Thackeray's narrator usually functions as our worldly and semi-jaded guide through the social world of the novel. He has been there, done that, and come back to show us the T-shirt. Through a combination of universal statements, little cutting asides, and a constant feeling of condescension, the narrator's voice gains an authority with the reader that's hard to shake off or question. Let's check out how this works in a little section from the novel's first chapter.
Although schoolmistresses' letters are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs; yet [...] in academies of the male and female sex it occurs every now and then that the pupil is fully worthy of the praises bestowed by the disinterested instructor. Now, Miss Amelia Sedley was a young lady of this singular species; and deserved not only all that Miss Pinkerton said in her praise, but had many charming qualities which that pompous old Minerva of a woman could not see [...]
[Amelia] had twelve intimate and bosom friends out of the twenty-four young ladies. Even envious Miss Briggs never spoke ill of her; high and mighty Miss Saltire (Lord Dexter's granddaughter) allowed that her figure was genteel [...]
But [Amelia] is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; [...] when the day of departure came, between her two customs of laughing and crying, Miss Sedley was greatly puzzled how to act. (1.24-27)
First, we come across a generalization that has the undisputable air of a wise and ancient proverb: "schoolmistresses' letters are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs." This is written with an easy confidence, and we readers are supposed to react the way we would to any proverb: "Oh, yes, of course, how true – recommendation letters and gravestones do tend to be overly positive."
Next the narrator turns to give us the real scoop on this Amelia character. She turns out to be "fully worthy of the praises" of Miss Pinkerton. How do we know the narrator is telling the truth? Because he's not the kind of person who compliments without merit. Miss Pinkerton, for instance, he calls a "pompous old Minerva," showing us that he can call it like he sees it at all times.
Next we get a sense of exactly the kind of people Amelia goes to school with and what kind of place Miss Pinkerton's Academy is. Pay attention to the way the narrator gives us a brief and crystallizing glimpse of Miss Saltire. What does she think is her most important quality? That she is the granddaughter of a Lord. From the parenthesis, we get a sense that she insists this fact about her social status has to follow any introduction of her own name. This is what gives her the ability to judge Amelia's figure as "genteel" (a.k.a. befitting a member of the aristocracy).
And finally there is a rebuff to the reader. Oh, all this time you were thinking I was telling you about the heroine of this work? Think again, you fools. Amelia "is not a heroine." And then, just when the narrator has been telling us how great Amelia is, he goes all negative on her. She has some appearance deficiencies and also is kind of an idiot, whose only states are "laughing and crying." The last few sentences of the quotation demonstrate that the narrator expects the reader not to form any impressions or opinions without his say-so. Don't you worry your pretty little heads trying to figure things out, the narrator implies, I'll tell you what to think and when to think it from here on out.
Thackeray is working in a long, long tradition of satire as beat-down. What an author is supposed to do is hold up to readers examples of their terrible, ludicrous, immoral, and otherwise bad behavior, then either mock them or lecture them until they cut it out. The ancient poet Juvenal started things off with his bitter rants attacking everything about the decadent, crumbling Roman Empire. Gradually the mood of satire shifted to include humor instead of just anger – the Middle Ages gave us Chaucer and Rabelais with their bathroom humor and sexual puns. The satire genre reached its highest peaks in the 18th century, with Voltaire, Fielding, Swift, Pope, and a bunch of other really funny, really cynical, sort of depressing authors, who wrote work after work after work pointing their fingers at all the different flaws in the human character. Greed, hypocrisy, ignorance, self-importance, promiscuity, and, of course, vanity each came in for their share of ridicule and scorn. Thackeray was heavily influenced by Fielding, and Vanity Fair is an updated version of satire, a withering look at the ways in which snobbery, rampant sexual and worldly appetites, and a total lack of care about other people permeate society.
