Study Guide

Vanity Fair Ambition

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Ambition

[Sir Pitt] selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley! Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen's Crawley--nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her [...] O Vanity Fair--Vanity Fair! This might have been, but for you, a cheery lass--Peter Butt and Rose a happy man and wife, in a snug farm, with a hearty family; and an honest portion of pleasures, cares, hopes and struggles--but a title and a coach and four are toys more precious than happiness in Vanity Fair: and if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season? (9.1-4)

You got to love that Lady Crawley (formerly Rose Dawson), gets this little mini-novel, don't you? Is she the only one that trades happiness for the fruits of ambition?

At college [Pitt Crawley's] career was of course highly creditable. And here he prepared himself for public life, into which he was to be introduced by the patronage of his grandfather, Lord Binkie, by studying the ancient and modern orators with great assiduity, and by speaking unceasingly at the debating societies. But though he had a fine flux of words, and delivered his little voice with great pomposity and pleasure to himself, and never advanced any sentiment or opinion which was not perfectly trite and stale, and supported by a Latin quotation; yet he failed somehow, in spite of a mediocrity which ought to have insured any man a success. He did not even get the prize poem, which all his friends said he was sure of.

After leaving college he became Private Secretary to Lord Binkie, and was then appointed Attache to the Legation at Pumpernickel, which post he filled with perfect honour, and brought home dispatches, consisting of Strasburg pie, to the Foreign Minister of the day. After remaining ten years Attache (several years after the lamented Lord Binkie's demise), and finding the advancement slow, he at length gave up the diplomatic service in some disgust, and began to turn country gentleman.

He wrote a pamphlet on Malt on returning to England (for he was an ambitious man, and always liked to be before the public), and took a strong part in the N**** Emancipation question. Then he became a friend of Mr. Wilberforce's, whose politics he admired, and had that famous correspondence with the Reverend Silas Hornblower, on the Ashantee Mission. He was in London, if not for the Parliament session, at least in May, for the religious meetings. In the country he was a magistrate, and an active visitor and speaker among those destitute of religious instruction. (9.9-11)

Sure he's boring and self-satisfied, but Pitt is one of the only characters in the novel whose ambition has very little to do with marriage. He is purely career minded throughout the book, and as we learn, he does actually have quite a bit of diplomatic and managerial skills. He ends up being a very successful estate owner, improving Queen's Crawley and getting ahead in parliament.

And now, being received as a member of the amiable family whose portraits we have sketched in the foregoing pages, it became naturally Rebecca's duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. Who can but admire this quality of gratitude in an unprotected orphan; and, if there entered some degree of selfishness into her calculations, who can say but that her prudence was perfectly justifiable? [...] "let us see if my wits cannot provide me with an honourable maintenance, and if some day or the other I cannot show Miss Amelia my real superiority over her. Not that I dislike poor Amelia: who can dislike such a harmless, good-natured creature?--only it will be a fine day when I can take my place above her in the world, as why, indeed, should I not?" Thus it was that our little romantic friend formed visions of the future for herself--nor must we be scandalised that, in all her castles in the air, a husband was the principal inhabitant. Of what else have young ladies to think, but husbands? Of what else do their dear mammas think? "I must be my own mamma," said Rebecca; not without a tingling consciousness of defeat, as she thought over her little misadventure with Jos Sedley. (10.1)

Becky's choice here seems to be to either accept her place as a pathetic, powerless hanger-on and dependent or to break with socially acceptable female behavior and snag herself a husband by being "her own mamma." Even though her thoughts are described as "romantic," she's actually all pragmatism and cold, hard reality as she figures out that no one else is going to go to bat for her. Convention and Victorian ideals would have her pick the first option, but our sympathy lies purely with the second one.

