Study Guide

Vanity Fair Men and Masculinity

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Men and Masculinity

His bulk caused Joseph much anxious thought and alarm; now and then he would make a desperate attempt to get rid of his superabundant fat; but his indolence and love of good living speedily got the better of these endeavours at reform, and he found himself again at his three meals a day. He never was well dressed; but he took the hugest pains to adorn his big person, and passed many hours daily in that occupation. His valet made a fortune out of his wardrobe: his toilet-table was covered with as many pomatums and essences as ever were employed by an old beauty: he had tried, in order to give himself a waist, every girth, stay, and waistband then invented. Like most fat men, he would have his clothes made too tight, and took care they should be of the most brilliant colours and youthful cut. When dressed at length, in the afternoon, he would issue forth to take a drive with nobody in the Park; and then would come back in order to dress again and go and dine with nobody at the Piazza Coffee-House. He was as vain as a girl; and perhaps his extreme shyness was one of the results of his extreme vanity.

We have talked of Joseph Sedley being as vain as a girl. Heaven help us! the girls have only to turn the tables, and say of one of their own sex, "She is as vain as a man," and they will have perfect reason. The bearded creatures are quite as eager for praise, quite as finicky over their toilettes, quite as proud of their personal advantages, quite as conscious of their powers of fascination, as any coquette in the world. (3.30-31)

Whoa, gender bender! There's a whole line of criticism out there wondering about Jos's sexual orientation, and passages like this explain why.

There is no need of giving a special report of the conversation which now took place between Mr. Sedley [Jos] and the young lady [Becky]; for the conversation, as may be judged from the foregoing specimen, was not especially witty or eloquent; it seldom is in private societies, or anywhere except in very high-flown and ingenious novels [...] Almost for the first time in his life, Mr. Sedley found himself talking, without the least timidity or hesitation, to a person of the other sex. Miss Rebecca asked him a great number of questions about India, which gave him an opportunity of narrating many interesting anecdotes about that country and himself. (4.61-62)

Most of the men in the novel need to be managed or handled by women who know how to do it. Here Becky is practicing the art of sealing the deal. She is not in the usual feminine mold, to be sure, but it's interesting how often she is shown to be the aggressor and the men she deals with her victims.

Dobbin was much too modest a young fellow to suppose that this happy change in all his circumstances arose from his own generous and manly disposition: he chose, from some perverseness, to attribute his good fortune to the sole agency and benevolence of little George Osborne, to whom henceforth he vowed such a love and affection as is only felt by children--such an affection, as we read in the charming fairy-book, uncouth Orson had for splendid young Valentine his conqueror. He flung himself down at little Osborne's feet, and loved him. Even before they were acquainted, he had admired Osborne in secret. Now he was his valet, his dog, his man Friday. He believed Osborne to be the possessor of every perfection, to be the handsomest, the bravest, the most active, the cleverest, the most generous of created boys.(5.44)

This is a pretty creepy passage and might also speak to the culture of all-male private schools, which Thackeray was not a fan of. What do we make of this passage? Man crush? An obsession that then leads Dobbin to fall in love with Amelia and try to "become" George by marrying her?

"There's not a finer fellow in the service," Osborne said, "nor a better officer, though [Dobbin] is not an Adonis, certainly." And he looked towards the glass himself with much naiveté; and in so doing, caught Miss Sharp's eye fixed keenly upon him, at which he blushed a little, and Rebecca thought in her heart, "Ah, mon beau Monsieur! I think I have YOUR gauge"--the little artful minx! (5.53)

Not that Jos is the only guy who is vain, of course. We love that George is unable to give a compliment to another man without reassuring himself about his own continuing awesomeness in a nearby mirror. Check out Becky's knowing look at him – that's another nice bit of gender bending as well.

A perfect and celebrated "blood," or dandy about town, was this young officer [Rawdon]. Boxing, rat-hunting, the fives court, and four-in-hand driving were then the fashion of our British aristocracy; and he was an adept in all these noble sciences. And though he belonged to the household troops, who, as it was their duty to rally round the Prince Regent, had not shown their valour in foreign service yet, Rawdon Crawley had already (apropos of play, of which he was immoderately fond) fought three bloody duels, in which he gave ample proofs of his contempt for death [...] Silly, romantic Miss Crawley, far from being horrified at the courage of her favourite, always used to pay his debts after his duels; and would not listen to a word that was whispered against his morality. "He will sow his wild oats," she would say, "and is worth far more than that puling hypocrite of a brother of his." (10.21-23)

Rawdon is half jock, half born at the right place at the right time. His straightforward masculinity is a nice counterpoint to the "gentleman show" that Jos and George laboriously put on every day.

