Study Guide

Vanity Fair Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater

As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind [...] What more has the Manager of the Performance to say?--To acknowledge the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England through which the Show has passed, and where it has been most favourably noticed by the respected conductors of the public Press, and by the Nobility and Gentry. He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire. The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints, and lively on the wire; the Amelia Doll, though it has had a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist; the Dobbin Figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner; the Little Boys' Dance has been liked by some; and please to remark the richly dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared, and which Old Nick will fetch away at the end of this singular performance. (Introduction.1-4)

Why does the novel begin this way? What happens to our sense that the characters are real if they are dismissed as puppets and dolls? Is the narrator of a novel like the stage manager of a play?

At the little Paris theatres, on the other hand, you will not only hear the people yelling out "Ah gredin! Ah monstre:" and cursing the tyrant of the play from the boxes; but the actors themselves positively refuse to play the wicked parts, such as those of infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks, and what not, and prefer to appear at a smaller salary, in their real characters as loyal Frenchmen.
(8.58)

There is a theme running through the novel having to do with the distinction between real life and performance, and how the two often blend together. Here there is literally no difference, as the French actors are afraid that by playing negative characters, their own personalities will be somehow tainted. Is it odd that the audience doesn't seem to realize that putting on a persona is not the same thing as adopting that persona in real life?

"If [Rawdon] had but a little more brains," [Becky] thought to herself, "I might make something of him"; but she never let him perceive the opinion she had of him; listened with indefatigable complacency to his stories of the stable and the mess; laughed at all his jokes; felt the greatest interest in Jack Spatterdash, whose cab-horse had come down, and Bob Martingale, who had been taken up in a gambling-house, and Tom Cinqbars, who was going to ride the steeplechase. When he came home she was alert and happy: when he went out she pressed him to go: when he stayed at home, she played and sang for him, made him good drinks, superintended his dinner, warmed his slippers, and steeped his soul in comfort. The best of women (I have heard my grandmother say) are hypocrites. We don't know how much they hide from us: how watchful they are when they seem most artless and confidential: how often those frank smiles which they wear so easily, are traps to cajole or elude or disarm--I don't mean in your mere coquettes, but your domestic models, and paragons of female virtue. Who has not seen a woman hide the dulness of a stupid husband, or coax the fury of a savage one? We accept this amiable slavishness, and praise a woman for it: we call this pretty treachery truth. A good housewife is of necessity a humbug; (17.23)

Wow. What makes for a good wife is being totally fake all the time and making sure her husband never finds out the truth? Talk about "life as theater."

Be cautious then, young ladies; be wary how you engage. Be shy of loving frankly; never tell all you feel, or (a better way still), feel very little. See the consequences of being prematurely honest and confiding, and mistrust yourselves and everybody. Get yourselves married as they do in France, where the lawyers are the bridesmaids and confidantes. At any rate, never have any feelings which may make you uncomfortable, or make any promises which you cannot at any required moment command and withdraw. That is the way to get on, and be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair. (18.23)

In the universe of the novel, real feelings and authentic lives are to be as hidden and repressed as possible, because showing anyone what's really going on in your psyche will leave you vulnerable. But of course, this is also meant to be a funny, outrageous aside from the narrator, who is throwing up his hands at the universe he is describing and drawing whatever sad morals from it he can for our amusement.

Sick-bed homilies and pious reflections are, to be sure, out of place in mere story-books, and we are not going (after the fashion of some novelists of the present day) to cajole the public into a sermon, when it is only a comedy that the reader pays his money to witness. But, without preaching, the truth may surely be borne in mind, that the bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public, do not always pursue the performer into private life, and that the most dreary depression of spirits and dismal repentances sometimes overcome him. Recollection of the best ordained banquets will scarcely cheer sick epicures. Reminiscences of the most becoming dresses and brilliant ball triumphs will go very little way to console faded beauties. Perhaps statesmen, at a particular period of existence, are not much gratified at thinking over the most triumphant divisions; and the success or the pleasure of yesterday becomes of very small account when a certain (albeit uncertain) morrow is in view, about which all of us must some day or other be speculating. O brother wearers of motley! Are there not moments when one grows sick of grinning and tumbling, and the jingling of cap and bells? (19.8)

There is something about the theatricality of the novel that causes the narrator to go off on these rants and raves, which are themselves very theatrical, no? Can't you just picture him throwing his hands up and rolling his eyes? It seems hard to take these warnings seriously because, after all, they are coming from a world that is not entirely like our own. Or does that somehow make the narrator's asides all the more meaningful?

