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Vanity Fair is the masterpiece of Thackeray, a critical realism writer in the 19th century in Great Britain. By describing two typical female images with completely different characters and fates, it reveals the moral crisis and corruption of British upper society and then criticizes the money-orientated concept of capitalist society. Most people hold a negative attitude towards the female images in Vanity Fair and they generally consider that Rebecca Sharp is selfish greedy and hypocritical and Amelia is cowardly, stubborn, and weak-minded. However, this paper thinks these two females both have the feminism features, such as independence, wisdom, and braveness, and believes Thackeray actually sympathized and praised these two women rather than criticized them.
This paper mainly analyzes the two female images in Vanity Fair from the perspective of feminism based on the author’s thought development of feminism. Through Thackeray’s vivid description of the two females in a male-oriented society, we can see the author’s attitude towards the two women coincides with Beauvoir’s feminist theories.
Key words female image; feminism; male-oriented society; praise
This part makes a brief introduction to the author Thackeray, his novel Vanity Fair, and feminism, and introduces the heroines in the novel Vanity Fair from the perspective of feminism. Compared with other literature reviews, this paper has a different idea.
1.1 Thackeray’ s life and his “Vanity Fair”
Thackeray(1811-1863) was an representative of critical realism in the 19th century England. He was born in India in the family of an English official. In his early life, Thackeray wrote all kinds of articles, mainly short pieces for journals and relatively slim books. Up to 1847, a series of his satirical sketches were collected in The Book of Snobs. But it was not until the publication of Vanity Fair that the world recognized the appearance of a new novelist of the first rank.
Vanity Fair as Thackeray’s masterpiece gives a comprehensive view of English society in the early 19th century. By the title which is derived from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress meaning “a fair, wherein are sold all sorts vanity”, the author intended to paint a vivid picture of the egoistic, hypocritical and money-grabbing world of his age. The subtitle of the book is “A Novel without a Hero”. From this it can possibly mean firstly that there are no exactly positive characters in a world full of bad and faulty people. Secondly it may imply that this is a novel about women instead of men. Although the subtitle may mean that there is no real hero in the novel, Rebecca and Amelia can be the real heroines of the novel in a way.
1.2 Feminism and the purpose of this paper
“In a simple way, feminism is a belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, and a movement organized around the conviction that biological sex should not be the pre-determinant factor shaping a person's social identity or socio-political or economic rights. Many feminists are especially concerned with social, political and economic inequalities between the sexes which favour men at women's expense; some have also argued that gendered and sexed identities, such as man and woman, are socially constructed. Feminists may disagree over the sources of inequality, how to attain equality, and the extent to which gender and gender-based identities should be questioned and critiqued; some of this disagreement may stem from continuing pressure to conform to masculine norms”.
The goal of feminist history is to explore and illuminate the female viewpoint of history through the rediscovery of female writers, artists, philosophers, etc, in order to recover and demonstrate the significance of women's voices and choices in the past. Two particular problems which feminist history attempts to address are the exclusion of women from the historical and philosophical tradition, and the negative characterization of women or the feminine in it; however, feminist history is not solely concerned with issues of gender per se, but rather with the reinterpretation of history in a more holistic and balanced manner.
This thesis is to discuss the two main female characters’ images from the feminism perspective, which can make readers know more about the novel and the main themes as well as the social background. What’s more, this thesis can make them know the author’s writing intention. Readers will have a deep understanding of the novel and the characters in the novel. At the same time, these discussions can give some implications for the modern readers and the modern women.
1.3 Literature Review
Since the publication of Vanity Fair, a lot of scholars domestic and overseas have studied it from different viewing angles such as the heroines’ characteristics and reflected realistic problems.
The research of Vanity Fair in China booms in recent years but most of them are scanty in depth or extension. Most researchers agree that the main characters in the book are lifelike. Some researchers focus on special characters to explore the humanity of the Victorian Age. The life of the heroines is a metaphor of human being’s desire.
