Vanity Fair Readalong: Final Post

Friday, March 15, 2013

Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray

**There are SPOILERS in my review**

We have reached the end! These characters, the conniving Becky, Amelia the martyr, the ever-loyal Dobbin and Jos, the fool, have all played their final parts. From Miss Pinkerton's Academy to the Battle of Waterloo, from the rising success of one to the bankruptcy and downfall of another, we have watched the drama unfold. No one gets a perfect happy ending, but no one really gets the life they deserve either.

Thackeray tells us that this is a story with no hero, but really I think Dobbin is our hero; though it is hard to respect him when he wastes his whole life longing for a woman that sees him as little more than a servant for most of the book. The section that talks about Amelia turning him into her dog, always at her beck and call, is particularly horrid. She takes advantage of his love for her, even if it is unconsciously. I could have cheered aloud when he finally says he won’t put up with it anymore and leaves. It was the equivalent of Rhett Butler famous final line at the end of Gone with the Wind and I was so proud of him. Amelia isn’t manipulative like Becky, but she’s cruel in her own way. In my opinion, if she had gotten what she really deserved she would have ended up alone.

“Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of their history.”

I must say that for me the ending was incredibly satisfying. I loved Becky’s speech to Amelia about what an idiot she’s been. Through all of her faults, at least Becky finally did something good for someone, even if it was done in an incredibly harsh way. I loved that Amelia had to humble herself and ask forgiveness from Dobbin before they could finally find happiness together. Becky wormed her way back into the Sedley’s good graces. Poor Jos is completely under her thumb by the end of the book and spends his final days wasting away under her “care.”

I think the most tragic character in the book is Becky’s son. He reminder me of Madame Bovary’s daughter; both are casualties of their parent’s neglect. At least he is raised by a loving aunt and uncle, but he knows how little his mother cares for him and that must be painful. Amelia’s son George is spoiled rotten by both his mother and grandfather. I’m grateful that Dobbin provided a little much needed balance and guidance in his upbringing.

Quite a bit of the novel reminded me of War & Peace. There are two major families that make up the cast of characters: the Sedleys and the Crawleys. There is a major war which separates the characters. But unlike War & Peace, which is more about redemption and maturity, Vanity Fair focuses on the selfishness and downfall of its characters.

“If people only made prudent marriages what a stop to population there would be.”

The book was surprisingly funny. Thackeray’s style embraced the humor in even the darkest situations, which made it a fun read. I think he did well to give us two main characters with such polar opposite personalities. It would have been easy to paint one or the other as the “correct” way to live, but instead, he showed us how dangerous either extreme is. Poor Amelia pines after her unfaithful dead husband, glossing over his failures in her memory and creating the “perfect man.” Because of this she spends years missing out on true happiness with a good man.

Becky on the other hand, takes the man she has for granted in an effort to hoist herself farther up the social ladder. She treats everyone around her as a pawn, leaving her friendless and alone when her deeds are exposed. Her only salvation comes in the form of Amelia’s kindness (aka gullibility).

The book has a strange narrative style. The fourth wall is constantly broken and the reader is spoken to directly. Then near the end of the book we learn that the person telling us this “true” story learned it first hand when he met the individuals involved. Thackeray also didn't give us a specific person to root for like most authors do, instead he tells the story of two very different women trying to survive the peaks and valleys of life. It’s one hell of a tale.

BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed it. It’s not one I can say I really loved, but I can see myself returning to it in 20 years to see if my opinion of the characters changes with experience. I think it’s a great cautionary tale about reevaluating the priorities in your life.

So a few questions:
Did you like the ending and did you think everyone got what they deserved?

Did you like the way Thackeray spoke directly to the reader?

Your final verdict of Becky: Tragic figure or conniving bitch?

Do you think she killed Jos? *

* This bit from Wikipedia makes me think she did…
“He eventually dies of a suspicious ailment after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance. In the original illustrations, which were done by Thackeray, Becky is shown behind a curtain with a vial in her hand; the picture is labeled "Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra."

Thanks to all of you who joined in the #YoureSoVain Readalong and thanks to Trish for co-hosting with me! Check out her midway post here if you missed them! I know that my reading experience was deepened by hearing all of your thoughts and comments via twitter and your blogs. Leave the link to your review/comments below and make sure to visit each other!

**I love that there were multiple references to Greek mythology in the book. I’ve been reading a bunch of Greek stuff lately and the overlap (like Becky playing Clytemnestra) was fun. I love it when that randomly happens!

***Side Note: I just watched the 1998 version of Vanity Fair starring Natasha Little (because of Selah's recommendation!) It was really well done and faithful to the book. The characters weren't exactly how I pictured them, but I thought Becky was particularly good. 


Sarah said...

