Vanity Fair (Thackeray)

Vanity Fair 
William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848
~800-900 pp. (Varies by publisher.)

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?

No one is better equipped in the struggle for wealth and worldly success than the alluring and ruthless Becky Sharp, who defies her impoverished background to clamber up the social ladder. Her sentimental companion Amelia, however, longs for caddish soldier George. As the two heroines make their way through the tawdry glamour of English society in the early 1800s, battles—military and domestic—are fought, fortunes made and lost.

The one steadfast and honorable figure in this corrupt world is Dobbin, devoted to Amelia, bringing pathos and depth to William Thackeray's gloriously satirical epic of love and social adventure. (From Penguin Classics, cover image, top-right.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 18, 1811
Where—Calcutta, India
Died—December 24, 1863
Where—London, England, UK
Education—Cambridge Univeristy (UK)

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811, but sent to England at the age of six. He was educated at Charterhouse and at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1833 he settled in Paris, after a major financial loss, and tried his career as a painter. It was here that he met nineteen-year-old Isabella Shaw, upon whom he based many of his virtuous but weak heroines, and whom he married in 1836.

A year later they settled in London, where Thackeray turned seriously to journalism. His writing for periodicals included Yellowplush Correspondence, which appeared in Fraser's Magazine and then in 1841 in book form. Around this time personal and domestic pressures caused the already helpless Isabella to subside into a state of complete and permanent mental collapse, and the subsequent breakdown of the marriage formed a central part of Thackeray's consciousness.

Thackeray's early work centered around rogues and villains, most famously in The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844; revised as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. in 1856), and in his masterpiece, Vanity Fair, which appeared in monthly parts in 1847-48 and which most clearly reveals his socially satirical edge. The Book of Snobs, which originally appeared as a series in Punch, also attacks Victorian society with vicious wit.

Thackeray's later novels include The History of Pendennis (1848-50), The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), The Newcomes (1852-53), The Virginians (1857-59), which is the sequel to Henry Esmond, and The Adventures of Philip (1861-62).

He also wrote a series of lectures, The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century (1852-53), and numerous reviews, articles, and sketches, usually in the comic vein. From 1860 to 1862, he also edited Cornhill Magazine. Thackeray died suddenly on Christmas Eve, 1863 (From Penguin Classics—cover image, top-right.)

Book Reviews
(Classics have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

A bewitching beauty who bends men to her will using charm, sex, and guile. An awkward man who remains loyal to his friends, even when those friends don't deserve his affection. A mother who cannot get over the loss of her husband and devotes her life to her child. Though written in 1847-48, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair is peopled by types who remain familiar today. The novel's early nineteenth-century setting immerses us in a strange world of social stratification, moral strictures, and self-conscious sentiment. Yet its characters—from dissolute playboys and self-important heirs to judgmental aunts and finicky gourmands—are instantly recognizable.... Thackeray interweaves the stories of these three main characters into an exuberant narrative that's chockablock with indelible secondary characters and cynical aperçus that illuminate all manner of human folly. His withering gaze lands on both lords and ladies, exposing the mean-spirited pretensions and craving for distinction that permeate the whole social world. By placing the social skirmishes and family clashes of his characters against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair invites us to contemplate the pervasiveness of human strife—and the damage that our egotism and self-delusion do every day.
Penguin Group USA (publishers)

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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