Vanity Fair (Thackeray) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
1. Becky Sharp is without doubt the novel's most intelligent and interesting character. Yet in frequent asides, the novel's narrator goes out of his way to expose her stratagems and condemn her motives. What do you think of the narrator's constant moralizing—about Becky as well as the novel's other characters?

2. Becky's disgrace occurs after her husband walks in on her intimate dinner with Lord Steyne. Do you think Rawdon's assumption—that Becky and Lord Steyne were lovers—is justified? Or was Becky, as she argues, merely using her charms to advance her husband's career? And why doesn't the usually omniscient narrator let us know conclusively what really happened?

3 Vanity Fair is subtitled "A Novel without a Hero." Yet William Dobbin certainly seems to be a hero, at least when judged against the novel's other principal characters. In what ways does he differ from a conventional romantic hero? Does he, too, display any of the vanity, hypocrisy, and self-deception common to the other characters in the novel?

4. Amelia is lauded by the narrator as a paragon of womanhood, though he admits that some people, especially other women, don't see her charms. Yet Amelia's excessive grief over her scapegrace husband's death, her hapless passivity in the face of poverty, her spoiled son's eager embrace of wealth and position, and her unthinking exploitation of Dobbin's devotion certainly make us wonder about how much good her goodness does in the real world. Are Amelia's sentimental illusions and steadfast virtue in the end preferable to Becky's hard-headed realism and unscrupulous scheming?

5. Near the end of the book, Becky presses Amelia to marry Dobbin by revealing the unsavory truth about Amelia's late husband. How do you explain this uncharacteristic altruism on Becky's part, given the animosity between her and Dobbin?

6. Thackeray peoples his novel with many colorful secondary characters. Were any especially well drawn or true to life? Which did you find most amusing, pathetic, or loathsome?

7. How does the world depicted in Vanity Fair, with its self-conscious morality and well-defined social strata, compare to our world today? What is different, and what remains the same?

8. Thackeray's narrator sprinkles the novel with frequent stinging asides, such as "Did we know what our intimates and dear relations thought of us, we should live in a world that we should be glad to quit," and "What bitter satire is there in those flaunting childish family portraits, with their farce of sentiment and smiling lies." What did you think of the sentiments expressed in these remarks and others throughout the novel? Did you find any that were especially on target or out of bounds? What do they add to the novel?

9. What other novels could you compare with Vanity Fair, either for the scope of their social observation, or for their pairing of unattractive "good" and charismatic "bad" female characters?
(Questions issued by Penguin Classics.)

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