Review #38: Vanity Fair

To have or not to have it all; that is the question

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, follows the lives of two young women, one troubled, and the other really troubled. Beyond the interesting history of these woman and their relations, the book claims to get at the heart of what is really wrong with the world.

Amelia Sedley and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp attend school together. Amelia comes from a well-to-do family; Becky, not so much. Financial tragedy soon strikes Amelia’s household, bringing her down to Becky’s level. But Becky has a plan to succeed, and if she needs to take advantage of Amelia’s family, her own upper-class employer, or even peers and royals to do it, so be it.

This is a romance, and in the end, good triumphs over evil. But the book is much more than that simple outcome. As we see Becky lie, cheat, and steal to move up in society, the author repeatedly asks the question: Is it worth it? Are the vanities of life worth anything at all? Do they satisfy? Do they last? For all its questioning of the high life, you might as well be reading the Bible. But here is a moral questions for the ages, packaged in a well-written nineteenth century British entertainment.

This isn’t the only book to ask such questions. Of the half-dozen eighteenth and nineteenth century books in which I placed Vanity Fair for this reading project, all of them mention, at least in passing, the trouble of vanity and its dangerous allures. And it’s not just the individual temptations like those that John Bunyan showed in the original Vanity Fair from his book The Pilgrim’s Progress. These collected authors indicate that vanity lies at the heart of all major problems in European society, from the wants and desires of the lower classes all the way up to the construction of the royal systems that dominated British and Continental leadership of that era.

Could this warning against visiting Vanity Fair be just as relevant today? Of course; people never change. In an election year, media will be filled with just such desires. One side looks to the wealth to be had by business advancement and self-sufficiency; the other side lifts up the power and promise of a bureaucracy that can provide goodies to those who want them. Vanities still abound. But are they worth it?

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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