Although I profess no academic education in analysing or discoursing upon Literature, I have attempted to ‘review’ (for want of a humbler word) this exceptional work by the great William Makepeace Thackeray. I draw my inferences and understandings of the piece from the novel itself in absolute as well as in relation to the other works that I have read, set in a similar era, in a similar place.
Like the name suggests 'Vanity Fair' is story about human Vanity truly in its element. It is a story about an emotion that permeates society at large and dictates individual lives in a way that is as tangible as it is abstract. It is the puppet master in whose hands lie human emotions and actions , coolly mocking us, and laughing in our bewildered faces that our very existence is rooted in superficial make-belief.
This essay here is not as much of a plot spoiler as it is an analysis of the emotions, the environment and the unspoken laws of social hierarchy that existed in those times.
Set in the early 19th century England, with the impending confrontation with the French emperor Napoleon as a background, Thackeray gives a fascinating account of the colourful dramas played out in the Genteel society or the ‘stalls in the fair’ as he puts it. While the plot is more or less dominated by emotional turmoils in the lives of the two female protagonists, side events and jarring morals abound throughout the story. For Becky Sharp it is the constant struggle to rise above her ‘Birth’ and monetary situation while taking advantage of our gullible gallants, the Noble folk, to move in the purest of company. Her life is an epic drama of blatantly cunning manipulations and brilliant foresight to lay foundations of future comfort, only to be thwarted at each turn by the means she employs to achieve them. As for Amelia Sedley, Becky's first and only true friend,her story would have been particularly frustrating if it was not so ridiculous in its foolish fancies and wonder worlds, and at the same time quietly ideal had it not been for the complete lack of rational thought in any and every of her decisions.
Thackeray employs a rather unique style of story telling, many a time walking us through the story, like a diligent guide, knowingly pointing at every turn to a moral here and a moral there. While his walks do border on the ‘sermonising’ at times they go a long way in emphasizing the crux of the emotion, or the cunning leading up to the event. A note of warning here: while to expect a ‘classic’ to be a rapid page turner is frankly speaking doing it great injustice, Thackeray does stretch your patience at times with his digressions. Had I not been sufficiently familiar with this style of story telling wherein the author goes to great lengths to paint a highly elaborate picture of the background and side circumstances, keeping the story aside altogether, I confess I would have given up after a few such tangents. Also at a lot of points in the novel I noticed that Thackeray takes special effort to literally spell out the learning from a certain event that has taken place, speaking to the reader in a warning sort of way to act thus or not to act thus.
Well so coming back to the story itself, while Becky’s machinations and strategies take her great places in the social hierarchy, placing her besides some of the noblest blood of England, these very same plots also exact a cruel vengeance upon her life when fate decides to pull the chair from beneath her. In short, in her hay-day she rubs shoulders with great Peers, (Lords, Earls, Counts et all ), while in less fortunate times she is forced to consort with petty gamblers and amoral students.
What stands out through out her stomach grinding roller coaster ride through Vanity Fair is her spirit which is so indomitable in nature that she can be as good humoured at a lowly ale-house as in the king’s court. Indeed, fascinating is Thackeray’s portrayal of a character that is so adaptable and pliable that her misfortunes are never permanent. She always manages to rise above her situation and finds someone to piggyback upon. Her schemes at times, horrify you with the sheer selfishness of human nature and at others make you sympathise with her victims who she so effortlessly traps within her webs. Noteworthy is the fact throughout the novel is that her patrons are almost always Men, whom she knows excellently how to bend to her will. Indeed she is so adept at making a place in the ever generous gallant’s heart that she leaves a trail of female jealousies throughout her journey. The men love her for her wit and charm and artless flirtation, while the females hate her for the exact same reason. It is a telling take on the vanity of those times. If you have descended from a noble line or have a healthy property to inherit only then will society will pay you its respect. The former takes precedence of course. There is absolutely no other way that you can find even a rats ass worth of notice. Such were the rules in those days. Even honest successful bourgeois were second class to the blue blooded and often bankrupt nobility. The class lines were so rigid that trespassing was punishable with something worse than death, a cruel banishment from the society. Were you to aspire higher, your present equals would hate for your ambitions, while your superiors would be appalled by your audacity. These are exactly the reasons that do Becky in time and again, as she is forced to flee from place to place trying to gain a foothold amongst the worthies.
On the other hand Amelia Sedley is a proverbial doll, sweet, charming, extremely gullible, and easily hurt. Her life is a long static story involving an errant lover, a short traumatic marriage, and pecuniary misfortunes (the last in her father’s life). She lives her life as passively, surrendering to fate completely to take her where it will, as Becky tries to make hers with her own efforts. She lives in a perfect make-belief world, holding on dearly to a few ideals that she defines very early in her life. Refusing to accept even the slightest hint of fault in her husband in the initial parts, wallowing in her widowhood later, and finding solace in her child till the end, is her lot. The character of Amelia Sedley is sort of an antithesis to that of Becky Sharp. Amelia thinks of everything and everyone else but herself most of the times, ready to trust at the drop of a tear and ready to drop a tear herself at the hint of a tragedy. Her devotion to her child is almost foolish in its single mindedness. Her trust of her wayward husband is impossibly blind, and her refusal to accept a much worthier man’s love, post her husband’s death, extremely trying.
As these two go through their lives in their own separate directions, there are a host of other characters that play significant roles in their lives. A perfect embodiment of Vanity and fake claims to greatness is Amelia’s elder brother Joseph Seadley who spends his life ranting about his charlatan exploits to all those who might listen, fabricating and exaggerating his own role in the major events in the background to a laughably impossible scale. As opposed to this is the steadfast, humble, wise William Dobbin who lives an ideal life, with a well earned position in the King’s army and moderate levels of comfort. Throughout the novel there is only one thing missing in the Major’s (towards the end to -be- Colonel) life. And that is a favourable answer to his permanent devotion to his one and only love.
The Crawley family also plays a significant role in the story; with the younger brother Rawdon almost lost to debaucheries and debts learning his lesson the hard way in the company of Becky as his wife. His story is another one that plays out as a brave rebellion to the rampant vanities in the novel.
As the story seeks to hammer home the moral that kindness, generosity, respect are prizes to be won and given for deeper reasons than monetary situation or bloodlines, it does so with perfect examples of the exact opposite happening almost throughout the story. Most characters live their lives building their fantasy lands wherein they are most beloved, the most respected and the wisest, only to be cruelly put down time and again as they lose what only their money or ancestry had bought, and was never a tribute to their person. At times the narrative takes a sarcastic turn. However mostly Thackeray seems to be pleading and entreating the reader to take a lesson than satirising. He in fact also very suitably justifies many of Becky’s schemes that look outwardly perverse but are in essence simple tools used by that unfortunate person to survive in society. Ironic is the fact then that whenever she is to be a partner in the success of the scheme, she is unjustly cut off and left high and dry by others who end up benefitting hugely by her strategies.
Vanity Fair is as a lesson is perhaps more captivating than most I have come across. As a historical fiction it ranks up there amongst the ones that will stay longest in my heart. Reading Vanity Fair is one of those endeavours that are extremely painstaking and taxing upon your faculties. Yet you want to keep going, because in your heart you know life will be much more beautiful at the end of it.