Book of the Week



Title: Vanity Fair
Author: W.M. Thackeray

First published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair was given described as a novel without a hero by the author, William Makepeace Thackeray. Though it is supposed to be a satirisation of society in 19th century Britain, I feel it is relevant in today’s context too.

Thackeray has given us a glimpse of  human nature was through the lives of two friends and classmates, Amelia Sedley(Emmy) and Rebecca Sharp(Becky). Emmy and Becky are two contrasting characters whose interactions with the outside world bring out the differences in their outlook and, therefore, futures. In the beginning, Emmy is the rich good and popular girl whereas Becky is the poor, clever and scheming girl leaving a finishing school. Becky had to teach music and french as well as study. Her father had died, leaving her penniless. He requested the school to help her out. Becky resented the fact that she had to tolerate the younger pupils and put up with the snobbery of the girls and teachers.

Both Emmy and Becky are given a dictionary when they are leaving as are all students at the academy. Becky throws her dictionary at the sentimental teacher who had to persuade the school to give her one as she was a charity student.The teacher fainted at the affront.  Instead of seeing what the institution could do for her (it did get her her job, and hence, her husband), Becky clung to what the institution didnot do for her. For, the rest of her life, she strove to become a socialite, forgot to be a mother, a wife or a friend. She seduced Emmy’s husband though Emmy had been nothing but kind to her. Emmy gave her a home when they left school.

When Emmy’s family lost their fortune, she proved herself to be an excellent mother, wife, daughter and friend. She lived for love and was a kind person who would never hurt anyone. Emmy’s character seems to be insipid and boring as do the lives of many upright women of conviction. Becky’s climb up the social ladder makes for more racy reading. But Emmy lived for others and Becky lived for herself.

If one were to contextualise the actions of these two ladies in terms of human nature, perhaps one should draw from a speech given by Hyperides in the 3 rd-4 th century BC. This speech has been recently translated by William Noel’s institution as a part of the Archimedes Palimpsest. I heard it in a TED talk by Noel. The translation as given by Noel says,

Best of all is to win. But if you can’t win, then you should fight for a noble cause, because then you will be remembered.

Becky’s sole cause was herself. She could not even love her son more than herself. She only wants to be the most powerful, the most sought after and the most popular. She is a character devoid of love or of appreciation of love. Only material things and fame matter to her. How she arrives at these things is unimportant. She can rob the poor to conceal her own poverty. Emmy, on the other hand, does nothing for herself, doesnot care for what people say. She lives for love and not for social recognition. She is an excellent mother. Though Thackeray uses the word  weak to describe her, I would rate her as a strong woman because she acts with conviction. Becky, in my opinion is a weak woman, because she is caught up in proving herself to a world that is perhaps not even interested in acknowledging her existence.

In the end, Thackeray gives Amelia a happy future with a loving husband and son and Becky is left destitute by her husband, son and family, eking out a living by gambling and by her wits in Europe. She seems to come into wealth by engineering the death of Jos Sedley ( Emmy’s brother) who leaves her half his fortune. So, has she stooped to murder?

Thackeray in the course of the story makes a number of astute observations on life, living and love. One of his observations on human nature says

One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is that you must tell and believe the lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.

I find this very relevant in today’s context of violence and hatred that is tearing our world apart. He had made this comment in context of Emmy’s father, whose closest friend (Osborne) turned against him and condemned him when he lost his fortune. I think this statement also holds against all kinds of sectarian violence and hatred.

I enjoyed Vanity Fair because Thackeray is an excellent storyteller. I like the way he relates the story and brings out the contrasts, making statements that are relevant in today’s world too. The Emmys of the world will always be regarded as insipid and the Beckys as the glamour girls that are written about in magazines and appear in newsreels. The social relevance of the book makes it a classic.

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