Vanity Fair

“Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray is one of those books which I am happy to read again and again, as it feels like a new story on each read. I love the novel’s wicked satirical humour, as well as the countless real-life references and allegories that both allow a glimpse into the gentry/ aristocratic world of Regency England and foreshadow the eventual fates of the characters. It is also refreshing to see “A Novel without a Hero” (the subtitle of the book), as the story feels much more realistic with characters who are flawed in various ways and in varying degrees.

Plot Overview

Set in an environment where the ultimate aim in life is the pursuit of wealth and position, the novel follows the lives of 2 women, who are set up as the binary opposite of each other. In the beginning, Rebecca is a poor orphan, who is born to Bohemian parents and has to support herself by becoming a governess to the blue-blooded Crawley family. Dissatisfied with her limited prospects, Rebecca was determined to use her charms and wit to improve her situation. Amelia Sedley starts out as a veritable “angel in the house”: good-natured, domestic, passive and naïve. With the support of her well-off parents and an engagement to her childhood sweetheart, the handsome and charming George Osborne, whom Amelia is deeply in love with, Amelia seems to be settled for life.

Rebecca marries Rawdon Crawley, in the hopes that his aunt will leave her fortune to him, her favourite relative. However, contrary to the aunt’s self-professed liberal ideals and love for “imprudent matches”, she was furious at the discrepancy in their ranks and instead left most of her money to Rawdon’s elder brother, Pitt Crawley. Undaunted, Rebecca slowly climbs up the social hierarchy by leveraging on her husband’s family name, living beyond their income but convincing creditors that their debts will be paid, helping Rawdon to cheat men at gambling and attracting the attentions of rich and powerful men.

All of these came to a screeching halt when Rawdon discovers Rebecca apparently committing adultery with Lord Steyne, a well-known reprobate. Rawdon refuses to see Rebecca again and takes a post in Coventry Island (ironically, Lord Steyne obtained it for him before the abovementioned debacle took place), where he eventually dies of yellow fever. With her reputation in tatters and without the Crawley name to protect her from creditors, Rebecca fled to Continental Europe, abandoning her son to the care of his Crawley relatives.

Amelia’s engagement to George clearly shows the reader how selfish he is, from the limited attention which he gave her, his indifference to her love letters and him using money that was meant for Amelia’s present to buy jewellery for himself. Things become worse when Amelia’s father became bankrupt: George’s father, a snobbish merchant, demanded that George break off the engagement to marry a mixed-race heiress, in order to rise from his middle-class background. Persuaded by his best friend, William Dobbin (a simple and honourable man who was secretly in love with Amelia), George married Amelia anyways, angering his father who disinherited him.

After George dies in combat, Amelia lives in genteel poverty with her fiscally irresponsible father and her self-pitying mother, while perpetually mourning for George. While Amelia doted on her son, she gives him up to his paternal grandfather’s care to ensure that he was well provided for. Although Amelia tries to stretch her income, she fails at every attempt. Amelia was only restored to a “respectable” position when William and her brother Joseph Sedley (a rich civil servant) returned from India.

A few years later, while the Sedleys and William were travelling on the Continent, they unexpectedly met up with Rebecca, who was reduced to gambling at casinos and giving music lessons for her living. After Rebecca shows Amelia a note written by George stating that he wanted to run away with the former merely a few months after his marriage, Amelia realised that her husband was not worthy of her love and was convinced to accept the affections of the long-devoted William.

Rebecca finally managed to ensnare Joseph, which she failed to do at the start of the book. After Rebecca makes herself the main beneficiary of his life insurance policy, Joseph dies in mysterious circumstances, which suggests that Rebecca contributed to his death. With Joseph’s money and financial support from her long estranged son (now a baronet after his uncle Pitt and his cousin dies), Rebecca ends up living as a seemingly charitable and respectable woman in Bath.

