by William Makepeace Thackeray
It's not for nothing that we get the full scoop on the school life of each of the major characters in the novel. Thackeray is fascinated by the origin and spread of ideas, values, and other mental characteristics. For him, how we turn out as adults is rooted in the way we were raised and educated, rather than the place in society we were born into. So it's only natural that he thinks it's very important to show what all the novel's adults were like as kids and what they made out of their schooling (and what their schooling made out of them).
Becky is a not-so-proud graduate of Miss Pinkerton's Academy, where she engaged in daily "battle between the young lady and the old one," with only mild satisfaction that "the latter was worsted" (1.32). She spends her time at school being treated like a servant and fantasizing about revenge. And we're thinking that it's during these years of unfairness that Becky starts to figure out how to con the world that doesn't seem to want to take care of her any other way.
Amelia goes to Miss Pinkerton's, too, but she has a totally opposite experience. She is loved and babied, and everyone does whatever she wants. Even horrid old Miss Pinkerton "ceased scolding her after the first time, and [...] gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her" (1.26). So she ends up just as soft at the end of her school days as at the beginning. Mostly she learns to just act in the way that comes natural to her (either laughing or crying most of the time), and that the world will simply try its best to make her happy.
George and Dobbin went to school in the same place at the same time, too. Their relationship is totally defined by the way they met and became friends there. George was about to get his butt handed to him by the school bully when Dobbin stepped in to stick up for him. Up to that point, George was small but reasonably popular, Dobbin awkward and teased. Afterward Dobbin's cred went up slightly, but instead of capitalizing on that, he latched onto George:
Dobbin chose, from some perverseness, to attribute his good fortune to the sole agency and benevolence of little George Osborne, to whom henceforth he vowed such a love and affection as is only felt by children [...] He flung himself down at little Osborne's feet, and loved him. Even before they were acquainted, he had admired Osborne in secret. Now he was his valet, his dog, his man Friday." (5.44)
Which is pretty much how they still are as adults: Dobbin constantly steps in to deal with George's nonsense but believes this handsome jerk to be the better and more worthy man.
Everyone in Vanity Fair is crazy obsessed with exactly where and how they rank in the social hierarchy. This might make sense as far as figuring out the difference between large groups: nobility, merchants, peasants, and paupers, say. But what we get are such tiny gradations, and everyone is so fixated on doing everything they can to elevate themselves and be treated according to their class in life, that it's enough to know where a character sees himself to understand a large part of his personality.
Even third- and fourth-tier characters get this kind of treatment. For example, think about the way George's sister Maria Osborne tries to work out what her marriage to Fred Bullock means for her status. He is from a banking family, which is just slightly higher than the merchant family she comes from, and on top of that, some of his distant relations are nobility. But on the other hand, she's bringing a ton of money to the marriage as a dowry. So it's confusing, and she's not the brightest bulb on the tree. What does she do?
Maria was bound, by superior pride and great care in the composition of her visiting-book, to make up for the defects of birth, and felt it her duty to see her father and sister as little as possible. That she should utterly break with the old man, who had still so many scores of thousand pounds to give away, is absurd [but she persisted in] inviting her papa and sister to her third-rate parties, and behaving very coldly to them when they came, and by avoiding Russell Square, and indiscreetly begging her father to quit that odious vulgar place. (42.7-8).
In other words, she does the worst possible thing – acts superior to her father and lets him see it. Thackeray never comes right out and describes her, but we know from her actions just what to think about her: she is snobby and status-driven but also greedy and tactless. In short, a real winner.
It makes sense that in a book about how materialistic and shallow people are, clothes often really do make the man. What characters wear, how they get dressed, and what kinds of clothes they like or don't like is crucial. Think about it – if you walk down the street, you can tell a lot about the people you pass by what they have on. Conversely, when you get dressed in the morning, you pick out what you wear at least partly based on the message you want to send to the rest of the world. Thackeray is constantly describing what people are wearing, and each outfit seems important in the grand scheme of things.
