Study Guide

Vanity Fair Chapter 51

By William Makepeace Thackeray

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Chapter 51

In which a Charade is acted which may or may not Puzzle the Reader

  • Now come the few months of Becky's triumph. Oh, sorry, spoiler alert.
  • Ever since the invitation to the cool table at Lady's Steyne's house, all doors are open to Becky. She takes full advantage and is generally a star.
  • At first she hangs out with the "best" foreigners. Then she is accepted into the society of the "best" English people.
  • The narrator makes fun of the idea of a "best" person as meaningless and vain. Think about what it means to be "popular" in high school – this is about as shallow as that.
  • What's fascinating is that Becky quickly becomes bored with the high life. Just like every other group of people, this one hangs out together and has the same tired conversations about each other over and over again.
  • At first Becky has fun trying to figure out how to dress perfectly and host parties given that she and Rawdon have no money. But soon, even this becomes boring.
  • But while she's on top, she remains on top.
  • At the parties she makes sure to be very nice to the professional entertainment (singers, mainly). This behavior has two good effects: 1) the aristocrats are charmed by how she always remembers her own poor artist background and so are less hostile to her pretentions, and 2) the professionals are floored by being treated as human beings and so come and sing at Becky's own parties for free.
  • Becky is not only charming and pretty, she also has a fast and sharp wit. This is useful for deflecting the insults or jokes made at her expense by her various enemies and frenemies in this circle.
  • Rumors start to circulate about how she could possibly afford to dress and entertain like she does. The rumors mostly involve her unscrupulously begging, borrowing, or stealing money from various innocents.
  • The narrator doesn't clarify one way or another whether the rumors are true, but says that surely all of them can't be.
  • This is an important evasion. Keep in mind the narrator not wanting to tell us the truth about Becky – it will come up again.
  • There's a fad at the time to act out elaborate charades at parties. Back then, charades were a combination of what we think of charades (acting out a word) and little one-act plays. Each word would be acted out syllable by syllable, then all at once through an elaborate theatrical set piece. (We guess people had a lot of time on their hands back then.)
  • Becky convinces Lord Steyne to host one of these charade nights at Gaunt House, and he agrees. OK, quick poll: who thinks lying, wheedling, conniving Becky is going to be really good at acting on stage?
  • The first charade is "Agamemnon." (Remember him? If not, check out Shmoop's summary of Agamemnon.)
  • This gets broken up into the syllables "Aga" (a Turkish prince) and "Memnon" (an Ethiopian king). Each of these is acted out very nicely. Then it's time to act out the whole word.
  • Rawdon acts the part of Agamemnon himself, sleeping on a couch. Then Becky comes out for the first time, dressed as Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra – with a giant knife in her hand poised to kill him! Flashing neon "Symbolism" sign.
  • The crowd goes wild.
  • After the charades are over, Becky is an even bigger hit at the party. Lord Steyne loves it and laughs to himself at the idea of Becky playing a husband-killing wife. He seems into that idea.
  • Rawdon is sad at all the attention and success Becky gets. He feels her becoming more and more distant from him and painfully realizes that she is his superior.
  • After the party he puts Becky in her carriage and sends her home. Then he starts walking home himself.
  • Suddenly some men come out from the alley nearby and arrest Rawdon for debt! The debt is relatively small, about a hundred pounds (although for comparison, remember that this is half of what the Sedleys earn in a year). Rawdon goes quietly with the three bailiffs.

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