Vanity Fair: Fashion-ified

“Vanity Fair” symbolises a social setting where social-climbers forever attempt to outdo each other by accumulating as much material gains as possible, as well as an opportunistic mind-set dominated by the dogged pursuit of money and power. In particular, in an era where women had minimal means of supporting themselves, the concept of marriage being the sole means of financial security was well explored (e.g. Rebecca’s hunt for a husband as soon as she left school; Rose Dawson, a working class girl who became a baronet’s 2nd wife and died loveless and friendless; the unmarriageable plight of Bute Crawley’s plain and poor daughters).

In this layout, I have piled on gold and jewelled accents to represent the main tenets of Vanity Fair. Contrasted with a innocuous-looking white gown (I thought it was a nice touch that it has an Empire waistline reminiscent to Regency era dresses) and a headband with “orange blossoms” (stated in the book as representing bridal purity, even when the marriage in question was a purely “pragmatic” May-December relationship), it highlights how the institution of marriage is turned into a farce by mercenary concerns.

Vanity Fair: Fashion-ified

Ambiguity and Secrets

In the shadowy world of “Vanity Fair”, mysteries and duplicitous behaviour are everywhere. In fact, they are the main drivers of many of the pivotal moments of the books. Rebecca fabricating her ancestry to gain acceptance by the Crawleys; Rebecca lying to Lord Steyne to wheedle more money out of him; Pitt manoeuvring to get rid of other competitors for his aunt’s fortune; Amelia finding out that her piano was a gift from William, and not George, after 18 years, and the list goes on.

Thackeray was curiously coy as to whether Rebecca did actually commit her 2 greatest sins: (1) committing adultery with Lord Steyne and (2) murdering Joseph. Like a good court case, the concrete evidence presented can really go either way, depending on what the reader thought about Rebecca’s character. Thackeray was also ambiguous about giving his characters the endings, which they morally “deserved”. Seemingly “bad” characters like Rebecca, seem to end up just as comfortable, if not better, than “good” characters like William (he himself eventually admitted that the insipid and weak-willed Amelia was not worth his devotion and gradually fell out of love with her after their marriage).

To evoke the hazy, convoluted, enigmatic and surprising world of “Vanity Fair”, I have used shapeless forms, shades of gray, unexpected details and finally, the clichéd anonymous big hat and sunglasses.

Vanity Fair: Ambiguity and Secrets

The Gentleman

For a book where both its protagonists are female, “Vanity Fair” spends a surprising amount of time discussing the idea of what being a gentleman entails. Although Thackeray concluded that William is the only true gentleman in Vanity Fair due to his honest and principled character (the “internal” aspect), it can be said that the other main male characters represent other parts of what being a gentleman means. Rawdon Crawley represents the “traditional” concept of what a gentleman is, by virtue of his aristocratic blood and all the respect, which it naturally entails; George Osborne represents its “external” facet through his (excessive) pride in his personal appearance.

This outfit combines the classic elements of menswear (fedora, tailored vest, blazer, bow tie, peter pan collar, satchel bag) to symbolise the “traditional” idea of what a gentleman looks like, with the flamboyant details (bright colours, clashing stripes and polka dots, oxford heels) that reflect the aesthetics of a fashionable man-about-town.

Vanity Fair: The Gentleman
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DEBUT: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I chose to cover “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (TPoDG) by Oscar Wilde in my debut post as, despite all its flaws, it has left a deep impression on me. There are perhaps other books with more fully fleshed characters, more exciting plotlines, or more subtle messages and themes. Heck, I even feel that Wilde’s signature style of bitingly witty epigrams and ironic statements work far better in his plays, rather than this novel. But somehow reading TPoDG was an oddly intimate experience, as though Wilde was simultaneously baring his soul for the world to see and expounding on how the theory of Aestheticism might play out in practise.