This is a "canonical text," meaning that it's one of a group of novels, poems, and plays that are almost universally acknowledged as important pieces of literary art and fundamental to the development of Western civilization. What's interesting, though, is that at the time it was published, this novel could have been considered "popular fiction" as well. It was certainly what we would now call a bestseller, and because it was published serially (check out the "In a Nutshell" section), Thackeray needed to emphasize the thrills and chills of its plot to get readers coming back for more.
Almost 200 years before this novel was written, a guy named John Bunyan wrote the megahit allegory Pilgrim's Progress. It's not a very subtle allegory – the main character is named Christian (get it?) who goes on a long voyage to find the Celestial City (a.k.a. Heaven). To get there, he and his friend Faithful have to go through all sorts of temptations and ten-commandment-breaking horrors. One of these is the fair held in the city of Vanity. This is an eternal fair where all kinds of worldly and selfish things are for sale. Christian and Faithful are having none of it, and Faithful ends up martyred because of his...um...faithfulness. See? We told you it wasn't a very complex allegory.
In any case, for his own novel Thackeray jacks this idea of a world in which all different kinds of vanity are on display, and no one looks too deeply beneath the surface. Anyone who picked his novel in the 1800s would have immediately gotten the title reference. Now, of course, all we can think of is the magazine. But since it too was named after the place in Pilgrim's Progress, it's all good.
Lots of 19th-century writers grumble about how totally bogus endings in novels usually are. And it's true. At the end of a work of fiction, readers expect one thing and one thing only – a fitting comeuppance for the bad guy (like the climactic, drawn-out, and creatively grotesque death of every action movie villain – picture the Emperor in Star Wars plummeting down that shaft and exploding) and an awesome prize for the good guy (who tends to win the love interest and is generally expected to live happily ever after). This kind of thing works just fine for formulaic novels and movies, but what if the whole point of your writing is to not be formulaic?
Starting with the subtitle of the novel, Thackeray lets us know that he is trying to overturn expectations. Seriously, "A Novel Without a Hero"? When's the last time you came across a story that had no good guys at all? Instead, we get a bunch of flawed characters, some more so than others, but none one-dimensionally horrid or perfect. That's why, when it comes time for the ending, the same old rewards and punishments routine just isn't going to cut it, even if it's what the readers want.
So what does Thackeray do? He goes for a twofold approach.
First part of the maneuver: Thackeray deals with the characters with the same realism that he has been using to describe them throughout the whole work. All along we've been waiting for Becky to really get it, right? After all, she maybe/probably slept with Lord Steyne, and maybe/possibly killed Jos. And she definitely abandoned and neglected her son. At the same time, it seems like Amelia is going to finally get something nice for a change, since her life has been spent pining for a dead husband and taking care of her son and parents without complaining too much.
But we don't get our nice resolutions. Not by a long shot. Amelia does get a new husband in the end...but after so much waiting and yearning and loving from afar, Dobbin gets tired of her pretty quickly. Instead, he loves "his little Janey, of whom he is fonder than of anything in the world – fonder even than of his History of the Punjaub" (67.81) – meaning that he loves a history book more than his wife. Ouch. Meanwhile, Becky doesn't do too badly at all. She ends up in Bath, a nice resort town, where "a very strong party of excellent people consider her to be a most injured woman" (67.81) and where she develops a reputation for pious charity and gets to keep the proceeds of Jos's life insurance!
Second part of the maneuver: After this elaborate and realistically amoral distribution of good and bad things, Thackeray is ready to blow the reader's mind yet again. (Are you ready? Maybe sit down first.) He zooms way out of the action and, suddenly, the characters that were real people just a paragraph ago are nothing more than toys in a puppet show. "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out" (67.83) are the last words of the novel. Puppets? That's about as one-dimensional as a fictional character can get! In a few words, Thackeray seems to be undoing all of the work of the previous 800 pages. What gives?
