Vanity Fair By William Makepeace Thackeray Summary and Analysis Chapters 1-4

Summary

Miss Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp prepare to leave Chiswick Mall for Amelia's home. Miss Pinkerton, who runs the academy, autographs a copy of Dr. Johnson's dictionary for Amelia, whose father is rich. The orphaned Becky, having neither money nor position does not rate one.

Miss Pinkerton writes Amelia's mother a stilted and complimentary letter in regard to Amelia, and adds a postscript that Miss Sharp should stay only ten days, as she has a position in a family of distinction. With this tender missive, she includes Amelia's bill.

Miss Jemima, sister of Miss Pinkerton, tries to give Becky a dictionary, but Becky throws it into the garden as the girls' coach drives off. Everyone loves Amelia; no one cares for Becky. Becky's look of hatred and her vindictive smile as she hurls the book horrify Amelia. When Becky wishes that Miss Pinkerton were at the bottom of the Thames, Amelia remonstrates with her. Becky replies that revenge may be wicked, but it's natural.

Miss Pinkerton has taken Becky into the academy and given her free board and lodging, and the chance to learn what she can plus a few guineas a year. In return, Becky is to teach French. When Miss Pinkerton wants Becky to give free piano lessons, Becky defies and refuses. Becky hates Miss Pinkerton, ridicules her, feels no gratitude.

At night when Becky has walked the floor and sobbed, both she and her acquaintances think it is grief for her father, but actually it is resentment at being confined, without position or money. When Miss Pinkerton can stand Becky no longer, she secures a position for her with Sir Pitt Crawley.

Becky finds out that Amelia's brother, Joseph, is not married. She determines to marry him, if possible, and never go on to the Crawleys. Joseph's obesity, emphasized by his loud and sporty clothes, makes people think of an elephant. His shyness stymies his ambition to be a lady-killer. With affected dignity he extends two fingers for his sister to shake.

Becky makes an impression, saying aloud how handsome Joseph is, then acting "timid as a fawn," and casting her eyes down and not daring to look at him. Joseph, flushed with embarrassment, pulls the bell rope loose.

Mr. Sedley, an aggressive tease, comes in "rattling his seals like a true British merchant." He goads Joseph into taking Becky down to dinner and urges Becky to eat curry, which is very hot. While her mouth is afire, Joseph asks her if she wants a chili, which she thinks must be cool because of its name. Becky's near strangulation amuses Mr. Sedley and Joseph.

When Joseph absents himself for two or three days, Becky endears herself to the Sedley household. On the night Amelia, Becky, George Osborne, and Joseph plan to go to Vauxhall, it rains. They stay home, visit, sing, and reminisce. Joseph tells Rebecca stories about India and almost proposes to her; but food is served, and appetite and slumber come before the passion of love with Joseph, the Collector of Boggley Wollab. The next day when Joseph brings flowers, Becky gets him to hold her knitting yarn for her.

Analysis

The social strata and the situation in Vanity Fair are made clear. Miss Pinkerton, a snob and name-dropper, honors only those who have money and position. Thackeray outlines Becky's background and her position at Miss Pinkerton's, and reveals something of her temperament when she routs the old lady by speaking to her in French and by refusing to be intimidated. Her triumph over Miss Pinkerton indicates her ability to take care of herself. Thackeray's fine hand at characterization is apparent in this conversation.

Miss Pinkerton says, "I never have seen the individual who has dared in my own house to question my authority. I have nourished a viper in my bosom."

Becky answers, "A viper — a fiddlestick . . . You took me because I was useful . . . Get me a situation — we hate each other and I am ready to go."

On the other hand, here is Rebecca being coy: "Starting back as timid as a fawn. She had previously made a respectful virgin-like curtsy to the gentleman, and her modest eyes gazed so perseveringly on the carpet that it was a wonder how she should have found an opportunity to see him."

The reader gets a view of Joseph — vain, overweight, bashful, and lonely in these ironic lines: "Being an invalid, Joseph Sedley contented himself with a bottle of claret, besides his madeira at dinner, and he managed a couple of plates full of strawberries and cream and twenty-four little rout cakes that were lying neglected in a plate near him."

The author makes particular fun of mothers anxious to marry off their daughters, and pities Becky who has no help in this area. From the first scene of this book, Thackeray begins his revelation and evaluation of the false values of Vanity Fair.

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