Plot Overview

At the start of the novel, Dorian Gray was young, beautiful, rich. And innocent. Basil Hallward, an honest and conventional painter and Dorian’s friend, worshipped Dorian for the vitality, which he gave to his art, and the goodness, which Dorian seems to represent. Lord Henry Wotton, Basil’s friend, came to know Dorian and introduced him to ideas that the power of youth and beauty, as well as the pursuit of pleasure and sensual experiences/ the “new Hedonism” should be the highest goal in one’s life. Disillusioned at the thought that his most important characteristics are his fleeting youth and beauty, Dorian hastily made a wish that a portrait of him painted by Basil would bear all the burdens of age and sin while he himself remained as he was in the bloom of youth.

Somehow, someway, Dorian got his wish: the portrait became a living allegory of the state of his soul: it grew old and ugly in his place. The first wickedness, which it had to bear, was Dorian breaking off his engagement with an actress, Sybil Vane, who lost her acting talent after she fell in love with him, thus driving Sybil to commit suicide. Although Dorian was initially conscience-stricken, he quickly got over it with Lord Henry’s encouragement to see the suicide as merely a romantic and artistic ideal.

Lord Henry then gave Dorian a “yellow book”, which guided Dorian in the pursuit of decadence and debauchery. Over the years, Dorian underwent a rapid moral descent with all his secret (and not-so-secret) vices: opium addiction, ruining many of his friends’ reputations, murdering Basil, blackmailing one of his old friends etc. Yet, as there is no concrete evidence against Dorian, he continued to be welcomed by polite society by virtue of his remaining young, beautiful, rich. And seemingly innocent.

Towards the end of the novel, Dorian became increasingly neurotic about his wrongful acts being discovered. To offset them and make the portrait of himself beautiful again, Dorian tried acting good by not seducing a peasant girl who fell in love with him. But there was no change in the portrait, except that it took on a hypocritical expression. In a last ditch attempt to save himself (or the painting?), Dorian used a knife to stab the painting. Alas, Dorian and the painting were one and the same and he ended up killing himself. What’s more, in his death, his corpse looked aged and hideous, while his portrait regained its unblemished looks.

 

Good VS Evil

The age-old battle between good and evil is the overarching theme in the book. Not only does it take place within Dorian’s own conscience over his lifetime, it is also clear from his friends’ influence: Lord Henry played the Devil’s Advocate while Basil was on the side of the Saints. Yet was it so clear-cut? Dorian took Lord Henry’s idea of the “new Hedonism” to heart and became increasingly corrupt over the years. However, the fact that Dorian so readily adopted Lord Henry’s stance suggests that perhaps they are subconsciously Dorian’s real thoughts and that he was never truly innocent. Moreover, as Lord Henry’s role was generally passive after he first mentioned his concepts to Dorian/ gave him the book and Lord Henry did not seem to have committed as many wrongs as Dorian did, it seems that Dorian’s moral decline was inevitable anyways.

I have blended together gray, black and white shades to suggest the fluid state of Dorian’s morality. To highlight the diametrically opposite roles, which Lord Henry and Basil have played in Dorian’s life, I used winged and studded accessories to represent the former and soft ethereal details to symbolise the latter.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Good VS Evil

 

 

Paradoxes

Paradoxes are a huge part of both the characters and the plot. An example would be, as Basil puts it in not so many words, Lord Henry only talks superficially of the daringness of the “new Hedonism” at dining tables and cynically dismisses conservative moral norms, but never puts his supposed ideals into practise by giving up his conventional lifestyle as a fashionable man-about-town.

Another example would be the moralistic contents of the 2 main works of art in the novel: the painting reflects the dissipation of Dorian while the yellow book leads him to further degeneration. Despite Wilde’s support of the Aestheticism/ Decadence movements which believes that art has no purpose other than to be beautiful, these works of art seem to be more in line with the wider Victorian beliefs that art is morally instructive and arguably serves as a cautionary tale against the overzealous quest of aestheticism itself.

To bring out the essence of paradoxes, I have juxtaposed elements that are suitable for different occasions and weather conditions in the same ensemble. It cannot be conceivably be worn anywhere but simply creates new associations between familiar elements.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Paradoxes