Because Vanity Fair is a satire, it is by definition an exploration of the moral and ethical questions of its time. At the same time, satire is a conservative genre, in the most basic sense of that word: it seeks to conserve and preserve the cultural traditions of the past in the face of modern erosion. Thackeray's disparaging eye ranges over rampant materialism, snobbery, and the brutal internal logic of the social hierarchy. The rigid social distinctions of a bygone era are being muddied by the influence of wealth and the desire of the newly moneyed for upward social mobility.
Questions About Morality and Ethics
- Do you think Becky did it? (Committed adultery? Murdered Jos?) Does it matter to the reader? Does it matter in the novel? Why or why not?
- Becky thinks she could be a good woman if she had 5,000 pounds a year, which suggests that she thinks morality is situational rather than something that comes from within. Does the novel agree? Why or why not?
- The novel makes sure to give even its least pleasant characters a mitigating back-story. For example, Lord Steyne has his mentally disturbed son, while Becky has her impoverished and abusive childhood. Does this complicate our view of their various misdeeds? Why or why not? Are there characters that get sad back-stories but are upstanding adults? Are there negative characters who don't get some kind of emotional grounding? How does this change our view of those who do?
Chew on This
Becky's act of freeing Amelia from George's memory and letting her marry Dobbin is completely kind and selfless. That Becky is capable of such things means that she is correct about simply needing an income to be a "good woman."
In the novel, almost none of the characters who act badly or do wrong are punished or get any kind of comeuppance. This makes the novel a very dark satire indeed, as it gives us a picture of a world with no morality, either private or public (legal).