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Dystopia in Vanity Fair: The Nightmare of Modern London

Nicola Minott-Ahl

William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1811-1863) defies attempts to reconcile the paradoxes in its many-layered exploration of human existence. Scholars focus on its structure, its competing realisms, its characters’ morals, or its reflection of life in early Victorian England. All avenues of inquiry yield some insight. Yet London is Thackeray’s main focus for examining what ails the England of his day in its transition from an agrarian, hierarchical world to pluralistic capitalism. Social opportunities opened up for many. The non-enfranchised, yearning and agitating for political enfranchisement, sought a share of the national wealth. Yet, for all the struggles for betterment, the result, in Thackeray’s eyes, is not a better world founded upon past successes, but something a good deal worse: not a perfected state or an “ideal” utopia, but something approximating what John Stuart Mill first called a dystopia.

M. Keith Booker’s influential study, Dystopian Literature, includes neither a discussion of Mill as the coiner of the word nor of Thackeray’s pessimistic view of society in his overview of dystopian literature. This is probably because neither Mill nor Thackeray offer detailed discussion of imaginary places. Mill, as we will see, was mocking the British government’s fecklessness when he used dystopia in a speech to Parliament; and Thackeray’s London was a real city — the product not even of a planning board, much less of a philosopher’s thought theorem or of an artist’s fiction, as are most works Booker outlines and discusses. If, of course, we accept the dictionary authorized notion that dystopia is “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible” then the very reality of Thackeray’s London makes it something other than a dystopia.[1] The common notion that dystopia is a negation of utopia results from confusion about the meaning of utopia itself, whose elements are the Greek word topia, “placement,” preceded by the negative ou, “not.” The word is Thomas More’s coinage, so he had the privilege of defining it. By his definition, the notion of “non-placement” is crucial.

Dystopia, on the other hand, with its prefix dys, “harsh,” suggests the rough nature of a city’s placement, and does not deny a city’s actual geographical existence at all. If dystopia is to be construed as the opposite of utopia, then one would expect its placement to be as real as that of utopia is unreal. Thomas More apparently wanted to emphasize the geographical unreality of Utopia, not the perfection modern scholars see as implicit in the name. We treat Utopia as if More had derived its name from the prefix eu, “well,” rather than ou, “not.” He was surely capable of using the compound eutopia in preference to utopia had his prime emphasis been on the city’s perfection. The imaginary utopia created by More (we will discuss Butler shortly), and the actual ones attempted by the likes of Robert Owen and Fanny Wright are founded on an attempt to create social justice, consensus, and a society in which the needs of the community equal or supersede those of the individual.

Thackeray is describing (with satirical wit) what he takes to be reality rather than proposing a theory of the nightmare state. His London is nightmarish not because of its ordered design, as is Orwell’s world in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but because it lacks both order and design. And Mill is making much the same point, with heavy sarcasm, about his political opponents’ policies:

I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.

Critical to Mill’s satire is that dystopias are too bad to be practical: they involve political ideas and designs that obviously won’t work.

Vanity Fair predates Mill’s speech, so he is not, of course, writing with Mill’s comment in mind. Thackeray sits chronologically and conceptually between Thomas More’s reasonable, pragmatic Utopia (1516)[2] and Samuel Butler’s anti-utopian Erewhon (1872). Butler’s Erewhon (and Erewhon Revisited) are about a place that is at the same time as fantastical as More’s and as real as the New Zealand landscapes he saw while he lived there and which he describes as a narrator making his way along the rugged pathway from Christchurch up to and across the Southern Alps. Indeed there is a town named in his honour, Erewhon, in New Zealand’s South Island.[3] And New Zealand’s early experiments with socialism and the ideal society were almost certainly on his mind. Butler’s Erewhon, as anagram of “nowhere,” gives it a curiously double identity as fantasy set in a very specific geographical reality. Elusiveness is one of its main characteristics. It is a utopia gone wrong.

When J. S. Mill coined dystopia, he was using it in opposition to utopia as popularly understood. He was well educated enough to know the real difference between eu-topia, good place, and outopia, “no place,” in More’s sense — or even Butler’s. But Mill probably could not resist what in the classically educated Parliament in the 1860’s would have been a pun since there is no distinction in English pronunciation between utopia and eutopia. The philosopher Mill is making a rhetorical rather than a philosophical or ideological point.

My argument is this: the definition of dystopia, and by extension, of dystopian fiction, needs to be broadened to include urban realities as well as urban theories and fictions. It must encompass more than state-sponsored injustice, where only the wealthy and powerful are treated well and weakness is punished. What is missing from much discussion of this issue, including Booker’s, is the assumption, which by now should be self-evident enough to need little argument: that uncontrolled, self-interested speculation can produce political horrors that can at least compete with the edicts of a totalitarian state. Indeed many horrors of totalitarianism have arisen from attempts to regulate the kinds of greed and speculation Thackeray discusses. Nazism, fascism, and communism came into being in response to the excesses of capitalism.

