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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jews in Vanity Fair

Rhoda Swartz is first introduced at a classmate of Amelia's and Becky's at Miss Pinkerton's Academy, described as "the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's." Most of what the reader finds out about her is from other characters; she rarely speaks in the novel and functions mostly as a doll to be admired, and George Osborne's sister certainly admired her:

"Her bejeweled hands lay sprawling in her amber satin lap. Her tags and ear-rings twinkled, and her big eyes rolled about. She was doing nothing with perfect contentment, and thinking herself charming. Anything so becoming as the satin the sisters had never seen." (Chapter 21)

George himself refuses to marry her because of her dark skin and it is from him that we learn of Miss Swartz Jewish lineage:

"Her father was a German Jew—a slave-owner they say—connected with the Cannibal Islands in some way or other. He died last year, and Miss Pinkerton has finished her education. She can play two pieces on the piano; she knows three songs; she can write when Mrs. Haggistoun is by to spell for her; and Jane and Maria already have got to love her as a sister." (Chapter 20)

Other Jews appear in the novel when Becky and Rawdon Crawley attend an auction at the home of the bankrupt Sedleys. Becky comments to her husband,

"Look at them with their hooked beaks," Becky said, getting into the buggy, her picture under her arm, in great glee. "They're like vultures after a battle."
An Elephant for Sale
The derogatory comment was accompanied by the illustration above.

Thackeray himself was not anti-Semitic, though he had negative encounters with Jewish financiers in the 1830s. However, in his portrayal of Miss Swartz, he gives her no depth of character, though she has much affection for Amelia. She has basically no skills and the only reason George's sisters like her is her wealth. His description of those at the auction as vultures, unclean birds, is ironic when one considers who makes the comparison.

Israel at Vanity Fair: Jews and Judaism in the Writings of W.M. Thackeray by S.S. Prawer
Rhoda Swartz in Vanity Fair: A Doll without Admirers by C.J. Hegler

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rack Punch

Upon going home with Amelia from Chiswick Mall, Becky meets Amelia's wealthy brother Joseph, who is home from India. Becky recognizes him as a man of wealth and, though she is not attracted to him (Thackeray endlessly remarks on his corpulence and refers to him as "vain, selfish, lazy, and effeminate), plots to become his wife.

While at a party at Vauxhall, Jos requests a bowl of rack-punch and hilarity ensues. "That fat gourmand drank up the whole contents of the bowl" and disrupted the entire party with his attempts at singing and flirting, eventually becoming quite belligerent before being induced to leave by William Dobbin. The entire scene embarrasses Becky and puts an end to the courtship.

This incident causes the reader to question what exactly is rack-punch. According to this blog, it is a drink from India containing arrack (which is distilled from coconut sap), hot water, limes, sugar, and spice.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Looking Glass

"The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice." (Ch. 2)

Given Becky's past and the fact that she is an orphan, one would expect her to frown at the world, but she seems to have learned the above statement at a very young age. Through the course of the novel, Amelia experiences loses similar to those Becky experienced, but her reaction is much different from Becky's. While neither character ends up happy, Becky refuses to allow herself to become a victim of Vanity Fair.

Thackeray makes the point that how you present yourself is how you will be treated. Becky present herself as someone whose self-worth is very high and who is highly influential. She is close (too close in fact) to Lord Steyne and is able to get Rawdon's brother Pitt introduced to the powerful Steyne. Becky is proactive in the Waterloo incident and is able to secure money for her horses, much more than was reasonable. Amelia, on the other hand, mourns the death of her husband and never recovers from the tragedy. She forgets, however, that he never truly loved her and did not much want to marry her, except to spite his father. Because there is not much pity in the world of Vanity Fair, her son forsakes her and becomes a mirror image of his father.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Backdrop of Vanity Fair

The novel is written against a backdrop of Napoleonic England, beginning just before Napoleon's return from Elba. Napoleon does not play a role in the novel, though he is mentioned a few times by certain characters. The allusions to Napoleon reach their apex during the party in Brussels on June 15th when the Duke of Wellington receives word of the rapid advance of Napoleon. The party is forced to break up and the soldiers immediate prepare for battle at Waterloo.