[George] was a little wild: how many young men are; and don't girls like a rake better than a milksop? He hadn't sown his wild oats as yet, but he would soon: [...] his allowance, with Amelia's settlement, would enable them to take a snug place in the country somewhere, in a good sporting neighbourhood; and he would hunt a little, and farm a little; and they would be very happy. As for remaining in the army as a married man, that was impossible [...] He didn't care for himself--not he; but his dear little girl should take the place in society to which, as his wife, she was entitled: and to these proposals you may be sure she acceded, as she would to any other from the same author. Holding this kind of conversation, and building numberless castles in the air (which Amelia adorned with all sorts of flower-gardens, rustic walks, country churches, Sunday schools, and the like; while George had his mind's eye directed to the stables, the kennel, and the cellar), this young pair passed away a couple of hours very pleasantly; (13.29-30)

And by comparison, here are Amelia's dreams, her "castles in the air." Pretty close to Becky's, right? Although of course the difference is that Amelia really is a purely romantic idealist, and her ambitions for George have no basis in reality at all. Becky understands everyone, particularly herself. Amelia meanwhile is totally deluded about life in general, and George and herself in particular.

"A pretty boy, indeed. Haven't I heard of your doings, sir, with Lord Tarquin, Captain Crawley of the Guards, the Honourable Mr. Deuceace and that set. Have a care sir, have a care."
The old gentleman [Mr. Osborne] pronounced these aristocratic names with the greatest gusto. Whenever he met a great man he grovelled before him, and my-lorded him as only a free-born Briton can do. He came home and looked out his history in the Peerage: he introduced his name into his daily conversation; he bragged about his Lordship to his daughters. He fell down prostrate and basked in him as a Neapolitan beggar does in the sun. [...] "You shan't want, sir. The British merchant's son shan't want, sir. My guineas are as good as theirs, George, my boy; and I don't grudge 'em. Call on Mr. Chopper as you go through the City to-morrow; he'll have something for you. I don't grudge money when I know you're in good society, because I know that good society can never go wrong. There's no pride in me. I was a humbly born man--but you have had advantages. Make a good use of 'em. Mix with the young nobility. There's many of 'em who can't spend a dollar to your guinea, my boy. (13.59-63)

Almost every sentence here is an ironic joke. Deuceace's name says as much as we need to know about his favorite pastime, and we already know all about Captain Crawley and his gambling and dueling. These are the exemplars of "good society" that Osborne worships like the sun because they can "never go wrong." Um, OK, right. But of course, it makes sense that if these are the true nobility, George should be able to buy himself into their company without a problem. In a way, Osborne's ambition is a pretty easy one to fulfill, if this is the kind of gentleman he wants his son to become.

Rebecca gave way to some very sincere and touching regrets that a piece of marvellous good fortune should have been so near her, and she actually obliged to decline it. In this natural emotion every properly regulated mind will certainly share. What good mother is there that would not commiserate a penniless spinster, who might have been my lady, and have shared four thousand a year? What well-bred young person is there in all Vanity Fair, who will not feel for a hard-working, ingenious, meritorious girl, who gets such an honourable, advantageous, provoking offer, just at the very moment when it is out of her power to accept it? I am sure our friend Becky's disappointment deserves and will command every sympathy [...] surely, surely we may respect the agonies of a young woman who has lost the opportunity of becoming a baronet's wife. (15.44-47)

Don't you wonder what Becky would have done as Sir Pitt's wife? She's about as good an estate manager as young Pitt will become. Maybe she could really have become an excellent country lady. It's hard not to feel betrayed as a reader that this piece of wish-fulfillment will never happen.

What pride [Mr. Osborne] had in his boy! He was the handsomest child ever seen. Everybody said he was like a nobleman's son. A royal princess had remarked him, and kissed him, and asked his name in Kew Gardens. What City man could show such another? Could a prince have been better cared for? Anything that money could buy had been his son's [...] Had he ever refused a bill when George drew one? There they were--paid without a word. Many a general in the army couldn't ride the horses he had! He had the child before his eyes, on a hundred different days when he remembered George after dinner, when he used to come in as bold as a lord and drink off his glass by his father's side, at the head of the table--on the pony at Brighton, when he cleared the hedge and kept up with the huntsman--on the day when he was presented to the Prince Regent at the levee, when all Saint James's couldn't produce a finer young fellow. And this, this was the end of all!--to marry a bankrupt and fly in the face of duty and fortune! What humiliation and fury: what pangs of sickening rage, balked ambition and love; what wounds of outraged vanity, tenderness even, had this old worldling now to suffer under! (24.35)

One of the frequent criticisms of Thackeray is that his characters are two-dimensional and not presented in a psychologically developed way. But look at the list of emotions Mr. Osborne feels at the news of George's marriage. It's a pretty amazing set of contrasts: love mixed with rage, disappointment for George's ambitions and also pain because of his pride in his son, outrage at the fact that his money could not buy George a permanent place in the aristocracy and pleasure at the memory of how closely George could pass for a lord. That's a pretty complex emotional state – and it rings true to us.