The research of the foreign critics mainly divides into several aspects. Some critics consider that Thackeray is a sentimental novelist. These researchers consider that Vanity Fair is the strong support to the view that Thackeray is a cynic in heart and soul. Other researchers regard Vanity Fair as a realistic novel. In this novel, Thackeray has portrayed the living manners of his own age and they bear a true and deep resemblance to their prototypes of the 18th century. In addition, some researchers take Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as a master piece of satire. Gao (2002) surveys the position and role of women in a money-oriented and status-conscious male world. Wu (2003) exposes situation of corrupted and hypocritical society which advocates the Victorian Virtues of marriage and family. Charlotte commented “The more I read Thackeray’s works the more certain I am that he stands alone-alone in his sagacity, alone in his truth, alone in his feeling … Thackeray is a Titan”.
Critics shift their attention to almost every aspect of the novel as time goes on. Some are by the ethnical content; some are interested in the polysemy of the theme; some try to interpret the major characters; some pay attention to its psychological dimensions. This research mainly discusses the heroines’ vanity and snobbishness and its reflection in real society, with a purpose to make readers better understand the theme of the novel and thought of the author.
Taking these literatures as reference, this paper decide to discuss the heroines’ feminism characteristics in realistic society and their feminism female images from their different characters and their behaviors. By discussing the topic, this paper aims to find out the theme of the novel and thought of the author on women.
2. The Sources of Thackeray’s Feminism
According to a lot of literature about Thackeray, we can easily discover that his feminism can be traced back to the social circumstances and his family life in Thackeray’s day.
2.1 The social sources
In the author’s living time, Ancient Great Britain, after experiencing the 17th century’s bourgeois revolution and 18th century’s industrial revolution, until 19th century, finally finished the primitive accumulation of capital based on the large scale colonial plunder. At that moment, the British commerce was prosperous and the monopoly position of British industry was more stable than before. In that time, with the fast development of the science and technology, people’s ideology and faith changed a lot. Females began to realize their poor living situation, and the discrimination against them, and they decided to struggle for themselves. The Feminist movement emerged around the late 19th century with the beginnings of the first wave of feminism. The first wave refers to the feminism movement of the 19th through early 20th centuries, which dealt mainly with the Suffrage movement. It was an outgrowth of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, in which women fighting for the rights of Blacks in the United States realized that they themselves lacked some of the rights they were fighting for others.
As a critical realism writer, Thackeray witnessed a corrupted, hypocritical and mammonish Victorian society. In a money-oriented and status-conscious male world, women underwent a pathetic society that was full of prejudice.
From these it can be seen that the social background and the development of feminism in Thackeray’s time, which poses effect on his writing in this novel Vanity Fair and the creations of the females characters. Thackeray wanted to write something to wake up more women, and advocate them to stand up to fight and live in a new life.
2.2 His family sources
To a large degree, Thackeray’s feminism thought derived from his family, his mother, wife, and his daughters. Melville says, “Thackeray had a nature of almost womanly softness”.
At the age of four, Thackeray’s father died. From that moment on, his mother became his only spiritual support in his early life. Unfortunately, later he had to separate with his mother when he was sent to England to study. In England, Thackeray led a terrible and lonely life because of his unhappy and cruel educational experience. He expressed, “I remember kneeling by my little bed a night, and saying, ‘Pray God, I may dream of my mother’” Thackeray’s mother described when she reunited with her child, “dear soul he has a perfect recollection of me he could not speak but kissed me and looked at me again and again”. His early childhood experience made a contribution to his ideal of women which could be found in his books.
In 1835, a girl Isabella Shawe whom he later married came into Thackeray’s life. The time he fell in love with her, she was 18 years old. Isabella Shawe was an innocent and childish girl which was just the reason why Thackeray loved her. However, it was proved to be a sad marriage for the author. His wife got mental illness and had never been normal at until the end of her life. what he treasured most then had turn into an enduring pain in his life. His second emotional support collapsed forever.
In Thackeray’s later years, his spiritual support was his daughters. The time with his daughters was the happiest time. The love for his girls sustained his spirit. He made every effort to make his daughters live happily. In the rest of his life, he had never separated with them. “Thackeray’s affection for his daughters was one of the most touching things about him” .
Besides, Thackeray had a number of female acquaintances. His need for this kind of companionship could be understood through the analysis of his reliance on his mother. “I can’t live without the tenderness of some women” , he wrote to Mrs. Brookfield. In his many letters, we can find his need for the female companionship easily.
In a word, Thackeray’s close relationship can be seen in his letters and the other books about him. These women and their ideas had a great influence on Thackeray’s thought.. He showed great concern and sympathy for women in his life or his works because of his miserable life. That is the reason why we call him a feminist in some degree. In Vanity Fair, he showed pity and respect to these two women.
