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Vanity of Vanities: Thackeray, Women and the Meaning of Life

posted Jul 5, 2014, 7:52 PM by Timothy Vienne
I'm an avid reader of 19th century British novels, for which reason I was surprised I had so far left one of the big authors of the period unturned: William Thackeray. So I picked up his quintessential work, Vanity Fair, his bold attempt to rewrite the emerging novel form. The subtitle of the work is "A Novel Without a Hero." In this sense, the book is a departure from Dickens or Austen, who are both fond of including unambiguous protagonists. It is never hard to pick out the woman who will overcome all odds in an Austen novel, or the plucky chap who will do great deeds in a Dickens adaptation. 

Thackeray's point in writing a novel without a hero is to comment on human fallibility. The book cannot be read apart from the Biblical work Ecclesiastes, which opens with this haunting phrase:

"Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, vanity of vanities! all is vanity."

Some have described this Biblical masterpiece as the first recorded example of existential philosophy. Of course, that is reading a whole lot of 20th century thinking backwards into ancient Israel, but the point stands. Thackeray is building on a Christian tradition of the emptiness and meaninglessness of life. He illustrates this lesser-known theology by writing a novel in which all of the characters are imperfect. Or almost. 

Becky Sharp is the promiscuous shatterer of social conventions who is also the most unarguably "evil". Amelia Osborne is the much more likable, but ultimately sinister, "good" counterpart to Ms. Sharp. In between these two central women are a horde of men who at times compete for their affections and at times are ruled by them. The point Thackeray wants to make is that both Sharp and Osborne have deep character flaws, although one conforms outwardly to social convention while the other does not.

That is of course to emphasize their similarities--Becky Sharp is responsible for breaking up marriages, bankrupting friends and belittling her only son. Amelia Osborne, by contrast, is devoted to those who need her help. I don't think Thackeray completely intends to put both of them on the same level: rather, the take is that even those who are most admirable in their social behavior can cause great misery to others.

This equality in fallenness is what saves Thackeray from the possible accusation of sexism. His portrait of Amelia Osborne echoes many Victorian stereotypes of weak-willed, hapless women. Even by the end of the novel, I cannot help but think Amelia is not as fully human as some of the men. However, she needs to be contrasted with the very self-possessed, commanding Becky Sharp, who has little in common with such stereotypes. It also must be noted that Thackeray gives Amelia more moral agency when she is able to ruin a romantic relationship by abusing the intentions of her long devoted admirer Colonel Dobbins. Amelia's great weakness is to accept the devotion of others with the same assumption in which she gives affection to others: it is provided in accordance to need, not merit. In some sense, Amelia is a bit like Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a Christ-like figure who loves everybody. However, this Messianic figure is also able to inflict pain on others despite her "pure" intentions.

So the question is... does Vanity Fair have a hero? Does it live up to Thackeray's bold claim? Kind of. One of the central characters, Colonel Dobbin, pursues his beloved Amelia for decades despite her ever acknowledging his regard. Yet by the end of the novel she returns the pursuit and they finish the book in a (relatively) blissful state. So Dobbin is, in some sense, a hero of the novel; at least he is a character who struggles against great odds and is successful.

Thackeray's book is a mesmerizing tale of great society in Victorian England. It is also a brilliant experiment in removing some of the moralistic overtones of novels from the time period. Yet it may not fully arrive at the premises from which it starts, to expunge hero-worship from narrative. It is later novelists who accept that challenge, and perhaps take it to its logical conclusion. In particular, I think of the morally ambiguous and brutally realistic work of Hemingway and Steinbeck.