We'll throw out one idea. Maybe this is way to have his cake and eat it, too. See, he knows all about the formulaic, happily-every-after ending we all want. But if he writes this kind of black-and-white ending, then the characters will be revealed as the puppets they are and we will be able to walk away totally unaffected by the whole novel. But this way, when none of the characters one gets her just desserts, we are so scandalized that we cannot help having strong feelings about the characters as though they were real people. Which is when Thackeray can thumb his nose at us and remind us just how constructed everything we are reading really is.
The novel is set in the early 1800s, about twenty years before it was written. This time disparity is actually a much bigger deal than it sounds. Why? Well, Thackeray is writing in 1846. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for about 10 years, and the country has taken a decided and rather hard turn toward the conservative, the prim, the proper, and all those other stuffy and fussy adjectives we associate with Victorianism.
However, the period Thackeray is writing about, 1810-1820 (Napoleon's loss at Waterloo was in 1815), is way before this tightening and straightening of morals and standards. During this time George IV rules England as Prince Regent (which is why the period is called the Regency). He is a spoiled, decadent guy who loves to live large and laze in the lap of luxury. (His lifestyle is brought to us by the letter L.) Society is still lingering in the easygoing moral approach of the 18th century, which was a less rigid, more open, less inhibited kind of time.
So what happens when you get an author writing about relaxed morals for a totally repressed audience? He starts to gloss over things and to use euphemisms when talking about sex (for instance, Rawdon's conquests before he meets Becky) and to express disapproval about qualities that might have just gotten a pass before (for example, Becky's lack of maternal instincts).
Doesn't some of this novel read like a travel guide? Thackeray's narrator is constantly busting out with asides like "Check out the wonders of Brussels, where there is lovely shopping to be had if you've brought money!" or "Ah, Pumpernickel – the jewel of this corner of Germany, where there are fun things to do and charming people to do them with!" Partly this is because, as Thackeray himself admitted, the easiest way to get the plot to go forward was to send his characters out of the country and into new and different settings where they would be forced to mingle and interact in new and unprecedented ways.
What's most fun about these trips abroad is the very strict application of the Vegas rule – you know, What Happens on the Continent Stays on the Continent. ("The Continent," by the way, is mainland Europe.) Check out how the uber-snobby Bareacres family is happy to hang out with George in Brussels (well, they're happy to spend his money for him), fully expecting to not even admit that he exists when they get back to England. Jos's experience is different but falls under the same social law. In Brussels, he is...well, less than brave. A lot less. In fact, he is the only one who runs away from the supposed approach of Napoleon. Yet, after they leave the city, the story he ends up with is the one that gets him nicknamed Waterloo Sedley and puts him almost into Wellington's tent during the battle. And, of course, on a morbid, but literal note – George dies in Belgium and there his body remains.
How is this different from the way London and its countryside work? When the gang is in England, there don't seem to be any geographic boundaries in the way information travels. Mrs. Bute knows all there is to know about Queen's Crawley, down to the amount of hops they put in their beer. Mr. Osborne knows all about Mr. Sedley's failing transactions on the stock exchange, down to which ships Sedley's cargo is on. Miss Crawley in no time at all finds out not only Becky's entire history, but that of her suspiciously immoral parents. What makes Becky really amazing is that she is somehow able to keep the merchants that supply her house in London in the dark about her financial situation – a totally uncharacteristic ability to be secretive in a place where there don't seem to be any secrets.
There are many good ways to think about the differences between Amelia and Becky. Which makes sense, since we are obviously meant to compare and contrast their looks, their personalities, their childhoods, their attitudes towards the world, and so on. But let us suggest yet another way in which they are fundamentally different. The shy and retiring Amelia is all about private life, while society-hungry Becky thrives in the public eye.
