Study Guide

Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray

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Amelia Sedley

A soft, passive young woman, Amelia Sedley is born into wealth, comfort, and the protective arms of practically anyone who comes into contact with her. Married to an undeserving man who dies in combat, she remains loyal to his memory and unable to give herself to another, instead choosing to lavish all of her affection on her son.

Femininity and the Damsel in Distress

Amelia is set up to be Becky's opposite, and we can't imagine a better character to represent utter, total helplessness. Amelia grows up pampered and taken care of, and boy does that lesson stick! She's dependent on the support of whoever is around, and if no one is around she totally falls apart. Throughout the novel, she is always under someone's influence – her parents, George, Mrs. O'Dowd, Dobbin, her own son. As soon as any of these supports fails, she sinks into depression and despair. While Becky is self-reliant and action oriented, with a scheme or two always on the backburner, Amelia is dependent on the kindness of the next stranger to come around the corner. If you want to get fancy about it, she entirely lacks agency.

Why would Thackeray create such a character? In almost any other novel, Amelia would be the heroine, and her sad-sack ways would be disguised a little better so that instead of coming across like a lump of nothing she would seem like a paragon of femininity. You know the drill: dainty, small, semi-pathetic, and needing some white-knight rescue action. Here, though, we are shown exactly what happens when you take those supposed ideals of femininity to the extreme – you get Jell-O in human form.

Shmoop is going to throw out an idea here. It feels like Thackeray is proposing a new way to judge women (well, newish, and not really all that radical): not by their skills at acting out the Damsel in Distress, but by their maternity. Perhaps if Becky is being graded on her mothering skills, so is Amelia. What kind of young man will George grow up to be having been raised by someone like her? How is she is a better mother than Becky? How is she worse?

Love, Loyalty, and the Pursuit of Unhappiness

Speaking of knights, Amelia really has all the romantic conventions of the Middle Ages covered. Not only is she a damsel in distress, held captive by the dragon of her dead husband's memory (thanks for slaying that one, Becky!), she is all about courtly love as well. As practiced by poets and troubadours way, way back in the day, courtly love involved a male lover idealizing his female beloved and winning her love by doing heroic deeds on her behalf and performing whatever quests she might ask of him. Oh, and after all that, sex is most likely not on the menu.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, Dobbin apparently thinks so, since for eighteen years (guys, seriously, eighteen years is a long time) he worships the ground Amelia walks on and does everything to take care of her, her son, her relationship with her father-in-law, her psychological well-being, and even the memory of her jerky dead husband without any hope of his love being requited. If Becky is the elusive promise of sex just outside one's reach, Amelia is the undiluted promise of nothing in exchange for one's soul.

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