“If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine”: Becky Sharp as the Feminine Analogue to the Masculine Heroic Ideal in Vanity Fair
My background: In September, I began coursework for my MA in English, which meant a lot less recreational reading and analysis and a lot more required reading and analysis. That is, I suppose, what I signed up for. My course on the Victorian novel required numerous mini-responses to the books we were reading, so I’ve saved up a whole folder full of brief analytical writing that I suppose it’s now appropriate to share.
Vanity Fair was, I believe, the first text we read in the course, which means I still liked Victorian literature at this point. (Just kidding–I’m still fine with Victorian novels, but reading six or seven over the course of a semester is exhausting. I probably won’t pick up another for quite a while.) In addition to our short weekly responses, we were also required to write one longer 4-5 page response during the semester on whatever topic we’d like and present it to the class. When I readVanity Fair, I became enamored with the semantics of Thackeray’s idea of “a hero” and what that meant in the context of masculinity/femininity within the novel. This 4-page essay eventually evolved into my final seminar paper (a 25-page monster I will spare you from reading).
In his article regarding the techniques of realism in the Victorian novel, George Levine notes: “[e]ach writer, however sophisticated, writes as though the enterprise of the ordinary in fiction were new and difficult, and that … the audience had to be warned and cajoled about it” (17), and Thackeray is no exception to this rule. Throughout Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s narrator writes with a self-aware, self-mocking, comedic voice that exhibits “sentimentality and … morality [which] merge in commentary on the fact; but they do not alter the fact” (Levine 157). Yet in Vanity Fair, the narrator does not merely address his general readers; often, his commentary is specifically directed at his female audience. For example, regarding Rebecca Sharp’s desire to find a husband for herself, the narrator writes, “I don’t think, ladies, we have any reason to blame her” (21). By pausing to acknowledge his female audience, Thackeray’s narrator not only becomes intrusive, but specifically delivers a message to his female readers. But if the narrative commentary cannot alter the facts of the text, what effect does it have? And what is the meaning of this message?
The answer to these questions ties closely with the unclear subtitle of Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. At first, we assume the title to mean that the novel is simply devoid of characters with heroic qualities, which would meet with Levine’s idea that Thackeray subscribes to “the realist tradition of the unheroic hero” (156). This idea is confirmed as we are introduced to Amelia within the first few pages, who is described as a “dear little creature … so guileless and good-natured a person” and, in the narrator’s mind, is the exact opposite of a villain (6). However, he immediately follows this description with the phrase, “As she is not a heroine” (6), and reiterates it later (114), destroying any heroic image of Amelia we have begun to conjure. We are left to accept the title’s assertion, then, that this novel will have no hero, for if someone as good as Amelia could not be heroic, then it is impossible anyone else could serve as a hero in this story.
However, our idea of heroism shifts as the focus of the novel moves from Amelia to Rebecca. Levine explains, “In his treatment of heroes, Thackeray makes evident how the realist apotheosis of character can have moved to the destabilizing of character” (157), and with Rebecca, we see anything but a stable, fixed, stereotypical character. We are presented with a woman who, in the absence of her parents, is forced to forge her own pathway through life, including the task of finding her own husband, for “if she did not get a husband for herself, there was no one else in the wide world who could take the trouble off her hands” (21). The narrator continues to paint Rebecca as “a young person of no ordinary cleverness” (23), who “never blushed in her life” (28): an “artful designing woman” (246) with “superior knowledge” (245)—but these descriptors mean nothing until they are placed within the context of Amelia. Amelia, who is repeatedly called an “angel” (177) by both narrator and characters, is also criticized for being “too modest, too tender, too trustful, too weak, too much woman” (171). By describing her as an “angel,” the narrator posits Amelia as an ideal, but readily notes her flaws—all of which he ties together under the category of womanhood. In doing so, his descriptions of Rebecca are cast in a new light. Because she is clever and scheming, yet not truly modest, tender, trustful, or weak as the “womanly” Amelia is, we suddenly see Rebecca as unfeminine, and thus, the opposite of the ideal.
Yet if Amelia is the ideal, and Rebecca exists as her opposite, it seems that the text must, to some extent, portray Rebecca as a sort of villain. However, through his constant moralizing to the female readers of his text, the narrator reminds the reader that Rebecca’s traits, while perhaps unfeminine, are not negative qualities. Rebecca never gives her heart away, while meanwhile the narrator advises to his female readership, “Be shy of loving frankly; never tell all you feel, or (a better way still) feel very little” (174). Rebecca knows how to successfully lure a man to her, but the narrator must explain to his female readers, “When men of a certain sort, ladies, are in love, though they see the hook in the string, and the whole apparatus with which they are to be taken, they gorge the bait nevertheless … and are presently struck and landed gasping” (133). Rebecca is aware of these techniques and these lessons on her own, and although the narrator fears that female readers may hate her for it, he does note: “I am tempted to think that to be despised by her sex is a very great compliment to a woman” (108). Additionally, he writes: “A woman with fair opportunities … may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did” (27). But these persuasive statements all support the fact that in Vanity Fair, as George Levine points out, “the narrator is a gesture at community, a means of constructing self by invoking, even in the hopeless and untouchable separateness of other isolations, a community of private feelings” (149). It is in this way that the narrator serves as Rebecca’s champion to his readers, applauding her agency and depicting her as the antithesis of a woman. She knows what she wants and is able to capture it, which makes her, in his eyes, incredibly powerful—even stronger than a man.
It comes as only a slight surprise, then, when the idea of heroism comes back into the novel, and is not mentioned lightly as in the phrase “our heroine” (89) or in the context of “the heroine of romance” (111). After Rawdon Crawley leaves Rebecca to fend for herself, Rebecca “wisely determined not to give way to unavailing sentimentality on her husband’s departure” (288). Instead, she sets her affairs in order, calculates the sum of her riches, and finds that “[s]hould the worst befall, all things considered, she was pretty well-to-do” (288). It is after this that the narrator boldly declares, “If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine. No man in the British army which has marched away, not the great duke himself, could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties, than the indomitable little aide de camp’s wife” (289). It is at this point that we see the narrator’s portrait of heroism complete. To the narrator, the realm of heroes is populated by soldiers, by people who are “cool and collected” when faced with challenges, by people who are “indomitable”—but, more specifically, by men. But, as we have noted, Rebecca lacks most of the qualities that the narrator associates with women, thus likening her to a man, and enabling her to become what was impossible for Amelia: a heroine.
The subtitle of the novel takes on new meaning in this single sentence, and our entire idea of a novel without a hero is reformed to the concept of a novel with aheroine—but in addition to this, the concept of heroism is rewritten in a way that makes it clear that, at least in Vanity Fair, the only way a woman can be a hero is to take on characteristics primarily present in men. It is Rebecca’s agency, her boldness, her strength, and her intelligence that enable her to assume the title of heroine in this novel, and as the narrator repeatedly implies through his characterizations of both men and women, these qualities are inherently masculine. Thus, instead of inventing a male character who exists as the ideal masculine hero, Thackeray has created Rebecca, a woman who, by means of her lack of ideal feminine qualities is an imperfect female, but by the addition of her masculine qualities, can exist as a heroine in the world of Vanity Fair.