Amelia wants nothing more than to sit at home, first with George, then with her son, and finally with Dobbin. This is a woman who wouldn't ever leave the house if she didn't have to. She's at her best indoors, preferably in her own space. There she can be charming and pretty, and she can even rise to the occasion every now and again (like when she tends to the wounded soldiers in her hotel room in Brussels). Every time we see her out in the world, she is totally lost, looks awful, and generally can't cope (at the ball in Brussels, or walking around London trying to sell her little paintings, for example).
Becky is the opposite. She lives for being seen and thrives on public life. She is at her very best when she's out and about (riding into Brussels amid a throng of generals, being the toast of Paris society, wowing everyone with her performance at Lord Steyne's charades party). She is totally unable to deal with domestic life, most notably in her total lack of desire to be a mother or deal with her son in any way.
There's a couple of things that make this novel sort of tough.
First of all (and there's no beating around the bush on this one), it's long. Really, really long. So pack some snacks, plan out your bathroom breaks, and wear something comfortable.
Second, Thackeray writes in complex, flowing sentences that need to be read carefully to get to the heart of their sarcasm. And he loves those big SAT words, so get your favorite dictionary website ready.
Third, it's funny. Why on earth is that a problem? Well, mostly it's because humor tends to be historical and contextual. So what people found funny in the 19th century is probably not exactly what we'd laugh at today. The most hard-to-stomach example of this in the novel is the character of Miss Swartz, a rich, orphaned, Jewish-Jamaican heiress who falls into the clutches of the Osborne family. Basically, there are a lot of racist and anti-Semitic jokes at her expense.
Fourth, there are a lot of historical details that you have to either figure out before you start reading or make sure you pay attention to in your annotated version of the novel. For instance, you need to have a little understanding of some of the financial transactions that happen: how money and property was inherited (some lands could only be passed down to eldest sons and could not be divided), how investments worked (before companies issued stock, most investment was in commodity futures), how credit was set up (before the days of credit-rating agencies, merchants had to figure out who was creditworthy just by looking at them and their friends and family), and what happened when credit wasn't repaid (depends on where the debt is incurred – check out how frequently Becky and Rawdon skip out on their European bills but how difficult it is for them to return to England).
Also, some sense of the history of the time is helpful. Although Thackeray was writing in the 1840s, he sets the novel in the 1820s, at the time of a huge financial meltdown, Napoleon Bonaparte's escape from Elba, and his second attempt to conquer Europe. This is important not just for understanding why Dobbin, George, and Rawdon are called to fight in Belgium, but also to get a sense of why Becky is constantly being compared to Napoleon. It's also important because although Thackeray is writing from the point of view of prudish and squeamish Victorians, he is writing about a time closer to the much more freewheeling and sexually liberated 18th century.
Although Thackeray is not the kind of writer who cultivates a totally idiosyncratic style, it's still relatively easy to recognize his writing because of how funny it is, and how willing he was to mix every kind of humor together. Check out the introduction of the Crawleys. It's got topical humor, political humor, jokes about silly names, and deeply sad irony about the decline of the aristocracy – and all these things work together to give us a sense of this ruined, immoral, thoroughly unpleasant family.
It is related, with regard to the borough of Queen's Crawley, that Queen Elizabeth in one of her progresses, stopping at Crawley to breakfast, was so delighted with some remarkably fine Hampshire beer which was then presented to her by the Crawley of the day (a handsome gentleman with a trim beard and a good leg), that she forthwith erected Crawley into a borough to send two members to Parliament [...]
So first of all, topical humor. In Thackeray's time there was a lot of concern about "rotten boroughs" – counties that got to elect members to Parliament without having many actual residents to represent. In other words, imagine Bill Gates's mansion being declared a state and his getting to send senators and congressmen to Washington to represent him. Queen's Crawley is this kind of place. So how did Queen's Crawley become a Parliamentary borough, anyway? Well, Queen Elizabeth liked their beer and thought her host was hot.