So how do we analyze what clothes mean when are just so gosh-darned many of them? Well, Shmoop suggests one possible way to tackle it: look for a pattern to when clothes are being described. Is there a specific circumstance in which clothes seem to come up? We noticed that whenever a character is about to enter a new stage of life, he or she gets a paragraph or two dedicated to the new clothes this position requires. We're betting that part of how we as readers are supposed to interpret the life change is the way the narrator tells us about what the character will be wearing. Let's see how this works in practice.
First, there's the case of Amelia getting married. As soon as she is done with her honeymoon, George tells her and her mother….
[. . . ] to purchase everything requisite for a lady of Mrs. George Osborne's fashion [...] They had but one day to complete the outfit. [Amelia loved] shopping, and bargaining, and seeing and buying pretty things [...] She gave herself a little treat, obedient to her husband's orders, and purchased a quantity of lady's gear, showing a great deal of taste and elegant discernment, as all the shopfolks said. (26.17)
So what do we make of this paragraph, and how does the little plot point of Amelia getting a bunch of new Mrs. Osborne-style clothes define her character? Well, for one thing, we know that the new clothes are George's idea, which shows that for him marriage is less about emotional connection or lifelong partnership and more about surface and appearance. He's not in it for the long haul, he's in it for the shopping spree.
Then there's Amelia, who is not only "obedient" to her husband but clearly is just doing whatever the salespeople are telling her to. Check out that little dig, that her "taste" is pretty questionable, since it's only praised by the shopkeepers, who of course say nice things to get her to buy more stuff. We find out later, at the Brussels ball, that Amelia doesn't really know how to dress herself and ends up looking shabby.
Next, there's Rawdon Crawley going off to war.
Faithful to his plan of economy, the Captain dressed himself in his oldest and shabbiest uniform and epaulets, leaving the newest behind, under his wife's (or it might be his widow's) guardianship. And this famous dandy of Windsor and Hyde Park went off on his campaign with a kit as modest as that of a sergeant, and with something like a prayer on his lips for the woman he was leaving. (30.12)
Here the clothes are an exact representation of the man. Rawdon is no longer the hot young stud dressing to impress the ladies. Now he's a married man whose responsibilities have multiplied and whose main worries are no longer about himself but about his wife.
Finally, we've got Pitt Crawley, who has just been minted Sir Pitt and is about to take his place in parliament.
On the occasion of his first Speaker's dinner, Sir Pitt took the opportunity of appearing before his sister-in-law in his uniform--that old diplomatic suit which he had worn when attaché to the Pumpernickel legation. Becky complimented him upon that dress and [...] said that it was only the thoroughbred gentleman who could wear the Court suit with advantage. [Pitt] looked down at his legs, and thought in his heart that he was killing. (45.24-25)
So before we figure out what's what, a little Brain Snack: the "Court suit" was basically what you see America's founding fathers wearing in paintings: knee-length breeches with some stockings underneath. When Thackeray was writing, this kind of getup was already about a hundred years old and looked moderately silly, except to people who were really into dressing up exactly according to their rank and status. It would be like seeing a prisoner in a black-and-white-striped outfit carrying a giant ball and chain, or a modern police detective dressed in a houndstooth cap and smoking a pipe like Sherlock Holmes. The fact that Pitt is really into this nonsense just shows even further the kind of pompous, self-satisfied, oblivious guy he really is – and we learn all of this about him without actually being told in so many words.
Sometimes it's best to just bust right out with a well-placed bit of description rather than laboring over some complex, roundabout way of getting your point across. In Vanity Fair, direct characterization is used for almost all the characters at one point or another. Sometimes Thackeray uses it to reintroduce a character who appeared earlier and may have been forgotten by readers who were reading the novel in serial form (check out the "In a Nutshell" section for more on that). At other times it's a way of really reinforcing a particular quality. Nothing stands out in a reader's mind better than a boldfaced statement: for example, Miss Pinkerton is a "pompous old Minerva of a woman" (1.24), while Sir Pitt Crawley is "a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life" (9.1). Can you find another pattern for when the narrator just tells us something about a character without showing it? Is there a reason Thackeray picks one way of describing a character versus the other? What is the difference between figuring character qualities out from their actions and being told to look out for a specific quality in a character?