There is little doubt that old Osborne believed all he said, and that the girls were quite earnest in their protestations of affection for Miss Swartz. People in Vanity Fair fasten on to rich folks quite naturally [...] Their affections rush out to meet and welcome money. Their kind sentiments awaken spontaneously towards the interesting possessors of it [...] And the proof is, that the major part of the Osborne family, who had not, in fifteen years, been able to get up a hearty regard for Amelia Sedley, became as fond of Miss Swartz in the course of a single evening as the most romantic advocate of friendship at first sight could desire. (21.3)

What is fascinating here is that the Osbornes are actually making friends with money but are able to convince themselves that they are befriending a person. Whom are we meant to pity most in this sad little drama? Mr. Osborne, who wants his son to marry this woman only because she's rich? His daughters, who have been brought up to only look at the size of someone's bank account as a measure of character? Or Miss Swartz, who is being conned into some kind of relationship?

George meanwhile, with his hat on one side, his elbows squared, and his swaggering martial air, made for Bedford Row, and stalked into the attorney's offices as if he was lord of every pale-faced clerk who was scribbling there. He ordered somebody to inform Mr. Higgs that Captain Osborne was waiting, in a fierce and patronizing way, as if the pekin of an attorney, who had thrice his brains, fifty times his money, and a thousand times his experience, was a wretched underling who should instantly leave all his business in life to attend on the Captain's pleasure. He did not see the sneer of contempt which passed all round the room, from the first clerk to the articled gents, from the articled gents to the ragged writers and white-faced runners, in clothes too tight for them, as he sate there tapping his boot with his cane, and thinking what a parcel of miserable poor devils these were. The miserable poor devils knew all about his affairs. They talked about them over their pints of beer at their public-house clubs to other clerks of a night. Ye gods, what do not attorneys and attorneys' clerks know in London! Nothing is hidden from their inquisition, and their families mutely rule our city. (26.19)

George's gentleman act only works on those who want to be fooled by him. Here, inside the machinery of capitalism (where the sausage is actually made), everyone sees right through him. Notice, though, how George is frequently unaware of the people around him and unable to read their expressions. Here it's the sneers, elsewhere it's General Tufto. For a guy who looks in the mirror so much, he's not very good with human faces.

"What a humbug that woman is!" honest old Dobbin mumbled to George, when he came back from Rebecca's box, whither he had conducted her in perfect silence, and with a countenance as glum as an undertaker's. "She writhes and twists about like a snake. All the time she was here, didn't you see, George, how she was acting at the General over the way?"

"Humbug--acting! Hang it, she's the nicest little woman in England," George replied, showing his white teeth, and giving his ambrosial whiskers a twirl. (29.38-39)

Dobbin is the only character who is immune to Becky's charms and her appealing performance. To him, she is acting like a snake, both because he can see her fakeness and because he is attracted to passive, inert women like Amelia. Think about the way he responds to the equally aggressive Glorvina O'Dowd later.

So Mrs. Bute, after the first shock of rage and disappointment, began to accommodate herself as best she could to her altered fortunes and to save and retrench with all her might. She instructed her daughters how to bear poverty cheerfully, and invented a thousand notable methods to conceal or evade it. She took them about to balls and public places in the neighbourhood, with praiseworthy energy; nay, she entertained her friends in a hospitable comfortable manner at the Rectory, and much more frequently than before dear Miss Crawley's legacy had fallen in. From her outward bearing nobody would have supposed that the family had been disappointed in their expectations, or have guessed from her frequent appearance in public how she pinched and starved at home. Her girls had more milliners' furniture than they had ever enjoyed before. They appeared perseveringly at the Winchester and Southampton assemblies; they penetrated to Cowes for the race-balls and regatta-gaieties there; and their carriage, with the horses taken from the plough, was at work perpetually, until it began almost to be believed that the four sisters had had fortunes left them by their aunt, whose name the family never mentioned in public but with the most tender gratitude and regard. I know no sort of lying which is more frequent in Vanity Fair than this, and it may be remarked how people who practise it take credit to themselves for their hypocrisy, and fancy that they are exceedingly virtuous and praiseworthy, because they are able to deceive the world with regard to the extent of their means. (39.2)

It's interesting that Mrs. Bute does pretty much the same thing as Becky after Miss Crawley dies. Both women do their best to act like they got a bunch of money in the will. Becky does this overseas, so that Rawdon's credit doesn't run out, and Mrs. Bute does it in the country, so that people will think her daughters have a dowry. Mrs. Bute is frequently a shadow of Becky. Why make a middle-aged married woman an echo of our anti-heroine?