Sir Pitt Crawley (named after the great Commoner) was the son of Walpole Crawley, first Baronet, of the Tape and Sealing-Wax Office in the reign of George II., when he was impeached for peculation, as were a great number of other honest gentlemen of those days; and Walpole Crawley was, as need scarcely be said, son of John Churchill Crawley, named after the celebrated military commander of the reign of Queen Anne. [...]
Sir Pitt was first married to Grizzel, sixth daughter of Mungo Binkie, Lord Binkie, and cousin, in consequence, of Mr. Dundas. [...]
Second, political humor. Every generation of Crawleys has a first name that reflects whoever is the political power of the day, no matter which party or which kind of government they represent. In other words, they switch allegiances just to support the winning team.
Third, funny names. Mungo Binkie? Need we say more?
Miss Rebecca Sharp was now engaged as governess. It will be seen that the young lady was come into a family of very genteel connexions, and was about to move in a much more distinguished circle than that humble one which she had just quitted in Russell Square.
She had received her orders to join her pupils, in a note which was written upon an old envelope, and which contained the following words:
Sir Pitt Crawley begs Miss Sharp and baggidge may be hear on Tuesday, as I leaf for Queen's Crawley to-morrow morning ERLY. (7.1-7)
Finally, there is a sustained joke about the way aristocrats no longer maintain any level of dignity or even education. They hang onto their titles and lands without demonstrating any fitness for their station. The narrator tells us that Becky has "come into a family of very genteel connexions" and then immediately shows us that Sir Pitt is disgusting and cheap (writing her a note "upon an old envelope" rather than a clean piece of paper), and semi-illiterate (his note is rude and horribly misspelled).
The idea of a fair where a bunch of different kinds of human vanities are for sale comes from John Bunyan's Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress. (We'll pause a sec here while you check out the "What's Up with the Title?" section to catch up on that. Back? OK, moving on.)
Thackeray plays it up to the hilt. In Vanity Fair, social life – especially the hierarchical, snobby, get-ahead version of society that Becky is forever trying to conquer – revolves mainly around trying to figure out exactly what each person's particular vanity is, then giving them enough rope to hang themselves with it. Check out how Becky wins over Pitt by fixating on his diplomatic and political skills and never letting up her constant praise. Or look at how Pitt figures out that the key to disposing of James Crawley is to work on his frat-boy swagger. Conversely, we can see that James Crawley fails to secure Miss Crawley's affections (and inheritance) because he doesn't understand that, although she talks a big game of being liberal and democratic, she is actually extremely conscious of and vain about her high birth and noble station.
Those who know how to read and take advantage of the self-deceptions of others in Vanity Fair tend to do well. Those who don't fail. And every now and again the narrator will step in and bemoan the shallowness of vanity.
The piano, besides being a tangible object and plot point, is a symbol in the book. Bankruptcy forces the Sedleys to auction off all their things, including this little piano. Dobbin buys it and sends it back to Amelia. She thinks it's a present from George and it becomes her favorite thing ever. When she finally realizes that Dobbin bought back the piano, she immediately declares that "It was valueless now [...] it was shockingly out of tune" (59.30).
The symbolism isn't hard to tease out, right? The piano is a neat stand-in for Amelia's feelings for the two men and their feelings for her. She is deluded enough to think that George would buy it for her; selfish George would never think of doing such a thing; and Dobbin is so meek and pathetic that not only does he buy her the piano, he doesn't even correct her when she thinks George bought it. Seriously, get a spine, dude.
Another relatively easy symbol to figure out. Amelia has a little portrait of George hanging in her room. Every time she so much as thinks about moving on after his death, she gazes at this picture and it commands her to keep loving him and him alone. Now think about what kind of wall decorations people often use to guide them in making life decisions. Things with some religious significance, right? We'll throw out the idea that Amelia has replaced whatever belief system she had with her idealized, false, misguided love of George. He has now become an icon for her, or even an idol (you know, the bad kind that thou shalt not worship according to one of the ten commandments). Which is always bad news.
