Bonnie's Reviews > Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
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Jan 29, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics, fiction
Read in January, 2008

** spoiler alert ** I'm reading this book for the second time and it is still one of my favorites. I'm not generally into "classics" and have a short attention span, but Thackeray keeps me entertained, though he does get boring once in a while.

I've actually got the "Barnes & Noble Classics" edition with notes by Nicholas Dames, not the version pictured here. Either one is probably fine, but the notes are highly useful because Thackeray will often refer to a current scandal or cultural phenomenon in his text, and you will be lost unless you've got a Ph.D in nineteenth-century British tabloid news. Also note that Thackeray uses a lot of French (at least one French word per page, and often more), and so if you don't speak French, you will definitely need a version with notes.

One reading of this book is that it is highly misogynistic. Even when Thackeray appears to be cutting Becky some slack, he is still being bitingly sarcastic (such as when he bemoans her lack of a mother to arrange a proper marriage for her, and then portrays her as a vulture for wishing to arrange an advantageous marriage, herself). Amelia's passivity (and she is everything a woman supposedly should be) is not necessarily rewarded, however, either, not even when she marries Dobbin at the end of the book.

Speaking of Dobbin, another moral of the book is that nice guys finish last, and that they are at the mercy of women (well, that's a bit misogynistic, too, really). William Dobbin (the nerd of the book) spends the entire book pining for Amelia. She finally marries him only because Becky takes pity on her and gives her proof that George (her first husband) was a rat at the end of the story. Thus, Dobbin owes his happiness to someone (Becky) he has loathed heartily throughout the entire book, and still remains, forever and always, Amelia's second choice, even after they're married. William plays the games of Vanity Fair only poorly, and is ignored and mistreated by all the characters, including Amelia, despite being the one "good" (read, passive in advancing his own interests) character besides Amelia. It is true, though, Amelia and William do end up happy together -- and it is probably significant that William Dobbin shares his given name with the author.

Another reading is that social approbation is empty and will not bring happiness or stability -- and may result in personal ruin. George Osbourne and Becky Sharp are both skilled social climbers who ultimately get their just desserts -- George is killed at Waterloo after being disinherited by his father, and Becky is financially and socially ruined at the end of the story, despite all her machinations.

There is some very racist material in the book; Thackeray saw nothing wrong with villifying people of color. Thackeray was not parodying racism in the least in his characterization of, for example, Rhoda Swartz, a rich black heiress. Thackeray illustrated the book himself, and all of his sketches of her (both in pen and in words) are highly unflattering. George compares her to the Hottentot Venus and Thackeray applauds him. This is perhaps the most blatant moment of racism in the book, but there are others. For example, a servant in the Sedley household is unironically named Sambo.

Despite the racist and sexist portrayals of some characters, many of Thackeray's insights about people are still true, such as his observations on how to live well on nothing a year, and that history writ large (such as the events at Waterloo) is also history writ small (as in the lives of Vanity Fair's characters).

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Petit "She finally marries him only because Becky takes pity on her and gives her proof that George (her first husband) was a rat at the end of the story. Thus, Dobbin owes his happiness to someone (Becky) he has loathed heartily throughout the entire book, and still remains, forever and always, Amelia's second choice, even after they're married."

Dobbin doesn't owe his happiness to Becky: Amelia admits she'd already written to Dobbin before Becky revealed George's infidelity to her. But the real tragedy is that Dobbin's passion for Amelia has been shattered, and will never be repaired. He's still prepared to marry her and be a good husband to her, but he no longer thinks she was worth the years of selfless devotion.




Bonnie I stand corrected. It's true Amelia writes to William first, and then Becky breaks the news to her. Still, it makes it a bit easier for Amelia to marry William after she finds out about George.


message 3: by Isaiah (new)

Isaiah I am currently reading this book for the first time and an doing so on my tablet such allows me to look up words events, and even locations. this might be a good option for those who don't know French or current events during the time. Plus it's free


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