusation that she sleeps with Lord Steyne in exchange for his money and social standing; and second, that she makes Jos take out an insurance policy on his life and then murders him. These are some pretty bad things if she did them, but no definitive evidence is ever presented, and the narrator doesn't tell us the ultimate truth.
So why do we end up feeling so dirty at the end of the novel for having sided with Becky at first? Why does the narrator's allegiance shift from giving Becky credit where it's due (she is always shown to be pleasant, up to doing hard work when necessary, smart, funny, and unflaggingly optimistic) to declaring her to be a vicious and disgusting monster?
We'll throw out one possibility. Stealing, cheating, and even financially motivated murder are crimes of circumstance. As the narrator always takes pains to point out, Becky is poor and needs to provide for herself and her future, by hook or by crook. Whatever she has to do toward this end is somewhat understandable, especially when her options as a woman are so limited.
But there is one thing Becky is clearly guilty of. She neglects her child and is almost entirely non-maternal. This is a crime of her inmost nature. It has nothing to do with the accident of her low birth and everything to do with her failure as a human being. Think about it – how different would the novel have been if Becky was exactly the same but also fiercely devoted to little Rawdon Jr.?
Acting, Storytelling, and Lies
This novel is totally fixated on the many different kinds of lies everyone must tell themselves and each other just to get through the day:
- Lies of politeness: Pitt Crawley pretending to defer to his mother in law and aunt.
- Lies of society: long-lost "friends" immediately professing undying affection for Amelia when she inherits money.
- Lies of self-aggrandizement: Becky telling everyone that her mother was descended from French nobility.
- Lies of pride: Mrs. O'Dowd exaggerating everything about Ireland.
- Lies of self-deception: Amelia desperately believing dead George was the best husband ever, and Dobbin holding Amelia up on an undeserved pedestal.
- Lies of hate: Mrs. Bute inventing Rawdon and Becky's various bad deeds to turn Miss Crawley against them.
Really, you name the lie, the novel has got it in spades. With everyone swimming in this haze of untruth, the only character who does seem to be able to cut through the bull is Becky. She often has moments of speaking truth to power. She tells off Miss Pinkerton by brushing aside euphemisms and describing their power relationship exactly. She calls George Osborne out on his patronizing and condescending ways, forcing him to treat her politely. She's able to bargain with Rawdon's creditors because she's not ashamed of his debts and can thus argue for an effective settlement of pennies on the pound.
At the same time, maybe because she is so good at seeing through social mores, Becky is one heck of an actress. And we're not just talking about her command performance in charades. For one, she is an incredible mimic, using her parodic gifts to entertain Miss Crawley and Lord Steyne. For another, almost everywhere she goes, she puts on an infallible charm offensive. Finally, she is a highly gifted storyteller, if only when spinning her own version of her story. But then again, aren't we reading a version of her story too? The only character in the novel that can even compete with her is the narrator himself. And even he can't get out in front of the plot to fill in the details of her sex life and potential murderousness.
Sometimes a Cigar is More than a Cigar: Sex and Desire
On top of everything else (hey, it's a long novel, lots of stuff in there), Becky is the ultimate sex symbol. She represents the promise of desire fulfilled for the men around her without seeming to have any desire herself. Think about her effect on pretty much every man she comes across. Jos wants her, though he's too shy to go for it. Sir Pitt wants her and tries to marry her. Pitt wants her and lets her get in the way of his marriage. Rawdon wants her, marries her, and keeps on wanting her. George is ready to have an affair with her two months into his marriage to Amelia. General Tufto is obsessed to the point of making himself ridiculous (well, even more ridiculous than he already is). Lord Steyne? Um, yeah.
The only guy who finds her kind of repellent is Dobbin. This is also pretty telling. He is a total oddball who finds himself out of place in the surrounding society. He doesn't fall prey to Becky because her ability to exploit the rules of mainstream Victorian heterosexuality, to act the part of the most seductive woman in the room, don't work on someone who doesn't get how the room actually works. Dobbin is the exception that proves the rule. We know this because sometimes Thackeray is explicit about how Becky does her thing. Remember the bit with the cigar? First she smokes one of Rawdon's, and he gets all...um...worked up. Then she does the same thing to George because she remembers how well it worked the first time.