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Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater Theme

If the world is a fair where vanities are sold, and if external appearance and manners are valued more highly than good character and ethical conduct, then it makes sense that those who can put on the best show in public end up winners. Vanity Fair is fixated on performance and the way in which we all act out roles for the benefit of those around us. The only difference is that most of Thackeray's characters do this kind of acting subconsciously (and thus, not particularly well), while his main protagonist, Becky, is a self-aware master of the stage.

Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater

  1. Many important scenes in the novel are set in theaters or other performance spaces: Becky and Jos at Vauxhall, Amelia and George running into Becky in Brussels, the charades at Lord Steyne's house, etc. What does it suggest to have an encounter between characters take place at a theater? Why this setting for these particular scenes? How would these scenes be different if they happened in a different place?
  2. Why does the narrator begin and end the novel by describing the characters as puppets and inviting us to see the puppet show? Does this damage the realism of the novel? Does it heighten it in some way? Does it say something about the world or about the novel-writing process?
  3. Which characters love to put on a show? Which love to watch a show? Is there any overlap?
  4. Performers are artists, like Thackeray himself. What is the narrator's attitude toward the creativity of theater?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Characters in this novel can be separated into three types: those who are purely authentic, both in public and private; those who have an authentic face or personality that only shows in private; and those who are so deeply caught up in performing their socially appropriate roles that they no longer have an authentic self at all. The novel shows us problems with each kind of existence.

Activity and performance go together in Vanity Fair. From the narrator on down, anyone engaged in putting on some kind of show for an audience is by definition working at making something happen. By the same token, characters who refrain from any kind of acting are passive and inert, waiting for life to happen to them. Although on its face the novel seems to endorse this kind of inactivity, in reality it is the – perhaps malevolently – active life that it values.

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