Vanity Fair does not fit the category of war novel, however. The war is rarely at the forefront and the novel continues many years after the Battle of Waterloo. One purpose behind the presence of the war in the novel is to highlight the war among the characters, fighting for social significance. There is a constant struggle for money and power, and Becky is right in the midst of the fight. The theme seems to agree with a certain critic's assessment of Samuel Butler's philosophy: The lack of money is the root of all evil.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Comparing Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley

Thackeray opens the novel at Chiswick Mall, where Becky and Amelia are preparing to leave Miss Pinkerton's academy for girls. In presenting the girls, Thackeray describes contrasting figures. Amelia is the ideal student who is friendly to everyone and a favorite of her intructor. She is the daughter of a wealthy London merchant and is taken home in a carriage by her black servant Sambo.

Becky, on the other hand, is the daughter of an artist and an opera singer, though orphaned by the start of the novel and forced to make her own way in the world. She is pompus and disrespectful, bidding goodbye in French to Miss Pinkerton, who does know the language, in order to show her superiority. Though poor, she claims relation to the noble Mortmorencys. As she is leaving the school to accompany Amelia to her house before taking a position as a governess, she tosses a dictionary given to her by Miss Pinkerton out of the carriage.

Nevertheless, Amelia considers her a friend and encourages Becky in her pursuit of Amelia's brother Joseph. Though Amelia has certain pecuniary advantages, Becky is the more talented and more cunning figure. Whereas Amelia needs lessons to hone her artistic ability, Becky is naturally talented. Becky later proves to better fit to solve problems and handle adverse situations. Instead of feeling sorry for herself like Amelia, Becky is proactive and schemes in order to provide for herself. In the world of Vanity Fair, Amelia plays the role of victim while Becky is an active participant, fighting to survive.

Painting above is Miss Pinkerton's Academy, Chiswick Mall by George Goodwin Kilburne.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Preface to Vanity Fair

In his preface entitled "Before the Curtain," Thackeray describes what the reader is about to encounter in Vanity Fair. His description is similar to Bunyan's when he says that there exists

a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind.

He further describes the place as "not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy." No one is happy there, though everyone is seeking temporary forms of happiness. Though there are humorous instances, Thackeray describes the mood as more melancholy than mirthful.

This preface gives the novel a play-like quality, identifying Thackeray as the stage manager and providing a panoramic of what is in store for the reader while the characters are referred to as puppets. These characters are prototypical hypocrites, actors on a stage wearing masks. As an omniscient narrator, Thackeray allows the reader the remove the masks of these complex characters and examine each character's motive for his actions.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vanity Fair

Thackeray took his title from a year long fair in a town called Vanity in John Bunyan's 17th century novel The Pilgrim's Progress. In that book, Bunyan attacks the pleasure of this life in place of those of the afterlife. Bunyan gives the following description of his Vanity Fair:

"Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour."

Bunyan sets up Vanity Fair as an ungoldy place that one should flee.

Thackeray describes similar activities thoughout his novel but avoids the religious tone. He accepts that man should enjoy some pleasure in this world but condemns man's overindulgence. He gives the example of roast beef:

"It is all vanity to be sure, but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because itis transitory, dislikes roast beef? That is a vanity, but may every man who reads this have a wholesome portion of it through life, I beg: aye, though my readers were five hundred thousand. Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horse-radish as you like it--don't spare it." (chapter 51)

D. J. Dooley sums it up this way:
"From the very beginning, therefore, Thackeray was doing two slightly contradictory things: censuring unprincipled picaros and admiring the ingenuity with which they kept themselves afoot in Vanity Fair, attacking the values of fashionable society and displaying its fascination." *

In other words, Thackeray forces us to empathize with Becky's orphanhood, admire her cunning, and disapprove of her actions all at the same time. Thackeray adds complexity to an issue that Bunyan saw as black and white.

* From Thackeray's Use of Vanity Fair by D. J. Dooley in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 11.4 (Autumn 1971)

Monday, January 4, 2010

William Thackeray

William Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India where his father served in the British East India Company. When his father died when William was four, his mother Anne sent him to England, where he was living at age 21 when he received his inheritance of 20,000 pounds. That money was lost to his gambling habit. He turned to writing after studying law and painting. He offered to illustrate The Pickwick Papers but Dickens turned him down. As a result, Thackeray became the only major Victorian writer that illustrated his own works.

He wrote his first novel Catherine, an assault on the Newgate novels of the 1830s, in 1839. His first major novel was The Luck of Barry Lyndon, published in 1844, and he became a rival of Dickens and Vanity Fair was serialized simultaneously with Dickens' Dombey and Son. His later works included Pendennis, Henry Esmond, and The Virginians.

In Vanity Fair, subtitled "A Novel without a Hero," Thackeray depicts a scheming and selfish English society against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Thackeray creates vastly different characters such as Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley to show the vast array of vanities to which people submit themselves.


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