Study Guide

Vanity Fair Morality and Ethics

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Morality and Ethics

All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist [Becky Sharp], and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. (2.11)

Another way to put this? Instant karmic retribution. The novel sometimes seems deeply committed to this kind of "eye for an eye" approach. Then again, when you consider the lack of standard punishment/reward at the end, you have to question how seriously the novel takes the idea.

Well, William Dobbin had for once forgotten the world, and was away with Sindbad the Sailor in the Valley of Diamonds, or with Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peribanou in that delightful cavern where the Prince found her, and whither we should all like to make a tour; when shrill cries, as of a little fellow weeping, woke up his pleasant reverie; and looking up, he saw Cuff before him, belabouring a little boy [...] The Fairy Peribanou had fled into the inmost cavern with Prince Ahmed: the Roc had whisked away Sindbad the Sailor out of the Valley of Diamonds out of sight, far into the clouds: and there was everyday life before honest William; and a big boy beating a little one without cause. (5.16-20)

The use of the fairytales is interesting here. Dobbin is learning how to act like a man/hero/gentleman from the way Sinbad goes about his adventures – and gets an immediate chance to apply this knowledge to real life. It's the perfect way to define his moral character: Dobbin is someone who lives his life by as strict a code as heroes in fairy tales do.

Besides being such a fine religionist, Miss Crawley was, as we have said, an Ultra-liberal in opinions, and always took occasion to express these in the most candid manner.
"What is birth, my dear!" she would say to Rebecca--"Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II; look at poor Bute at the parsonage--is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you--they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler. You, my love, are a little paragon--positively a little jewel--You have more brains than half the shire--if merit had its reward you ought to be a Duchess--no, there ought to be no duchesses at all--but you ought to have no superior, and I consider you, my love, as my equal in every respect; and--will you put some coals on the fire, my dear; and will you pick this dress of mine, and alter it, you who can do it so well?" So this old philanthropist used to make her equal run of her errands, execute her millinery, and read her to sleep with French novels, every night. (11.61-62)

It's a little heavy-handed, but the point about Miss Crawley not practicing what she preaches is a good one. This little description about how she talks a good game about considering Becky her "equal in every respect," while still treating her like a servant (not to mention the way she kicks Briggs around), is a good indicator of what Miss Crawley will do when she finds out about Rawdon and Becky's unequal marriage. This passage brings up the larger question of abstract values and ethics and the more immediate way in which we live our lives. Dobbin, for instance, sees no distinction between lofty ethical ideals and everyday existence. For Miss Crawley, though, there is a wide gulf between the two.

[V]ery soon, Miss Crawley was so well that she sat up and laughed heartily at a perfect imitation of Miss Briggs and her grief, which Rebecca described to her. Briggs' weeping snuffle, and her manner of using the handkerchief, were so completely rendered that Miss Crawley became quite cheerful, to the admiration of the doctors when they visited her, who usually found this worthy woman of the world, when the least sickness attacked her, under the most abject depression and terror of death. (14.26)

Miss Crawley is quite the hypocrite, isn't she? She's the novel's version of "there are no atheists in foxholes." Brain Snack: this expression means that in a life or death situation, even people who don't believe in God pray, just in case. It comes from World War I, when soldiers at the front would sit in dug-out trenches ("foxholes"), exchanging fire with the enemy and not knowing whether they would survive to the next day.

Of all Sedley's opponents in his debates with his creditors which now ensued, and harassed the feelings of the humiliated old gentleman so severely, that in six weeks he oldened more than he had done for fifteen years before--the most determined and obstinate seemed to be John Osborne, his old friend and neighbour--John Osborne, whom he had set up in life--who was under a hundred obligations to him--and whose son was to marry Sedley's daughter. Any one of these circumstances would account for the bitterness of Osborne's opposition.

When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party's crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation--no, no--it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain--otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself. (18.13-14)

We throw this out there as a bit of psychological astuteness on Thackeray's part. The feeling of guilt over his friend's financial ruin is so strong that Osborne needs desperately to start to hate him to feel better. Brain Snack: nowadays this kind of thinking is called "cognitive dissonance" – the idea that your brain will always be able to create some excuses and valid-sounding reasons for why you act the way you do (however wrong or strange your action).

