Summary and Analysis
Thackeray begins this installment with a discourse on how all the doors of fashion now open for Becky and how vain it all is. He lists the important people and places she visits. Becky continues to charm people; the women try to snub Becky but she bests them.
Vanity Fair wonders where Becky gets money to entertain. Some say she begs; some say she levies it. The author says, "The truth is that by economy and good management — by a sparing use of ready money and by paying scarcely anybody — people can manage, for a time at least, to make a great show with very little means."
Charades are popular at this time and Becky urges Lord Steyne to present some. She outshines all the other women in the character of Clytemnestra, and at supper sits with the royal personage in attendance. Becky's triumphs alarm Rawdon; they seem to separate her from him. On the way home from the charade party, Rawdon is arrested by two bailiffs and taken to jail for debts.
A flashback now shows the reader that Lord Steyne has insisted on sending little Rawdon away to a special school. His father has grieved at his departure, but his mother has wanted to be rid of him. Little Rawdon gets on well at school. As Lord Steyne's protege, Sir Pitt's nephew, and the son of a colonel, he has both position and money.
Steyne next has proposed to get rid of Briggs. Failing in this, he has suspected that the money he has given Becky to pay Briggs has been used for something else. He has questioned Briggs and confirmed his suspicions. He has solved the Briggs problem by giving her a position at Gauntly Hall. Becky has attributed her failure in paying Briggs to Rawdon's demands that he have the money himself, telling his wife that he would pay Briggs.
Rawdon, delighted that Briggs has security, has begun to feel uneasy over Becky. Lady Jane and Sir Pitt have protested that Becky shouldn't be allowed to go about without a companion. They have urged Rawdon to go with her. Becky's failure to pay attention to Sir Pitt's remonstrances has resulted in strained relations between the two families. Rawdon has become Becky's watchdog, and her charm has lulled his suspicion.
Now the reader returns to Rawdon, who is not too depressed by his situation. He has been locked up before. But when time passes, and he does not get a reply from his letter to Becky, he wonders. When he finally receives word that Becky will get money from Lord Steyne, all his suspicions return. He writes a note addressed to Sir Pitt or Lady Jane imploring assistance. Lady Jane comes within an hour. Rawdon's violent appreciation startles Lady Jane, and she goes home to pray for him.
Rawdon hurries home and finds Lord Steyne and Becky together. Rawdon strikes Lord Steyne, throws a diamond pin at him, which cuts him on the forehead, leaving a permanent scar. Becky pleads innocence, but Lord Steyne thinks the two of them have laid a trap and he condemns Becky. Taking Becky's keys, Rawdon ransacks her possessions and discovers her secret hoard. Becky admits the thousand pound note has come from Lord Steyne. Rawdon determines to return it, and to pay off creditors with the other money. Even while Becky protests her innocence, Rawdon leaves her. The French maid comes in, comforts Becky, puts her to bed, and gathers up the jewels.
Of Becky's rise and fall, Thackeray says it has all happened before and will again. But he admits there are advantages in Vanity Fair: "What well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast beef?" It is vanity but one should enjoy it. Thackeray says Becky's brief triumph should be enjoyed because it is brief. "Glory like this is said to be fugitive."
Becky, at the height of her ambition, plays the part of Clytemnestra, a symbolic choice, for she has been having an affair with Lord Steyne, even as Clytemnestra had with Aegisthus. Becky would sacrifice Rawdon as quickly as Clytemnestra did Agamemnon. The role of the nightingale contrasts to that of murderess. Thackeray has again shown both the dark and the light of human nature, for Becky fills both roles.
Thackeray describes the portals of society as being guarded by "grooms of the chamber with flaming silver forks with which they prong all those who have not the right of the entrée . . . the honest newspaper-fellow who sits in the hall . . . dies after a little time. He can't survive the glare of fashion long. It scorches him up, as the presence of Jupiter in full dress wasted that poor imprudent Semele — a giddy moth of a creature who ruined herself by venturing out of her natural atmosphere." Semele, a mortal beloved of Jupiter, was induced by Juno, Jupiter's wife, to ask Jupiter to approach her as he did Juno — with full majesty. The splendor burned Semele up. Thackeray is suggesting that Becky is in the same position.
Thackeray comments on society: ". . . all the delights of life, I say, — would go to the deuce, if people did but act upon their silly principles, and avoid those whom they dislike and abuse."
Becky's catastrophe comes about through Lord Steyne's getting Briggs and little Rawdon out of the house, causing Rawdon to take over as watchdog. If Becky had let Rawdon have the money to bail himself out, he would not have been suspicious. If Rawdon hadn't formed a friendship for Lady Jane, she wouldn't have rescued him. If Rawdon had been less a man, Becky could have kept her treasures. If Becky hadn't implicated Rawdon in her failure to pay Briggs, Steyne might have backed up her protestations of innocence. But Steyne had had too much experience in Vanity Fair.
In the space of forty-eight hours Becky has reached the height of society and fallen into its depths. The title of Chapter 52 is ironic: "In Which Lord Steyne Shows Himself in a Most Amiable Light." He provides for little Rawdon's education and Briggs' future, but his motives are not philanthropic.
Becky shows her femininity by liking Rawdon better when he bosses her and insists on obedience. However, the desire for wealth makes Lord Steyne imperative to her interests, and she has to get rid of Rawdon one way or another — while she caters to Lord Steyne. When Rawdon realizes that Becky has betrayed him, he wishes to be a better person. Becky thinks only of what she has lost — her status in Vanity Fair.