Stubble and Spooney thought that to be a "regular Don Giovanni, by Jove" was one of the finest qualities a man could possess, and Osborne's reputation was prodigious amongst the young men of the regiment. He was famous in field-sports, famous at a song, famous on parade; free with his money, which was bountifully supplied by his father. His coats were better made than any man's in the regiment, and he had more of them. He was adored by the men. He could drink more than any officer of the whole mess, including old Heavytop, the colonel. He could spar better than Knuckles, the private (who would have been a corporal but for his drunkenness, and who had been in the prize-ring); and was the best batter and bowler, out and out, of the regimental club. He rode his own horse, Greased Lightning, and won the Garrison cup at Quebec races. There were other people besides Amelia who worshipped him. Stubble and Spooney thought him a sort of Apollo; Dobbin took him to be an Admirable Crichton; and Mrs. Major O'Dowd acknowledged he was an elegant young fellow, and put her in mind of Fitzjurld Fogarty, Lord Castlefogarty's second son. (13.3)

Here George tries to display the kind of masculinity that comes naturally to Rawdon. He's pretty good, but only manages to fool basically the most naïve and youngest of the soldiers (Stubble's name implies that he's not shaving yet, and a Spooney is a slang word for a weakling or softy). We get the sense that George is putting on an act from the fact that his behavior is compared to a literary figure ("Don Giovanni," the famous seducer), and the mythological Apollo. He isn't himself, he just reminds people of other, more authentic people. (To Dobbin he is "Admirable" James Crichton, a 16th century intellectual, and he reminds Mrs. O'Dowd of a relative.) On the other hand, Rawdon's more animalistic activities are just described as "wild oats" – he is always simply himself.

Mr. Rawdon's marriage was one of the honestest actions which we shall have to record in any portion of that gentleman's biography which has to do with the present history. No one will say it is unmanly to be captivated by a woman, or, being captivated, to marry her; and the admiration, the delight, the passion, the wonder, the unbounded confidence, and frantic adoration with which, by degrees, this big warrior got to regard the little Rebecca, were feelings which the ladies at least will pronounce were not altogether discreditable to him. When she sang, every note thrilled in his dull soul, and tingled through his huge frame. When she spoke, he brought all the force of his brains to listen and wonder. If she was jocular, he used to revolve her jokes in his mind, and explode over them half an hour afterwards in the street, to the surprise of the groom in the tilbury by his side, or the comrade riding with him in Rotten Row. Her words were oracles to him, her smallest actions marked by an infallible grace and wisdom. "How she sings,--how she paints," thought he. "How she rode that kicking mare at Queen's Crawley!" And he would say to her in confidential moments, "By Jove, Beck, you're fit to be Commander-in-Chief, or Archbishop of Canterbury, by Jove." Is his case a rare one? and don't we see every day in the world many an honest Hercules at the apron-strings of Omphale, and great whiskered Samsons prostrate in Delilah's lap? (16.3)

Rawdon is tamed and housebroken by his marriage, which turns him into a respectable and exemplary man. The novel is pretty consistent in thinking well of people who can be satisfied by a faithful and loving family life. Too bad we've got a severe warning for what's about to happen in that comparison to Samson and Delilah.

[Ensign Stubble]--such was his military ardour--went off instantly to purchase a new sword at the accoutrement-maker's. Here this young fellow [...] had an undoubted courage and a lion's heart, poised, tried, bent, and balanced a weapon such as he thought would do execution amongst Frenchmen. Shouting "Ha, ha!" and stamping his little feet with tremendous energy, he delivered the point twice or thrice at Captain Dobbin. [Then, he and Ensign Spooney] sate down and wrote off letters to the kind anxious parents at home--letters full of love and heartiness, and pluck and bad spelling [...] Seeing young Stubble engaged in composition at one of the coffee-room tables at the Slaughters', and the tears trickling down his nose on to the paper (for the youngster was thinking of his mamma, and that he might never see her again), Dobbin [...] went up and laid his big hand on young Stubble's shoulder, and backed up that young champion, and told him if he would leave off brandy and water he would be a good soldier, as he always was a gentlemanly good-hearted fellow. Young Stubble's eyes brightened up at this, for Dobbin was greatly respected in the regiment, as the best officer and the cleverest man in it. "Thank you, Dobbin," he said, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, "I was just--just telling her I would. And, O Sir, she's so dam kind to me." (24.45-49)

It's always a little jarring in this caustic and cynical novel to come across a gentle, emotional moment like this one. Check out how Stubble is still trying to figure out how to be a man. He plays with weapons (and has enlisted in the army), but he uses his sword like a toy. At the thought of war, his first reaction is to write a letter to his mom, the thought of whom makes him cry. But even through the tears, he is using adult-sounding swear words like "dam."

And herewith honest James's career as a candidate for his aunt's favour ended. He had in fact, and without knowing it, done what he menaced to do. He had fought his cousin Pitt with the gloves. (34.71)

Like Jos, Pitt is always showing us a different way to be a man. Unlike Rawdon, he is all brains and no brawn, and unlike George, he is all strategy without any outward display. But clearly, his style really works for him, as he easily gets rid of Jim Crawley, a kind of George/Rawdon mix in the making.