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Sharpe and Fair
on 15 May 2007
Greed, gold-digging and deception sit at the heart of "Vanity Fair." It's no joke that it's subtitled "a novel without a hero" -- William Makepeace Thackeray mercilessly skewered the pretentions and flaws of the upper class all throughout it. The result is a gloriously witty social satire.
It opens with two young women departing from a ladies' academy: dull, sweet Amelia (rich) and fiery sharp-witted Rebecca (poor). Becky Sharp is a relentless social climber, and her first effort to rise "above her station" is by trying to get Amelia's brother to marry her -- an effort thwarted by Amelia's fiancee. So instead she gets married to another family's second son, Rawdon Crawley.
Unfortunately, both young couples quickly get disinherited and George is killed. But Becky is determined to live the good life she has worked and married for -- she obtains jewels and money from admiring gentlemen, disrupting her marriage. But a little thing like a tarnished reputation isn't enough to keep Becky down...
"Vanity Fair" is actually a lot more complex than that, with dozens of little subplots and complicated character relationships. Reading it a few times is necessary to really absorb all of it, since it is not just a look at the two women in the middle of the book, but at the upper (and sometimes lower) social strata of the nineteenth century.
The main flaw of the book is perhaps that it sprawls too much -- there's always a lot of stuff going on, not to mention a huge cast of characters, and Thackeray sometimes drops the ball when it comes to the supporting characters and their little plots. It takes a lot of patience to absorb all of this. However... it's worth it.
Like most nineteenth-century writers, Thackeray had a very dense, formal writing style -- but once you get used to it, his writing becomes insanely funny. Witticisms and quips litter the pages, even if you don't pick them all up at once. At first Thackeray seems incredibly cynical (Becky's little schemes almost always pay off), but taken as a social satire, it's easier to understand why he was so cynical about the society of the time.
Becky Sharp is the quintessential anti-heroine -- she's very greedy and cold, yet she's also so smart and determined that it's hard not to have a grudging liking for her, no matter what she does. Certainly life hasn't been fair for her. Next to Becky, a goody-goody character like Amelia is pretty boring, and even the unsubtle George can't measure up to Becky.
To sum up "Vanity Fair": think a period soap opera with a heavy dose of social commentary. In other words, it doesn't get much better than this, Thackeray's masterpiece.