Becky puts on many different costumes throughout the course of the novel. Some are completely literal, like the sexy toga she busts out for her star-making turn in Lord Steyne's charade. There's a lot going on in that scene. First, Becky is revealed to be an amazing actress, which is great for the stage but not so much for honest, real-world relationships. Second, she makes for a really convincing Clytemnestra, a woman who murdered her husband, which doesn't bode well for Rawdon or, later, Jos. And third, this triumph is the beginning of the end for her, since the thing that gets her to the top of the social heap – her appeal to men – is the thing that will be her downfall.
Some costumes are metaphorical, like when the narrator describes Becky as a siren: the part above the water is beautiful and can sing amazingly, but there's a horrible cannibalistic monster underneath. Clearly Becky doesn't literally eat people, but she does use her considerable charms (a.k.a. hotness) to lure men to her, extract as much from them as she can, then casually toss them aside. This comparison is also a way to point a finger at the audience. After all, we've been sitting there the whole time totally on Team Becky, not giving a second thought to how thoroughly immoral she actually is.
And some costumes are part literal, part metaphorical. For instance, the white dresses Becky wears on her honeymoon. White equals virginal and pure. And Becky? Not so much. But that's what the world expects to see, so that's what she wears. Or take the little white shirt she pulls out of her sewing box and works on every time she needs to look all feminine and maternal – a little shirt that the narrator tells us has been way too small for Rawdon Jr. for quite some time. She uses it most when helping Pitt with his Parliamentary career, which makes sense, because back in the day, women weren't supposed to be involved with men-only things like politics. What better way to be all "I'm just a little housewife listening to you talk about things I don't really understand" than to do some embroidery.
Sometimes even Becky feels kind of guilty about her doings. When she does, she rationalizes:
"I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery and [...] and order half-a-crown's worth of soup for the poor. I shouldn't miss it much, out of five thousand a year [...] I could pay everybody, if I had but the money." The narrator is right there with her: "And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations--and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman?" (41.38)
So what's the big deal about Becky's little fantasy? It points to one of the novel's big questions: do we do what we do because of our circumstances or because of our character? What do you think – could Becky be a good person if she had been born with a lot of money and didn't have to worry about supporting herself? What if she had suddenly inherited it as a young woman (say from Miss Crawley)? How would she be different? Or would she?
Napoleon is obviously a real guy, but he's important to the novel because he hugely influences the plot without ever showing up in the world of Becky, Amelia, Rawdon, and George. We'd like to suggest that he's a kind of double symbol.
On the one hand, we have Becky-as-Napoleon. Napoleon works as a kind of emblem of limitless, relentless, inevitable conquest. Becky is often compared to "the Corsican upstart" (Napoleon) and Thackeray frequently describes her actions in military terms. She is always invading or attacking or routing the person she's dealing with. What do we make of this comparison? Is Becky really the Napoleon of her social world?
On the other hand, we've got Napoleon-as-fate. Think about how wide-reaching the effects of his escape from Elba and return to the battlefield are on the people in the novel. Of course his return summons George and Rawdon to fight in Brussels, but even before that it upsets the financial markets Mr. Sedley depends on, thus wrecking his relationship with Mr. Osborne and affecting Amelia's marriage.
Thackeray spends a paragraph teasing out this chaos theory idea, the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a tsunami a thousand miles away. In this case, it's the reverse:
[…] is it not hard that the fateful rush of the great Imperial struggle can't take place without affecting a poor little harmless girl of eighteen [...] Yes; Napoleon is flinging his last stake, and poor little Emmy Sedley's happiness forms, somehow, part of it. (18.2)
It's hard to completely pin down this narrator, right? Sometimes he's a voice. Sometimes he's a real guy. Sometimes he is even in the story itself! Maybe it would be helpful to just list all of the different ways Thackeray makes his voice appear.
