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Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Morality and Ethics Quotes

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Quote #7

But it may be said as a rule, that every Englishman in the Duke of Wellington's army paid his way. The remembrance of such a fact surely becomes a nation of shopkeepers. It was a blessing for a commerce-loving country to be overrun by such an army of customers: and to have such creditable warriors to feed. And the country which they came to protect is not military. For a long period of history they have let other people fight there. When the present writer went to survey with eagle glance the field of Waterloo, we asked the conductor of the diligence, a portly warlike-looking veteran, whether he had been at the battle. "Pas si bete"--such an answer and sentiment as no Frenchman would own to--was his reply. But, on the other hand, the postilion who drove us was a Viscount, a son of some bankrupt Imperial General, who accepted a pennyworth of beer on the road. The moral is surely a good one. (28.4)

This is the law of reciprocity on a large scale. What does an occupying army owe to the nation where it is stationed? Here, the idea seems to be that England's forces provided some economic advantage to Belgium (rather than simply assuming that its soldiers would be quartered for free, for instance). At the same time, there is a connection here between being a good customer and being a good soldier – or in any case, between cowardice and begging for charity. (The Belgian who says "I'm not that dumb" when asked whether he fought in the war is also a nobleman who has lost his lands and wealth and gladly drinks the cheap beer the narrator buys him.)

Quote #8

The news which that famous Gazette brought to the Osbornes gave a dreadful shock to the family and its chief. The girls indulged unrestrained in their grief. The gloom-stricken old father was still more borne down by his fate and sorrow. He strove to think that a judgment was on the boy for his disobedience. He dared not own that the severity of the sentence frightened him, and that its fulfilment had come too soon upon his curses. Sometimes a shuddering terror struck him, as if he had been the author of the doom which he had called down on his son. (35.2)

Osborne perceives George's death as some kind of punishment for disowning his son, which is scary and guilt-inducing, obviously. But again, this is a very abstract thought for this miserable old man – in his day-to-day life he does nothing to change his ways and continues to pretend Amelia and George Jr. do not exist and that George's marriage never happened.

Quote #9

This was the way, then, Crawley got his house for nothing; for though Raggles had to pay taxes and rates, and the interest of the mortgage to the brother butler; and the insurance of his life; and the charges for his children at school; and the value of the meat and drink which his own family--and for a time that of Colonel Crawley too--consumed; and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison: yet somebody must pay even for gentlemen who live for nothing a year--and so it was this unlucky Raggles was made the representative of Colonel Crawley's defective capital.

I wonder how many families are driven to roguery and to ruin by great practitioners in Crawlers way?--how many great noblemen rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house--and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady's dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither. (37.7-8)

Anyone seeing the parallels between this passage and our own recent economic collapse? The rich (or large corporations) get to run out on (or default) huge masses of racked up credit and misspent money they didn't have to spend in the first place. Meanwhile, the petty tradesmen (or small investors, or people swindled into taking out too-large mortgages) are stuck with the bills, ruined, and bankrupted. Of course, the difference is that in Thackeray's time, the credit economy was just starting to be developed and people looked askance at all kinds of borrowing, while we live in an age where credit cards are issued without any questions asked.

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