[Amelia] wrote the most piteous accounts of the feast home to her mamma: how the Countess of Bareacres would not answer when spoken to; how Lady Blanche stared at her with her eye-glass; and what a rage Captain Dobbin was in at their behaviour; and how my lord, as they came away from the feast, asked to see the bill, and pronounced it a d---- bad dinner, and d---- dear. But though Amelia told all these stories, and wrote home regarding her guests' rudeness, and her own discomfiture, old Mrs. Sedley was mightily pleased nevertheless, and talked about Emmy's friend, the Countess of Bareacres, with such assiduity that the news how his son was entertaining peers and peeresses actually came to Osborne's ears in the City. (28.21)

Parents' ambitions for their children is a running theme in the novel. This is a pretty amazing bit of crossed communication wires. Amelia is in way over her head in George's social world in Brussels, but her mom can only hear the word "countess" and ignores the actual meaning of the letter because she is conditioned to think "nobility = super awesome."

Rebecca's wit, cleverness, and flippancy made her speedily the vogue in London among a certain class. You saw demure chariots at her door, out of which stepped very great people. You beheld her carriage in the park, surrounded by dandies of note. The little box in the third tier of the opera was crowded with heads constantly changing; but it must be confessed that the ladies held aloof from her, and that their doors were shut to our little adventurer [...] there are men (such as Rawdon Crawley, whose position we mentioned before) who cut a good figure to the eyes of the ignorant world and to the apprentices in the park, who behold them consorting with the most notorious dandies there, so there are ladies, who may be called men's women, being welcomed entirely by all the gentlemen and cut or slighted by all their wives [...] But while simple folks who are out of the world, or country people with a taste for the genteel, behold these ladies in their seeming glory in public places, or envy them from afar off, persons who are better instructed could inform them that these envied ladies have no more chance of establishing themselves in "society," than the benighted squire's wife in Somersetshire who reads of their doings in the Morning Post. Men living about London are aware of these awful truths. You hear how pitilessly many ladies of seeming rank and wealth are excluded from this "society." The frantic efforts which they make to enter this circle, the meannesses to which they submit, the insults which they undergo, are matters of wonder. (37.11-12)

Again, the gradations of social life are multiple and fine-grained. Notice that here again, gender plays a very distinct role in who can associate with whom: men are much freer to be around questionable women like Becky. Also, note that the narrator talks about the masochism necessary to be accepted into the society of women, but there is never much explanation of why this ambition exists in the first place. What is gained by being in this inner circle if no one from the outside can even tell the difference between "men's women" and women in "society"?

"I have brains," Becky thought, "and almost all the rest of the world are fools. I could not go back and consort with those people now, whom I used to meet in my father's studio. Lords come up to my door with stars and garters, instead of poor artists with screws of tobacco in their pockets. I have a gentleman for my husband, and an Earl's daughter for my sister, in the very house where I was little better than a servant a few years ago. But am I much better to do now in the world than I was when I was the poor painter's daughter and wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar and tea? Suppose I had married Francis who was so fond of me--I couldn't have been much poorer than I am now. Heigho! I wish I could exchange my position in society, and all my relations for a snug sum in the Three Per Cent. Consols"; for so it was that Becky felt the Vanity of human affairs, and it was in those securities that she would have liked to cast anchor.
It may, perhaps, have struck her that to have been honest and humble, to have done her duty, and to have marched straightforward on her way, would have brought her as near happiness as that path by which she was striving to attain it. (41.40-41)

Becky is the only character self-aware enough to see through the haze of ambition. She also has a would-be Rose Dawson (a.k.a. Lady Crawley, not the character in Titanic) story about a poor man she could have married, and she understands that the drive to get up the ladder can be questioned rather than just accepted as it is by everyone around her. We also love that she is so honest about being smarter than the rest of the world.