3. A Feminist Analysis of Amelia and Rebecca
In this novel, these two female characters Amelia and Rebecca have the different characters and the author also has the different description on them since they are both the heroines of this novel. in common, they have the feminist features and virtues.
3.1 Amelia as a heroine
Amelia is the heroine of this novel. She has many traditional virtues. Her pure and warm-hearted nature, unswerving and faithful belief, and her courageous and decisive spirit make a good impression on readers.
3.1.1 A warm-hearted and pure Amelia
Amelia is a mild, kind-hearted lady. Besides, she is an innocent girl without any evil tricks in the traditional society.
She lives a rich and happy life where she has the chance to receive a good education and grow up healthily and happily. Since childhood, she is treated with all courtesy and mother’s intensive care which shapes her with the characters of gentility and kindness. From “… cry over a dead canary-bird; or over a mouse”, it can be easily seen that Amelia is good-natured with a great mercy since that she will cry for a dead creature such as a mouse. Amelia’s parents Mr. Sedly and Mrs. Sedly are very kind people, especially Mr. Sedly. He is kind to Miss Sharp though she is only a poor and ordinary governess from the lower class in the hierarchical society. And Joseph, Amelia’s brother is dull and silly, but he is a friendly man to others. After all, in this family, there is no acrid or evil person. Thus the harmonious family environment makes a significant contribution to Amelia’s personality and her nature.
We can find a lot of evidence which prove Amelia is certainly a warm-hearted girl. For example, in the first scene of this novel, everyone from the head-teacher to the students sees Amelia off and presents many gifts to Amelia in the iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies on Chiswick Mall. Because in the daily life, Amelia is kind to everyone, therefore everyone likes this angel-like girl. Compared with Beckey, Amelia has better relationships with others. And when Rebecca lives in her family, Amelia makes every effort to help Rebecca and regards her as her best girlfriend though she knows that Rebecca is lowborn. Later she also tries to bring Rebecca and her brother Joseph together. Later, when she knows that Rebecca has done many bad things that are harmful to her, she still chooses to forgive her. For all these reason, Amelia is a good and warm- hearted woman.
In addition to that, Amelia is no doubt a pure and innocent person. She is just like a lily blooming in an ugly and vulgar society. The evil tricks never appear in her mind. She considers everybody to be kind-hearted. For example, Amelia couldn’t understand Miss Pinkerton, the head-teacher of her school treats her very well just because her family is rich and Miss Pinkerton could benefit from her. In Amelia’ mind, Rebecca is her good girlfriend. However, Rebecca takes advantage of Amelia’s innocence to achieve her own aim. Although Rebecca has a lot of tricks, she wouldn’t like to hurt Amelia because she realizes Amelia is a good girl. Good mind, good find.
Also Amelia longs for love. George Osborne who comes from a wealthy family is her emotional dependence. She pins her happiness on the love she pursuits. “George was her Europe, her emperor, her allied monarchs and august prince regent … He was her sun and moon … when he came to Russel Square, her face lighted up as if she had been sunshine … As soon as the door was shut, she went fluttering to lieutenant George Osborne’s heart as if it was the only natural home for her to nestle in.” Her love for George is so pure and deep.
As the heroine of this novel, Amelia is endowed with a pure and warm heart. She is the most beautiful angel in this novel.
3.1.2 An unswerving and faithful girl
Amelia is an unswerving and faithful girl, which we could know through her attitude to Rebecca and Amelia.
She sees Rebecca as her lifelong friend from the moment she brings her home. Mrs. Sedly does not like Rebecca because she sees through Rebecca and she figures out that Rebecca is taking advantage of her daughter. Mrs. Sedly shows that she doesn’t want Rebecca staying in their home. It is sure that Amelia understands what her mother worries about. However she does best to put in a good word for Rebecca and tries to bring Rebecca and Joseph together. One time, when Osborne speaks ill of Rebecca and says Rebecca just wants to go into upper society, Amelia defends her girlfriend no matter how deep she loves Osborne. She insists Rebecca is a good person whatever the others say. She trusts and appreciates Rebecca. It seems that she only believes her own eyes.
