Study Guide

Vanity Fair Themes

By William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Society and Class

    Vanity Fair presents a world in which people are almost entirely defined by the socioeconomic rank within which they find themselves. Some try to claw their way up and end up crashing down; some are buoyed up and down by fate; and some simply remain in place but experience the ups and downs of others around them. But none can escape the fact that all human interactions are based on a detailed, up-to-the-minute calculation of exactly how and where those involved stand in relation to each other.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What motivates social climbing in the novel? Why do even rich characters want to get to a higher social status? Are there disadvantages to being at the top?
    2. Becky's social status in the novel goes up and down like a stock chart. Are there other characters who are equally socially mobile? Why or why not?
    3. What would Becky be like if she were a man? How would we see Becky's actions and her desire to conquer society differently? What about if one of the other characters were the opposite gender?

    Chew on This

    There is a lot of emphasis on knowing whether the qualities that make a gentleman or a lady are physical (beauty), innate (blue blood), or cultivated (good character). In other words, Dobbin is a gentleman not because his father gets a title, but because he is a good man. Lady Jane is a lady because she is a good mother, not because she is born into aristocracy. Still, by not giving us an example of a gentleman who is actually untitled, the novel tries to have it both ways. We end up agreeing that anyone whose character is good should be considered true nobility, but secretly we are happy to see only high ranking characters considered noble.

    Social climbing in the novel is presented as non-gendered – an activity that both men and women do (unlike, say, taking care of babies, which is just for women, or fighting in the war, which is just for men). Thus, although the actions of the characters are pretty horrendous, the fact that both and women have the same goals and use the same strategies to achieve them makes this a surprisingly cutting-edge work.

  • Ambition

    The desire to constantly rise higher in the social sphere is the only motivation for action or movement in Vanity Fair. No character exerts effort unless it's in the service of finding a better-placed patron, campaigning for a new position, or acquiring a new status symbol. Those who plateau in their journey upward or who never really have the desire to elevate themselves become stagnant, boring, domestic people whose lives are secondary to the thrilling adventures of the strivers.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. What makes Becky such an appealing character and her antics so enjoyable? That she is right? That she gets away with being wrong? That she can see through others around her? Do other characters have any of the qualities that make her so fun to watch?
    2. Besides jockeying for status, what other kinds of ambitions do the characters exhibit? Are they successful? What does the novel think about other types of ambition?
    3. Do you think Becky will stay in Bath for the rest of her life? Why or why not? What else can you envision her doing after the events of the novel?

    Chew on This

    The world of the novel portrays all ambition (even seemingly innocuous ambition like the desire to marry or have a family) as necessarily having a sinister and selfish side. At the same time, there is no alternative offered for how to satisfied with one's position. This creates a very dark vision of humanity indeed.

    The most determined character in the novel is Dobbin, who attempts to love and woo Amelia without distressing or bothering her in a way that would be ungentlemanly. His ultimate commitment to his own integrity in a sea of people who don't even know the meaning of the word is deeply optimistic and surprisingly ambitious.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Even though the two protagonists of Vanity Fair are women, the question of what it means to be a man – particularly the masculine ideal of a gentleman – is central to the novel. Each male character represents a separate and distinct version of how gentlemanliness could be achieved: through wealth and external appearance, intellectual and political power, blue blood, or the cultivation of personality and character (with the implication that this last should serve as a model for readers). At the same time, there are secondary masculine characters that offer a vision of manhood run amok, whether through extreme and undeserved vanity or through the corruption of the power that high social rank brings.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Why are so many of the men in Vanity Fair so deeply obsessed with their appearance? Check out how many of them are described staring at themselves in mirrors. Is there a pattern to the conditions under which men become vain? Is it a constant state or does it fluctuate and change?
    2. What kind of relationships do men have with each other in the novel? Do friends of the same generation tend to be equals or do they connect through a power imbalance? What does it mean to be a friend in Vanity Fair?
    3. Why is the novel so fixated on the concept of gentlemanliness? Is it possible for a true gentleman to be happy in the Vanity Fair universe? What would happen if there were no true gentlemen like Dobbin, and all aristocrats got that way either through looks and manners (like George) or through blood (like Pitt and Rawdon)?