1. Straight up all-knowing disembodiment. This is the type of narrator we all know best. He tells us what's happening, what everyone is thinking and feeling, and what everything and everyone looks like. This is the voice that opens the novel and describes that first set piece of Becky and Amelia at school. One is silly, one is clever, their headmistress is an old gasbag, and the narrator is in command of all knowledge (Chapter 1).
2. Patronizing condescension. This is when the narrator suddenly lectures readers or decides that we can't handle the truth. Sometimes it's cynical aside ("I do not mean to say that all females are [like Amelia]. My dear Miss Bullock, I do not think your heart would break in this way. You are a strong-minded young woman with proper principles"(18.18)). Other times it's a taunt that, although the narrator could show us something, he won't ("Have we a right to repeat or to overhear her prayers? These, brother, are secrets, and out of the domain of Vanity Fair, in which our story lies" (26.14)). And sometimes it's just bragging about his level of access ("I know where she kept that packet she had – and can steal in and out of her chamber like Iachimo--like Iachimo? No – that is a bad part. I will only act Moonshine, and peep harmless into the bed where faith and beauty and innocence lie dreaming" (12.22)).
3. Puppeteering. This is the device that opens and closes the novel (check out "What's Up With the Ending?"), where the narrator says that he's setting up a puppet theater to show us a little play we might like.
4. Loss of narrative privilege. Sometimes the narrator busts out with the crazy-sounding information that he's not important enough to know what's actually going on with the characters. Say what? This is how he slowly transforms himself from a third-person voice to a random first-person observer. ("To us, from the outside, gazing over the policeman's shoulders at the bewildering beauties as they pass into Court or ball, they may seem beings of unearthly splendour and in the enjoyment of an exquisite happiness by us unattainable" (51.25).)
5. Confiding acquaintanceship. At the end, we get the weirdest manifestation of the narrator ever. Turns out he is a real person? And he actually knows Dobbin? And it's from Dobbin that he learned the story of all the people in the book? What on earth? Your guess is as good as ours.
Our two heroines are fresh out of school, new to the world, and both, in Booker's words, in a "lowly and unhappy state." Why? Well, Becky needs to get herself a rich husband so she can be set for life, and Amelia has been pining for her childhood sweetheart George for the better part of her life. The two aren't literally oppressed by the "dark figures" of Booker's analysis, but it was pretty scary to be a single woman at a time when women couldn't really work for a living and needed marriage for financial security.
For Booker, this phase is all about "first, limited success." In Vanity Fair, Amelia has a few happy months with George as he woos her in the only way a guy who's full of himself can – with limited attention. Becky, meanwhile, does some excellent self-ingratiating work at Queen's Crawley and endears herself to Sir Pitt, Rawdon, and Miss Crawley. All seems to point towards an "eventual glorious destiny," as Becky marries into the Crawley family and Amelia marries George.
Here, as Booker puts it, "Everything suddenly goes wrong." All of Becky's stratagems fail to get Miss Crawley's forgiveness, and she leaves her fortune to Rawdon's brother. Meanwhile, George's father cuts him off without a penny and George quickly grows bored of his wife. Oh, and then he dies on the battlefield two months into their marriage. But of the two women, only Amelia stays true to type to be "overwhelmed with despair." Becky instead seeks out another source of money – the totally grody Lord Steyne – and starts to climb the social ladder.
This is where the novel reveals itself to be a satire at heart rather than an earnest exploration of how young people grow and prosper. In Booker's analysis, the next stage of the game shows the heroine "in a new light," discovering "a new independent strength" which is then put to the most intense test yet. In Vanity Fair there are definitely some tests for the heroines. Amelia loses her son to Mr. Osborne because of her crushing poverty, while Becky becomes a pariah of society by being caught in a compromising position with Lord Steyne. But neither woman reveals any new facets of herself. Becky is as industrious, conniving, and energetic as ever. She picks herself up, dusts herself off, and goes to Europe. Amelia remains the same sad, passive moper she's always been. She just keeps going about her business accepting whatever life happens to throw her way. She is lucky to have the protection of Dobbin.