Amelia loves George Osborne purely and faithfully as always. From the moment she falls in love with him, she never changes her love no matter what happens. However, even George’s father makes her family bankrupt, she still love him. Her love for Mr. Osborne has become an emotional dependence even he died in the war, just as “hanging on … happy and loving … by day and by night, and reigned over it always.” When she is persuaded into another marriage, she refuses even if she understands Dobbin is so nice, sincere and helpful. She persists in widowhood for fifteen years .At last she gets married with Dobbin only after knowing that her husband who she contributes her deep and profound love and uncompromising honesty once decided to elope with Rebecca.
3.1.3 An courageous and decisive Amelia
In this novel, Amelia is always seen as a weak and tame girl by many critics, but actually she is not.
She loves George deeply for over half of her life. But George want to elope with her best friend—Rebecca before his going into the war. She does not know this. After George’s death, she doesn’t choose to remarry a new husband even though Dobbin is passionately devoted to her, she refuses him. Then Amelia persists in widowhood for fifteen years. Fifteen years can never be a short time for a lonely woman with a child. It is really hard to imagine how she can go through the tough time. From this point, we have to admit that Amelia is a brave and courageous girl.
After Rebecca telling Amelia that George ever wanted to elope with her, Amelia suddenly understand everything. That is too cruel for her who has sacrificed everything to love this man. But to our surprise, Amelia snaps out of it quickly and bravely. She realizes that George doesn’t deserve her love at all and Dubbin who loves and takes care of her all the time should be the real one deserved her love. Later, she gets married with Dubbin and lives a happy life since then. Therefore Amelia is not a weak girl.
After the analysis of Amelia, we can find that she is a pure, kind, faithful and courageous woman. The author, Thackeray gives her a perfect ending and let this beautiful angel find her true love and get out of the depression. Inferring from the author’s arrangement, we can easily know that Thackeray’s attitude towards Amelia is positive. He admired Amelia’s courage. In his eyes Amelia is an angel and fighter who has so many virtues, fight for herself, pursue what she want and courageously jumps out of the trap of the traditional concept of love and marriage in an male-oriented society at last.
3.2 Rebecca as a heroine
Becky is another the heroine of this novel who has the virtues and the feminism features such as her independence and her fighting for her own fate, her rebellious as well as her smart female images.
3.2.1 An iron-willed and independent Rebecca
Rebecca Sharp was born in a poor family. Her father was a beaten-up picture teacher, and her mother is a follower of song and dance drama. She lives a very hard life since her childhood, so she dreams of getting rid of predicament and going into the upper class. She suffers poverty, discrimination, inequity, and loneliness.
Rebecca is an iron-willed and independent woman. She wants to break away from the control of patriarchy and change her situation via her own strength. She has a mind to pursue economic independence so that she can achieve social status and realize her value. No matter what disasters happen to her, she always cheers up quickly and appears nothing has happened.
In order to survive in such a cruel society, Rebecca becomes socially active. She takes every opportunity to enter upper society. She uses her intelligence and smartness and tough characters to serve the hour. Several years later, she successfully enters into the upper class by herself. Meanwhile, hard life forges her to be an intelligent, capable, spell able woman who has her own judgment and independence. She is excellent in French, English, music and playing piano. After getting married with Rawdon Crawley, they do not live a rich life. In order to enjoy a luxurious life, they have to raise a loan. Later, Rawdon goes to the battlefield and Rebecca follows him so that their debt ends up with nothing definite. Thus, they have lived in European mainland for several years and run into much debt and then escape from the debt. They plan to return London. She knows that her husband is incapable to deal with the creditors so that she goes to negotiate with creditors by herself. In the process of dealing with debt, her intelligence and sociability are appreciated by the public.
From these it can be seen that Becky’ iron-willed and independent spirit reflect feminism features.
3.2.2 A rebellious and smart Rebecca
Rebecca is rebellious and smart. Rebecca who was born in a poor family has more chancesthan others to get in touch with various kinds of people and the horrible society. She has never missed all the ugly and evil things in the society, “the pompous vanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good humor of her sister, the silly chat and scandal of the elder girls, and the frigid correctness of her governesses equally annoyed her.” Because of her experience, she is strongly opposed to the unjust hierarchical regulation and she shows her dissatisfaction with society. She does not want to depend on men to achieve what she wants and she only wants to pursue economic independence so that she can enter the upper class and get equal social status with men.
