Contained in the title of the book, vanity is the dominant theme of Thackeray's novel, enveloping the society Thackeray satirizes. Vanity is the motivation of most characters, driving the entire bourgeoisie reality. Vanity takes many forms in the novel, from Becky's flirtation with rich, noble men, to Jos' dress, to John Osborne's rejection of Amelia.
Vanity appears most often in the novel in the form of excessive love of one's self, or narcissism. For example, Amelia, though often portrayed as a selfless victim, is guilty of this trait when she desperately takes whatever she can from her rich and corrupt father-in-law. Vanity is an obsession with ephemeral, inevitably worthless things. This is best illustrated in Dobbin's obsession with Amelia, because even though he is the only character Thackeray does not consider "odious," Dobbin can only have the one thing he has always wanted, besides declaring that it is not worthy of his devotion.
The author flat out tells his readers that this is going to be a novel without a hero. This is indeed an understatement, because most of his main characters behave far less than heroically. There is little selflessness, sacrifice, and courage in Vanity Fair. An example of this can be found in the battle, where George's excitement is framed as reckless abandonment rather than heroism. At the same time, Jos, in an extremely anti-heroic fashion, runs as soon as the violence begins. Sir Pitt, who seems to have heroic potential in his kindness towards Lady Crawley, changes his colors as soon as he comes into his inheritance. Additionally, Dobbin, the character who might be considered the most heroic, asserts himself only at the very end of the novel, only to come running back to what he deemed worthless as soon as she calls on him.
Interestingly, on the original cover of the book there was a character dressed in motley. Despite his comical appearance, he stared with great intensity into a mirror. He held this mirror as if he just picked it up for a moment but then could not put it down. This image tells us that the characters in this novel are not heroes, but they are also not comedians; there is an element of serious tragedy that pervades the work and cannot be found humorous. Thackeray's characters are, in a way, suspended between the comic and the heroic.
Time is an interesting theme because it is partly dependent on the way in which the book was published. Thackeray wrote this novel in a series of installments. He would publish a few chapters at a time, so every few chapters features a suspenseful conclusion that is then resolved in the following chapter. Thackeray relies on this format to keep his readers wanting more.
It makes sense, then, that there are a number of flashbacks in the novel, and that even when the narrator claims he is not going to describe a character's past in order to bring the reader up to speed, he actually does. It was important to keep his readers updated when he was publishing a book in serial format.
There is also the sense in the book that time is suspended. Even though people are moving forward and living their lives, there is a feeling that the same game is being played over and over again. This is the game of social mobility and feigned appearances; one that Thackeray critiques in his novel. It gives the book a sense of morbidity because instead of a chronological progression towards some worthy goal, Thackeray's characters are stuck in an empty, worthless exercise.
Because of the nature of the novel, it is easy to forget how much death there actually is in Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair is an extremely morbid place, but because so many people in the book die so naturally, the reader does not dwell on each passage. The reader focuses instead on Thackeray's humorous jabs at society.
However, death is still one of the author's tools for stressing his moral conclusions. Thackeray writes the book to implicate bourgeois "snobbery," and by letting the burden of death permeate his work he makes his point that much more effective. Death is seen in conjunction with greed and wealth, especially in the case of Aunt Matilda. The author is contrasting Matilda's belongings with the pall of her illness, telling us that while possessions are temporary, death is forever.
Thackeray has a tendency to focus on objects in the book. He calls one of his titles "The Green Silk Purse" in reference to a purse that Becky has been weaving at the Sedley home. Jos Sedley's attire is often described with the greatest detail. Homes are packed with portraits, often portraying falsely the characters in them.
Materialism is a symptom of bourgeois society, and therefore, Thackeray condemns it. This is most obvious because it is a conspicuous characteristic of Jos Sedley, whom the narrator constantly ridicules, often via other characters (his father, Georgy). But materialism afflicts most of the characters, because having a lot of things is a sign of wealth. Even Amelia is obsessed with the piano that Dobbin purchased for her; in this way, we see that things can blind people to the truth, since she is convinced that George is the one who bought it.
Truth vs. Ideal
Thackeray firmly proclaims many times in his work that he is devoted to revealing the truth, even though a true portrait of bourgeois society is not an appealing one. All of Thackeray's characters struggle because they avoid truth. Becky deceives everyone but her schemes eventually turn on her. Amelia refuses to see the truth about George's playboy nature and his infidelity. Dobbin refuses to accept that Amelia does not love him, and he endures years of torment at her side. Rawdon refuses to acknowledge Becky's manipulations.
But it is Thackeray's hope also to make a distinction between the things in life that are worth living for and the things that are ephemeral and do not matter. To this effect, he is constantly critiquing his characters, usually humorously, because they do not live up to his expectations. But are these his expectations? Here we find that there is a bit of thematic conflict, because the author clearly moralizes but does not provide a conclusion or solution that responds to his moral judgments.
Motherhood plays an important role in Vanity Fair. There are good mothers and terrible mothers, doting mothers and altogether absent mothers. It goes without saying that the maternal influence on a person is a great one.
For instance, Becky's mother died when she was young and therefore was not an actor in Becky's life. In turn, Becky basically ignores her son while she plays Vanity Fair's games.
There are many forms of art in Vanity Fair. There are the visual arts, drawing and painting. Becky and Amelia engage in the visual arts, and portraits abound in the homes of the wealthy. There is the art of writing; many letters appear in Vanity Fair. There are the performance arts, including dancing and singing, which play a large role in courtship and attraction.
Becky, in a way, is the "daughter of art", since she was born to a painter and an opera singer. Indeed, it is through art that Becky manipulates others. One might even say that her manipulative practices themselves constitute an art form.
Vanity Fair Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Vanity Fair is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.