And, as the hatred of vice is always a progress towards virtue, Mrs. Bute Crawley endeavoured to instill her sister-in-law a proper abhorrence for all Rawdon Crawley's manifold sins [...] Mrs. Bute showed a perfect family interest and knowledge of Rawdon's history. She had all the particulars of that ugly quarrel with Captain Marker, in which Rawdon, wrong from the beginning, ended in shooting the Captain. She knew how the unhappy Lord Dovedale, whose mamma had taken a house at Oxford, so that he might be educated there, and who had never touched a card in his life till he came to London, was perverted by Rawdon at the Cocoa-Tree, made helplessly tipsy by this abominable seducer and perverter of youth, and fleeced of four thousand pounds. She described with the most vivid minuteness the agonies of the country families whom he had ruined--the sons whom he had plunged into dishonour and poverty--the daughters whom he had inveigled into perdition. She knew the poor tradesmen who were bankrupt by his extravagance [Mrs. Bute] had not the smallest remorse or compunction for the victim whom her tongue was immolating; nay, very likely thought her act was quite meritorious, and plumed herself upon her resolute manner of performing it. (19.10)

The novel is always very good about layering the moral questions and asking readers to think about who is doing what to whom – and who is most in the wrong. Here we have the following bad ethics: 1) Rawdon's exploits. Clearly bad stuff. Seriously – he killed a guy! 2) Mrs. Bute is purposely digging up all of the dirt on Rawdon to make Miss Crawley hate him. She even exaggerates and lies a little. 3) Mrs. Bute is telling herself that she is doing this out of familial and Christian virtue, and doesn't even feel any "remorse" about her actions. 4) In reality, Mrs. Bute is doing this so that Miss Crawley won't leave Rawdon her money and will instead leave it to the Bute side of the family. 5) Miss Crawley is suddenly horrified by behavior that she was all along endorsing and supporting in her nephew. OK, so who is most in the wrong?

But it may be said as a rule, that every Englishman in the Duke of Wellington's army paid his way. The remembrance of such a fact surely becomes a nation of shopkeepers. It was a blessing for a commerce-loving country to be overrun by such an army of customers: and to have such creditable warriors to feed. And the country which they came to protect is not military. For a long period of history they have let other people fight there. When the present writer went to survey with eagle glance the field of Waterloo, we asked the conductor of the diligence, a portly warlike-looking veteran, whether he had been at the battle. "Pas si bete"--such an answer and sentiment as no Frenchman would own to--was his reply. But, on the other hand, the postilion who drove us was a Viscount, a son of some bankrupt Imperial General, who accepted a pennyworth of beer on the road. The moral is surely a good one. (28.4)

This is the law of reciprocity on a large scale. What does an occupying army owe to the nation where it is stationed? Here, the idea seems to be that England's forces provided some economic advantage to Belgium (rather than simply assuming that its soldiers would be quartered for free, for instance). At the same time, there is a connection here between being a good customer and being a good soldier – or in any case, between cowardice and begging for charity. (The Belgian who says "I'm not that dumb" when asked whether he fought in the war is also a nobleman who has lost his lands and wealth and gladly drinks the cheap beer the narrator buys him.)

The news which that famous Gazette brought to the Osbornes gave a dreadful shock to the family and its chief. The girls indulged unrestrained in their grief. The gloom-stricken old father was still more borne down by his fate and sorrow. He strove to think that a judgment was on the boy for his disobedience. He dared not own that the severity of the sentence frightened him, and that its fulfilment had come too soon upon his curses. Sometimes a shuddering terror struck him, as if he had been the author of the doom which he had called down on his son. (35.2)

Osborne perceives George's death as some kind of punishment for disowning his son, which is scary and guilt-inducing, obviously. But again, this is a very abstract thought for this miserable old man – in his day-to-day life he does nothing to change his ways and continues to pretend Amelia and George Jr. do not exist and that George's marriage never happened.

This was the way, then, Crawley got his house for nothing; for though Raggles had to pay taxes and rates, and the interest of the mortgage to the brother butler; and the insurance of his life; and the charges for his children at school; and the value of the meat and drink which his own family--and for a time that of Colonel Crawley too--consumed; and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison: yet somebody must pay even for gentlemen who live for nothing a year--and so it was this unlucky Raggles was made the representative of Colonel Crawley's defective capital.

I wonder how many families are driven to roguery and to ruin by great practitioners in Crawlers way?--how many great noblemen rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house--and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady's dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither. (37.7-8)

Anyone seeing the parallels between this passage and our own recent economic collapse? The rich (or large corporations) get to run out on (or default) huge masses of racked up credit and misspent money they didn't have to spend in the first place. Meanwhile, the petty tradesmen (or small investors, or people swindled into taking out too-large mortgages) are stuck with the bills, ruined, and bankrupted. Of course, the difference is that in Thackeray's time, the credit economy was just starting to be developed and people looked askance at all kinds of borrowing, while we live in an age where credit cards are issued without any questions asked.

"It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife," Rebecca thought. "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year." [...] 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? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so. An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carnage to steal a leg of mutton; but put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf. Becky consoled herself by so balancing the chances and equalizing the distribution of good and evil in the world. (41.38)

This is probably the single biggest philosophical question of the novel. Is immoral behavior a matter of circumstance (so, poor people steal while rich ones don't, for instance)? Or is it something that innate in a person's character (so a bad poor person might steal while that same person made rich would still commit immoral actions)?