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
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?
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?
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?
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.