Rebecca changes the traditional marriage and family roles that husband is a ruler while wife is only in the subordinate position. Rebecca becomes the economic leader and the decision-maker. She fights against Miss Pinkerton who is the supporter of patriarchy and refuses the unreasonable requirement. Rebecca is not reconciled to play a role as a family teacher and involves in Peters’ economic affairs and even more intelligent and capable than baron. In addition, she challenges patriarchy and is unwilling to be a traditional woman. She has strong female consciousness and she is an independent woman.
Becky Sharp is a crafty, smart and tricky woman. Her life goal is to gain money and get into the upper society. To achieve this goal, she does everything flatter, betray and spoil other people. She does not love anyone except herself, even her own destiny man who always shares everything with her all the time. “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural”  shows her “revengeful thoughts” which suggests that she will manage her goal at any costs with any means. It is certain that Rebecca is a smart girl. When in Amelia’s home, she knows everyone’s characters and habits quickly, and knows how to cater to others. In a short time, she almost gets everyone be fond of her. And Rebecca’s life goal is wealth and high society status. She never gives up her dream. She tries everything to conquer the man dominated world no matter how hard it is. As a rebellious woman, she never surrenders to anyone. As smart and energetic woman, she knows how to make others like her or love her so that she could obtain her goal and dream. Thackeray portrays such a image as a female fighter in a male-oriented world. In this novel, Thackeray makes her achieve her dream at last, which is the best reward to her great spirit.
3.2.3 An ambitious and adventurous Rebecca
Rebecca is an ambitious and adventurous woman, which is caused by her miserable social and family reasons. In her early life, Rebecca is a poor girl. When she was young, her mother died. her father was a poor painter who was an alcoholic and died when she was only seventeen. Rebecca worked while studying with no dependence and receiving great discrimination and cold-shoulder. Personnel changes and the desolate life made her profoundly noticed the importance of wealth and status in that false, snobbish and cold society. She vowed to herself to be rich when she was only a little girl. Later, she did not miss any chance of entering into the upper society, just as “Rebecca’s wit, cleverness, and flippancy made her speedily the vogue in London among a certain class” . But in the society of British that time, there is no better access to the upper class than the means of marriage. She tries all tricks and means, and plays the coquette and gets married with Rawdon Crawley at the end. However, Rawdon who is from the nobility is incompetent and idles away his time. Hierarchy and the entrance of upper class are strict and impassable, so Rawdon Crawley loses the right of inheriting the property due to his unwise marriage with Rebecca who is only an orphan coming from a poor family of the lower social class. Rebecca’s early life is all about this to improve her social economic condition.
In order to win the man who dominates the society, she flirts with them. In such a man dominated society, if Rebecca wants to establish her high class status, she has to do something adventurous. Living is the most important thing for a woman, so she has to survive by hook or by crook. Just as Rebecca says, “I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery, and count the apricots on the wall. I could water plants in a greenhouse, and pick off dead leaves from the geraniums.”  In a man dominated society, women have no economic independence and they have to depend on their men only. If this way is infeasible, they have to depend on themselves. In many people’s eyes, Rebecca is an independent woman. She is an intelligent woman who insists on pursuing independence and insists on her own judgment. In order to make advancement in the world, she dares to challenge the world. In a sense, she is a new woman. She is praised by the author. Her evil tricks reflect all her feminist thoughts and behaviors. From these it can be seen her ambitious and adventurous features.
Rebecca Sharp is a new and modern female. Her ambition, willpower, wisdom, spirit of independence and fighting surpasses all the men in that male-oriented world, which makes those gentlemen feel ashamed. We can find the feminism features from her. The author actually admires Rebecca’s spirit and makes her dream come true at last. Therefore Rebecca is a heroine in this novel.
Vanity Fair is the famous work of British writer Thackeray in the 19th century and also one of his works in his life standing the test of time with noticeable realism. In the work, the author shapes two different and typical female adventure images that pursue their happiness in their own way.
In this paper, it mainly discusses the two female images Rebecca and Amelia from the perspective of feminism. From these two images’ completely characters and outcomes, we can see that both of them have the features of feminism. Amelia and Becky are strong, courageous, and rebellious pioneers in an old and traditional society. The purpose of the creation of Rebecca and Amelia, the two female images is to make readers know more about the different females with feminism characters. The modern women can learn more from these two female characters and their feminism features.
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