Oh man, we have pretty much the same thoughts about Dobbin and Amelia! I saw on Wikipedia that they claim Dobbin isn't a real hero because he's prone to "vanity and melancholy" but I disagree - he never seemed vain, and his sadness every now and then was because he was in love with such a foolish, selfish woman.

I also definitely think that Becky killed Jos to get his money... which I think is a more satisfying ending to her story than her just going off into the world and ending up a drunken gambler again.

Fun book! Thanks for hosting :)

Brooke said...

Becky definitely killed Jos! Didn't even flinch over it either as I knew she was always capable of such things. As for Amelia and Dobbin, Amelia annoyed me to no end, but Dobbin did as well. How could he love such a thing? To me, his love for Amelia is just as bad as Amelia's obsession for George. So for that reason, I'm glad they ended up together because I do think they deserved each other.

This book wasn't a huge success for me in whole, but parts were quite wonderful. The humor was a huge plus and I liked that there was no hero even though Dobbin was probably the character with highest moral value. Becky was our devil, though, and the true star!

Thank you so much for hosting! I needed the encouragement to get through this tomb since it's on my Classics Club list. Looking forward to many more readalongs in the future!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sarah - Boo to Wikipedia's version of Dobbin. I saw no vanity in his actions. He could have told Amelia all of the things he did to make her life better and make himself look better in her eyes. But instead he did them silently, always looking out for her at his own expense.

Brooke - I think my favorite part of the book was when Dobbin finally snapped and told Amelia off. She'd been asking for it for so long and I think it leveled the playing field. Instead of him always pining after her, she really needed to work a bit to get him back. I'm glad you stuck with us for the whole readalong. It was definitely more fun to do it as a group.

Bybee said...

I was freaked out after I read VF, trying to figure out if Becky did really kill Jos. She seemed like she was getting better, but then...

JoAnn said...

I really liked the ending, too, and definitely think that Becky (the conniving bitch!) killed Jos. Dobbin doesn't really impress me as a hero, but he's as close as we get to one in Vanity Fair. The narrator was the high point of this novel for me.

Thanks so much for hosting. I may not have picked it up without the extra push of a readalong!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bybee - I know, once I started reading other thoughts/articles on it I became more convinced that she definitely killed him!

JoAnn - I loved the sections where the narrator talked directly to the reader. That drew me in and it was really funny. I'm so glad you joined the readlong!

Selah said...

I'm so behind on commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed 1998 version. I tried to watch the Reese Witherspoon version, mainly to see Natasha Little as Lady Jane Sheepshanks, but I couldn't get through it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Selah - I saw that one years ago, but I remember almost nothing from it. The 1998 version was really good though, you were right!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I'm not going to lie--I was pretty disappointed in the ending. I think maybe because I'd seen the Reese Witherspoon movie and the ending has vividly stuck with me. ALTHOUGH I agree with you on the speech that she gave Amelia. Too bad that hadn't happened a few hundred pages earlier. ;) I do think that in the end everyone got what she deserved and like you I feel badly for poor Rawdon junior. Would be interesting to see the cast 10-20 years later. I imagine that Becky still had some adventures to play out!

Thanks for pushing for the readalong! I'm glad that we read it even if it won't end up being my favorite.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trish - That's funny, I can't for the life of me remember the ending of the Witherspoon version! Poor Rawdon Junior, worst mother ever. Sometimes I think it's better to be part of a readalong when you don't love the book, because you can get a different views of the work and have the encouragement to keep going!

Susan said...

I loved Vanity Fair when I read it a long time ago. It's my re-read a classic choice for the challenge if I get that far!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I love re-reading favorites. It's a joy I've only recently discovered.

JaneGS said...

Wonderful review of a wonderful book. The first time I read it, I didn't care for it, but I reread it a few years ago and loved it. Funny you should mention Rhett Butler because my contention is that Margaret Mitchell modeled her Gone With the Wind on Vanity Fair--the similarities are quite striking when you start thinking about it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

JaneGS - I reread GWTW over the summer and am even more convinced that it had to have been inspired by Vanity Fair. The stories are incredibly similar!

Joseph said...

I agree Dobbin is the hero, though as you point out, he takes far too long to assert himself. As for Becky's son, the most tragic, yes I suppose, but his aunt loved him and he even told her "your'e my mother." So I was relieved for him. Yes, I liked the ending, though everyone did not get what they deserved. Dobbin deserved better...but he got what he always wanted and I was happy for him. Emmy got better than she deserved but I was happy for her too. Becky? Becky is one of the more interesting characters I've encountered in fiction. I admired that she never had a pity party for herself. She though life had not been fair to her, so she was going to grab life by the collar and make it pay her, her dues. Other things of course I hated about her. I do like Thackeray's talking to the reader. Nice review.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Joseph - I still feel so bad for Becky's son. He was a casualty of her ambition. I agree about the pity party thing, I admire Becky for that!