The satiric nature of Vanity Fair is in full force at the end. Booker calls for this section of the plot to demonstrate "a state of complete, loving union with the 'Prince'" and the acquisition of "a domain over which they will rule wisely." This is obviously not what happens here. Amelia gets closest to the ideal, ending up with ugly but loyal Dobbin, whom she doesn't really love but at least likes a whole bunch. And Becky? Well, Becky is in a class of her own. She finds Jos, makes herself his beneficiary, then (maybe) kills him for the life insurance money. Then she lives the good life at the resort town of Bath for the rest of her days.
This is a classic beginning to many Victorian novels: take two girls (check), usually a brunette and a blonde (check), whose personalities are markedly different (check). Then turn them loose to see how well they do. Since they are girls, and since this is Victorian times, that usually means "how well they marry."
Young women are expected to just let life happen to them, rather than grabbing the bull by the horns. For Becky, this is a double bind, as Thackeray points out. On the one hand, Becky doesn't have anyone behind her to orchestrate a marriage, so she has to actively pursue her own options (Jos, for instance). On the other hand, being too aggressive opens her up to being called un-feminine and being seen as a sleazy gold-digger. Amelia is also in a double-bind. On the one hand, what makes her so likeable (we are told) is how soft and undemanding she is and how much she is willing to just accept whatever life gives her. On the other hand, this kind of femininity also makes her super-boring and taken for granted.
The stories of the two girls sync up nicely, with some good contrasts. Both have made financially dumb marriages. But Becky is the loved one in her marriage, while Amelia is the one who is doing the loving. Becky is still scheming and plotting and trying to move forward in the world, while Amelia sits patiently at home waiting for George to come to his senses and start to appreciate her.
Again the two women's stories sync up somewhat, even though the paths they took to get to their lowest points are as different as can be. Still, at the climax of the novel, both Becky and Amelia have lost everything of value. Becky's respectability, high social status, and a chance at great financial success are gone. Gone too are Amelia's two loves, her comfortable lifestyle, and her self-respect and dignity.
Becky is inexhaustible and never gives up. She is the novel's eternal optimist, especially about herself. As soon as Rawdon leaves her, she immediately sets off to get his brother Pitt to reconcile them. When that doesn't work, she bums around Europe until she runs into a still-furious Lord Steyne, and without skipping a beat she tries to see if he'll have her back. Amelia, meanwhile, sinks back down into mopey mode, sighing over her dead husband and ignoring the long-suffering Dobbin. She doesn't even have the mental energy to get past a two-month marriage that ended ten years earlier.
Again, a bit of a matchup here between Becky and Amelia. Both end up settling for a second-rate marriage (well, couple-ship, since Becky and Jos cannot actually get married). But still, both at last find what they had wanted from the very beginning. In Jos, Becky has financial security for life. In Dobbin, Amelia has a husband who will baby her and allow her to lead the kind of passive, boring existence she prefers.
It's a mega-happy ending for all! Just kidding. Thackeray never lets the cat out of the bag, so we readers get to decide for ourselves. What do you think happened to Jos? Will Dobbin and Amelia still be relatively content in middle age?
Becky secretly marries Rawdon and thus loses her chance at the Crawley money and estate. Amelia secretly marries George, whose father disowns him and who is immediately bored with her.
Rawdon discovers Becky alone with Lord Steyne, takes away her jewelry and money, and leaves her. Amelia is forced to give up her son to his grandfather because of her poverty.
Becky traipses around Europe until she runs into Jos. With his life insurance money, she sets up a life for herself in Bath. Amelia traipses around Europe until she runs into Becky. After Becky shows her that George was a cheating jerk, Amelia marries Dobbin and moves out to the London countryside.