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ENL 4122
English Novel


Spring 2006
Time: Monday and Wednesday
11:00-12:15 pm


Class 23

Reading Assignment:

Apr. 5 Vanity Fair: Intro - Ch 1- Ch XI (pp - 114) First 3 installments
    Post #11 (Group B)
    Historical Annotation:

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Class Objectives:

  • To introduce Thackeray's popular novel: form and historical context
  • To analyze the character of Becky (opposite Amelia), the importance of marriage
  • To discuss the importance of class and money distinctions

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Notes and Discussion Questions:

1. Vanity Fair, form and historical context

Vanity Fair was published in monthly installments from January 1847 to July 1848. The parts were gathered into a single volume upon completion with about 350 changes. In 1853 the editor brought out a revised edition (the Cheap Edition) omitting illustrations. Our text (see preface, p. x) comes closest to the one volume first edition.

Note the use of "rhetorical style" described in the preface (p. x). How does Thackeray's method of punctuation affect the reading of the story? How does it compare with today's standard punctuation?

Interestingly, Vanity Fair is set in the same decade (1810s) in which Pride and Prejudice is published (1813), but it is published squarely in what we call the Victorian Period. How is Thackeray's representation of history in the novel different from Austen's? What do we learn about English history and society that is absent from Austen's novel? Take for example his representation of political figures (such as Pitt and Bute, but also Napoleon). How does this affect the texture of the story he tells (compared to Austen)? How does he represent London and the fashionable world (Vanity Fair)? How does this compare to earlier novelists? Again, what kind of texture does this give his novel?

The publication of large triple-decker (three volume) novels in monthly installments creates a different physical form for a book. Examine the passages on p. 6 and p. 83 that refer to the act of reading the serial publication. How does the book as a material object figure in the text? Where and how is it read? How does the narrator treat its readers and the expectations that are formed by the publication in parts?

Note the role of illustrations. How do you respond to Thackeray's drawings? What interpretative role do they serve?

The original cover illustration, referred to in detail in the novel on p. 83, contained the subtitle "pen and pencil sketches of English society" with the print of a clown or jester holding forth in Hyde Park. The narrator suggests that the clown is a moralist and he is that clown. How do you understand this interaction between picture and text? What does it suggest about the narrator's role? About the style of the novel? (See page 778 and the excerpt from Joan Stevens' essay on the London skyline in Vanity Fair for an analysis of this picture and passage).

As Stevens points out, the original cover illustration was not reproduced in the one-volume edition A different vignette appeared (see p. xiv in our text) with the new subtitle "A Novel without A Hero." What are the differences between these two cover designs / title pages? What do the differences suggest about the novel in its two different states?

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2. Becky and the Importance of Marriage

Thackeray offers us two female protagonists at the start of Vanity Fair. How is Becky different from Amelia? What is the significance of Becky's throwing Johnson's dictionary out the window of the carriage? How does Amelia treat Becky and why? How are the backgrounds of these two girls different? What is the point of the comparison?

On p. 13 Thackeray describes Becky playing at puppets and entertaining people with her imitation of others. "The girl's sense of ridicule was far stronger than her gratitude." In what sense is Becky a gifted puppeteer? How does this compare with Thackeray's metaphor for himself as a stage manager in the section entitled "Before the Curtain."

Becky unabashedly attempts to get a husband, but she has clear expectations for the person who fills that role. What makes Jos a good candidate but not the country doctor?

On page 19 the narrator says "If Miss Rebecca Sharp had determined in her heart upon making the conquest of this big beau, I don't think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally, and with becoming modesty, intrusted by young persons to their Mammas, recollect that Miss Sharp had no kind parent to arrange these delicate matters for her, and that if she did not get a husband for herself there was no one else in the wide world who would take the trouble off her hands." How does the narrator represent husband-hunting? Are we expected to sympathize with Becky?

What prevents Jos from proposing (each time)? What or who finally ends the deal? Why?

The narrator again mentions the importance of mothers: "All she [Becky] wanted was the proposal, and ah! how Rebecca now felt the want of a mother! -- a dear tender mother who would have managed the business in ten minutes" (53). How serious is Thackeray here? How does this affect the way we respond to Becky? In what sense does this change your impression of Mrs. Bennet?

By the end of this section, what can you expect to happen with the Crawley men with respect to marrying Becky?

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3. Class and Money issues

Note how families rise and fall in Vanity Fair (for example the Sedleys and the Dobbins). What is different about this society (as compared with earlier novels)? How does the fluidity of family fortunes affect the novel? How might it operate as a theme?

Note also that Becky forms her expectations for nobility upon Burney novels: "Sir Pitt is not what we silly girls when we used to read Cecilia at Chiswick, imagined a baronet must have been, anything indeed less like Lord Orville cannot be imagined" (76). (Cecilia is the novel Burney wrote after Evelina.) How does Sir Pitt surprise her? What does the contrast with Burney's representation of nobility suggest about the current (1814) society? About girls that read novels? Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean that Thackeray has so completely separated nobility from refinement and moral superiority in the figure of Sir Pitt Crawley?

Examine Miss Crawley's speech to Becky on equality (pp. 111-2). In what sense is Becky Miss Crawley's equal? What is the significance of pointing out that Miss Crawley nonetheless expects Becky to wait on her?

Why does the narrator correct Becky's narrative of Colonel Rawdon's attentions to her? Why is she reticent? What are we privileged to know?

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4. Ideas for Historical Annotation

Any one of the London landmarks mentioned
Napoleonic wars
Anti-slavery movement in early 19th-century England

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