William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It’s a moral piece, meant to show the fallibility (the “vanity”) of every human being in a realistic, unapologetic way. It’s also a sort of parody or farce, a self-proclaimed “puppet show” where Thackeray is the puppet-master and omniscient of every action or thought of the characters, on or off the stage. Above all, it is what in literary jargon is referred to as a “picaresque;” an episodic story dealing with the various adventures of a young person (usually a young man). It’s less coming-of-age as the unveiled mischief-makings of the hero, who is usually rude and amoral, but nevertheless charms the audience into liking him.
I first learned of the picaresque genre in a college class. The word comes from the Spanish meaning “rogue” or “rascal,” referring to the less-than-sterling character of the protagonist. In that class we read Lazarillo de Tormez, a short story about such a rogue who is trying to explain his actions to the Spanish Inquisition. A more widely-known example of picaresque might be Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, about a boy every reader would secretly like to have been (or at least befriended) as a child, but whom no adult would like the responsibility of babysitting.
In a way, Vanity Fair is comprised of two plotlines that sometimes intersect. The first is for Amelia Sedley, a young lady from the family of country gentility whose family slowly loses all its money and influence, and whose own short-lived, disastrous marriage leaves her a young widow grieving over the ideal memory of a man she barely knew. Amelia is the stereotypical Victorian lady, all purity and amiability and reliance on the men in her life. Her love is selfishly selfless, in that she wants what’s best for her young son so much that she obsesses over him, doesn’t discipline him, and doesn’t stand up for her own rights or what she knows to be right. I said that Thackeray portrays all his characters as flawed: Amelia’s flaw is that she forces herself to fit into the mold of Perfect Sacrificial Lady and Mother so much that she actually idolizes it and her identity is consumed by this ideal.
The second plotline is the picaresque story of Becky Sharp, a shrewd, talented, and amoral young orphan who is classmates with Amelia at the beginning of the book. Aside from the fact that she is clever, witty, level-headed, clear-sighted, frank, a good singer, able to speak French, brave, and beautiful, there is nothing likeable about Becky Sharp. She’s cruel, cold-hearted, mercenary…which is entirely uncalled for, even if she is an orphan with no money and who needs to work or marry well in order to survive. Unlike Amelia who is consumed with an identity that society demands she fit into, Becky claws her way to the top with well-placed words of flattery. Her marriage to the dragoon Rawdon Crawley is just as scandalous as Amelia’s own marriage, and both of these unions are met with disapproval and disowning. Yet Becky has a knack for bouncing back from misfortune, and flirts and flatters her way back into everyone’s good graces. Like Hardy had to derail the independent Bathsheba Everdeen with uncharacteristically foolish decisions, Thackeray has a hard time keeping the reader from downright liking the incorrigible Miss Sharp, and so has to add that she’s a terrible mother--and possibly worse--just to keep us from cheering her on quite so much.
Though Margaret Mitchell apparently denied it with vehemence, in my opinion there is no way that Vanity Fair did not have some sort of influence on the writing of Gone With the Wind. There is far too much resemblance in the characters of Becky and Amelia to Scarlett and Mellie, as well as the whole “two women caught on a battlefield” scenario which appears in both novels. If you have read Gone With the Wind or at least watched the movie, I’ll simply say that you have some idea of the story of Vanity Fair, without completely giving away every twist or turn of its plot.
In conclusion, I agree with Thackeray’s subtitle. There is no hero. All the characters, even the faithful Dobbin and the “innocent” children, are flawed by vanity, pride, instinctive neediness or greed, and selfishness. There is no hero in this novel, just as there is nobody perfect in real life. I would, however, suggest that there might possibly be a heroine. It simply depends on your point of view who that heroine might be.