    Chew on This

    Women are actually completely totally secondary to the novel, which is in reality about the way men want to be close to each other, or even be each other. For example, Jos is never happier than when hanging out with just George and Rawdon in Bath. When women are involved, it is as a go-between for the men – for instance, Amelia is simply a way for Dobbin to be as close as possible to his childhood idol George (and even become him by replacing him as her husband).

    Rather than the more familiar ways of defining manhood as success in public life or through the display of machismo, the novel argues that true masculine achievement is revealed through a man's relationship with children. Those who form lasting and meaningful connections with children (Rawdon with his son, Dobbin with his daughter and George Jr.) are forgiven past trespasses. Those who cannot (Lord Steyne with Rawdon Jr., Pitt Crawley and his own children) are regarded as failures at being men.

  • Women and Femininity

    Even within the relatively narrow confines of the roles available to middle- and upper-class women near the beginning of the 19th century, Vanity Fair presents a wide variety of ways to be a woman. As with the men, these are usually taken to extremes: an excess of feminine daintiness and passivity, an excess of strategizing opportunism, or an excess of cold ruthlessness. At the same time, there are a few models of exemplary behavior as well. For younger women, the novel prescribes an emphasis on nurturing motherhood, while older ones do best when cheerfully serving domestic responsibilities.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How do women view each other in the novel? Take one woman and analyze how the other women see her. What does this reveal about her? About them?
    2. We are given ample evidence that women have sexual power in the novel: to the extent that they are desired, they are able to influence what happens around them. What other kinds of power do women have? What kinds of power do they lack?
    3. Think about the secondary female characters like Peggy O'Dowd, Mrs. Bute, the Countess of Bareacres, etc. Are there some that are more caricatured or stereotyped than others? How does the novel transform a flat character into a three-dimensional one?
    4. Can you think of modern characters that are like Becky? In what ways are they alike? How are they different? Why?

    Chew on This

    Although Becky is the most accomplished actress in the novel, every one of the women we see is forced to play some kind of role in public. Authenticity (you know, letting your true colors shine through, just being yourself and letting it all hang out) does not exist in the world of Vanity Fair, and women are necessarily performing who they are at any given time, especially in public.

  • Sex

    Vanity Fair takes a knowing and mature look at adult sexuality. Thackeray does not shy away from describing the sexual appeal of his characters and the way they carry out their intimate relationships, and he makes a slew of double-entendre jokes. Of course, in keeping with the standards and practices of the time, there is no overt description of the physical. Still, with its interest in the vagaries of sexual appetites, from the depraved to the extramaritally curious to the monogamously satisfied, the novel isn't afraid to look at the seamier and steamier aspects of adult life.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Becky's green eyes are described as being particularly powerful: she gets a marriage proposal while still in school by shooting a curate a glance; she stares at George looking at himself in the mirror and thus angers him; and she knows to keep her eyes on the floor or the ceiling when dealing with Jos because they are too much for him. Why the eyes? What happens when she looks at men? At women? At material objects?
    2. Becky's overt sexuality and obvious appeal makes us wonder about the sex lives of other characters in the novel. Pitt and Lady Jane? Bute and Mrs. Bute? George and Amelia? Dobbin and Amelia? Major O'Dowd and Mrs. O'Dowd? Can we determine anything about what these couples might be like in private from what we know of them?
    3. There are newly married couples and long-married ones in the novel. Pick a couple that has been together for a long time and try to imagine what their courtship was like. Who was the aggressor and who was being wooed? How do you know? Then do the reverse – imagine and describe a newlywed couple in their middle or old age.

    Chew on This

    Despite the generally prudish attitudes of the Victorians, and despite the morally questionable sexual shenanigans of such characters as Becky and Lord Steyne, the novel is surprisingly sex-positive. It implies that Rawdon and Becky are enjoying married life and the general sense that desire and its fulfillment are a natural part of adulthood.

    Although she is appealing to others, Becky does not seem to have any sexual desire herself. This is why she is able to attract so many men – she has the ability to seduce without the hindrance of wanting someone herself.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Because Vanity Fair is a satire, it is by definition an exploration of the moral and ethical questions of its time. At the same time, satire is a conservative genre, in the most basic sense of that word: it seeks to conserve and preserve the cultural traditions of the past in the face of modern erosion. Thackeray's disparaging eye ranges over rampant materialism, snobbery, and the brutal internal logic of the social hierarchy. The rigid social distinctions of a bygone era are being muddied by the influence of wealth and the desire of the newly moneyed for upward social mobility.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Do you think Becky did it? (Committed adultery? Murdered Jos?) Does it matter to the reader? Does it matter in the novel? Why or why not?
    2. Becky thinks she could be a good woman if she had 5,000 pounds a year, which suggests that she thinks morality is situational rather than something that comes from within. Does the novel agree? Why or why not?
    3. The novel makes sure to give even its least pleasant characters a mitigating back-story. For example, Lord Steyne has his mentally disturbed son, while Becky has her impoverished and abusive childhood. Does this complicate our view of their various misdeeds? Why or why not? Are there characters that get sad back-stories but are upstanding adults? Are there negative characters who don't get some kind of emotional grounding? How does this change our view of those who do?

    Chew on This

    Becky's act of freeing Amelia from George's memory and letting her marry Dobbin is completely kind and selfless. That Becky is capable of such things means that she is correct about simply needing an income to be a "good woman."

    In the novel, almost none of the characters who act badly or do wrong are punished or get any kind of comeuppance. This makes the novel a very dark satire indeed, as it gives us a picture of a world with no morality, either private or public (legal).

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Vanity Fair does not have much to say about intellectual achievement. Instead its main demonstration of intelligence lies in its characters' ability to plan, scheme, and maneuver strategically around others as they jockey for the best social and financial position possible. In keeping with the cultural stereotypes of his time, Thackeray gives women the edge over men here. Although we frequently see male characters engaged in recreational games of chance, it's the female characters who wager for the high stakes, deploying an innate, almost animalistic cleverness.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Other than Becky, who else is cunning or clever in the novel? In what ways do others show their cleverness? Do stratagems and complex schemes tend to pay off in the novel's universe? Why or why not?
    2. Why do Becky's considerable intelligence and skill fail her at crucial points, like choosing the wrong Crawley to marry, or not realizing that the best chance to get Miss Crawley to forgive her and Rawdon for their marriage is to tell her immediately rather than running away? Is this random chance? Fate? Something actively interfering?
    3. How does the novel portray intelligence? Which characters are smart, and in what ways: book-smart, street savvy, intellectually curious, etc.? Are we meant to admire smarts or are they a hindrance? Why?

    Chew on This

    There is a way in which Becky and the narrator compete with each other. The narrator jokes, makes puns, and says clever and cutting things about the characters and actions he describes. The only character who is able to do all those things is Becky, and this makes the novel a kind of battle of wits.

    Some strategizers and schemers in the novel are compared to gamblers (Mrs. Bute, for instance), while others are like military commanders (for example, Glorvina O'Dowd). But both types tend to fail and succeed at random. The novel is thus suggesting that even the best-planned military campaigns are like throwing a die and hoping for a good result.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater

    If the world is a fair where vanities are sold, and if external appearance and manners are valued more highly than good character and ethical conduct, then it makes sense that those who can put on the best show in public end up winners. Vanity Fair is fixated on performance and the way in which we all act out roles for the benefit of those around us. The only difference is that most of Thackeray's characters do this kind of acting subconsciously (and thus, not particularly well), while his main protagonist, Becky, is a self-aware master of the stage.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Life as a Theater

    1. Many important scenes in the novel are set in theaters or other performance spaces: Becky and Jos at Vauxhall, Amelia and George running into Becky in Brussels, the charades at Lord Steyne's house, etc. What does it suggest to have an encounter between characters take place at a theater? Why this setting for these particular scenes? How would these scenes be different if they happened in a different place?
    2. Why does the narrator begin and end the novel by describing the characters as puppets and inviting us to see the puppet show? Does this damage the realism of the novel? Does it heighten it in some way? Does it say something about the world or about the novel-writing process?
    3. Which characters love to put on a show? Which love to watch a show? Is there any overlap?
    4. Performers are artists, like Thackeray himself. What is the narrator's attitude toward the creativity of theater?

    Chew on This

    Characters in this novel can be separated into three types: those who are purely authentic, both in public and private; those who have an authentic face or personality that only shows in private; and those who are so deeply caught up in performing their socially appropriate roles that they no longer have an authentic self at all. The novel shows us problems with each kind of existence.

    Activity and performance go together in Vanity Fair. From the narrator on down, anyone engaged in putting on some kind of show for an audience is by definition working at making something happen. By the same token, characters who refrain from any kind of acting are passive and inert, waiting for life to happen to them. Although on its face the novel seems to endorse this kind of inactivity, in reality it is the – perhaps malevolently – active life that it values.

  • Jealousy

    It makes perfect sense that if everyone is jockeying for position at the top of the heap, the achievements of neighbors, friends, and even family members will occasion jealousy. No holds are barred in Vanity Fair and no relationships are too sacred to be spared brutally honest treatment. Sons are sexually jealous of fathers, sisters and brothers are financially jealous of each other, and people form deep friendships only to immediately dissolve them when their relative ranks shift slightly.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Who is jealous of whom in the novel? Who is not jealous even though they have reason to be? Is that surprising? Why or why not?
    2. There are many plot elements that are driven by someone acting out of envy. Find one of these and try to imagine what would happen if there was no feeling of jealousy. What kind of actions are spurred by jealousy? What would happen in the world of the novel if this emotion did not exist?
    3. Arguably, the opposite emotion of jealousy is happiness with someone else's success. Does anyone in the novel experience this? Are there any selfless actions or people in the novel? Does the novel think that there is such a thing as selflessness?

    Chew on This

    In the novel's world, jealousy is the most normal emotion one human being can have toward another, since without it the intricate social network would collapse. Even other feelings are usually clouded by or somehow bumping against jealousy. Those who lack the capacity for jealousy are not full participants in life.

    Often characters are placed in situations where they must choose to either display or repress their feelings of jealousy and other emotions. The ability to see these situations as choices, and to make the strategically appropriate one, is a necessary quality for getting ahead in the social hierarchy.

  • Language and Communications

    In Vanity Fair, there are masters of one language, masters of many languages, and those whose lack of education puts them perilously close to illiteracy. Individuals who are able to find many different modes and styles of communicating, and can make themselves understood by as wide a variety of social, political, and economic ranks as possible will have an edge. Again, Thackeray's main protagonist shines in her ability to express herself in an almost unlimited number of ways.

    Questions About Language and Communications

    1. What are methods of communication do characters use in the novel? Are some methods more effective than others? What makes communication effective from the point of view of the speaker? Of the recipient?
    2. Some characters are given accents or eccentric speech patterns, although not at all uniformly (for instance, Mrs. O'Dowd's Irish accent is reproduced while Major O'Dowd's is not). Whose speech gets marked in this way? Whose doesn't? What effect does this have on the reader?
    3. Find a passage where an indirect or nonverbal type of communication is used – for instance, Becky throwing the dictionary out the carriage window, or the Countess of Bareacres sending successively higher levels of people to bargain with Becky for horses. Recast the scene with a totally different method of communication. What happens to the scene? What does it say about the characters that they choose to speak or not speak?

    Chew on This

    It is important for a character not simply to be able to communicate in different styles, but to be able to interpret the looks, gestures, allusions, and jokes of others in the correct fashion. By stressing this skill, the novel allies itself with its readers, who are its interpreters.

    The novel tries out different ways to use letters. There are letters of revelation (like Miss Pinkerton's bio of Becky for Mrs. Bute), letters of characterization (for example, Sir Pitt's note to Becky about meeting him), letters used to con their recipients (such as the letters from "Rawdon" that Becky sends to Miss Crawley), and letters used as narration for the novel (see Becky's long letter to Amelia about Queen's Crawley). So important is written communication that the resolution of the plot hinges on a note from George to Becky. Ultimately the novel favors writing over performing in its ranking of artistic or creative pursuits.