In Dystopian Fiction East and West, Erika Gottlieb positions the origin of the dystopian vision in the industrial, post-revolutionary nineteenth century. She even describes Imré Madach’s 1861 verse drama The Tragedy of Man in terms that allude to Thackeray’s novel:

Adam appears in the London of the industrial revolution, the Vanity Fair of capitalism, where the owners of the factory exploit the worker, the worker turns to drink and crime, and where everything … is for sale … at the frenzied ending … the entire crazed Vanity Fair jump into a huge grave, dug by themselves (47).

These could as well have been Thackeray’s own words. Indeed, Madach’s God envisages the world he has created as a machine set in motion that “will rotate upon its axle for a hundred million years before a single cog wears out” (Scene I). This announcement sounds ominous, coming as it does after the image of divinity occupying a “seat of state”. This is the image of absolutism as creator and governor of the state but it also echoes descriptions of the operation of capitalism and especially the free market: as a machine that works best when it works alone. Something is already wrong — from the world’s inception — and that something is built into a system designed to last indefinitely. As we shall see, this image accords well with Thackeray’s presentation of London.

Gottlieb’s allusion points to her sense of Vanity Fair as at least partaking of the nightmarish qualities of a dystopia. But her definition will not easily accommodate it: “dystopian fiction depicts a society where justice is deliberately subverted by a small ruling elite who conspire against their own people, misleading them through the means of a powerfully deceptive state religion” (267). Thackeray, in contrast, presents self-interest as the only powerful religion in Vanity Fair. Moreover, Gottlieb’s point that “however harsh the writer’s warning might be, it [dystopian literature] also implies that … we can still count on a suspended sentence,” (267) rather than be condemned to life in a society that defines itself through the “deliberate miscarriage of justice” (267) implies in its turn that dystopia has an exit — whether or not its citizens choose to use it.

Gottlieb sees the dystopian literature of the twentieth century as fundamentally optimistic. Such a definition cannot accommodate Thackeray’s 1847 novel, not only because of its date of publication but also because in it, the state religion is presented as a formality at best and irrelevant at worst, there is no way out, and those oppressed by the “small ruling elite” also strive to emulate them.

Similarly, M. Keith Booker emphasises social criticism as the main characteristic of dystopian literature:

dystopian literature is … that literature Which situates itself in direct opposition to utopian thought … at the same time, dystopian literature generally also constitutes a critique of existing social conditions or political premises upon which those conditions and systems are based or through imaginative extension of those conditions and systems into different contexts that more clearly reveal their flaws and contradictions. (3)

Booker applies this definition, though it can describe any number of works from just about any period, almost exclusively to twentieth century literature and indeed, his Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide includes few nineteenth century writers. Notable exceptions are Fyodor Dostoevsky, H.G. Wells, and Sinclair Lewis, all described as anticipating the dystopian fantasies of twentieth century writers. Booker justifies his inclusion of nineteenth century writers by pointing out their similarities to the likes of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Booker seems reluctant to entertain the possibility of nineteenth century (“pre-modern”) dystopian writing. Thackeray is at least one other nineteenth century writer who recognises the concept of dystopia, though he does not name it, but whose definition implicates human nature and capitalism as one of its more perverse manifestations, rather than just politics or government.

To Booker’s definition of dystopian literature, then, I would add the idea that dystopia itself, as presented by Thackeray, begins as a place — figurative or geographical — where individual interest is paramount, where there is no moral centre, where there is no consensus on issues that affect the whole society, including how it should be constituted and how governed. Moreover, it is a world rendered unstable by individuals’ constant coming and going, whose people cannot leave without taking its perverse values with them. Thackeray’s characters bring deception, self-interest, restlessness, and rapacity to every place they inhabit. If we include these ideas of the bad place in our definition of dystopia, the result takes into account the capacity of humans to internalise even the worst aspects of environment so that they are unlikely to view it critically or change what they cannot recognise as flawed. From Thackeray’s point of view, these are the conditions capitalism and industrial revolution produce and that, by extension, produce other revolutions. These are the conditions that can make fascism and communism attractive.

The revolution that destroyed the ancien regime in France was, like all revolutions, envisioned by its leaders as a necessarily extreme measure in the effort to remake society in the image of a stable, well-ordered ideal. It was an opportunity to remake France in a new, improved image. Indeed, between More and Butler stand numerous examples of utopian thinking and utopian projects, all of which have gone wrong. By 1872, Butler can mock the optimistic notion that Britons had the opportunity to create an ideal society, if they would only clear out the undesirable people, institutions, and buildings blocking the way.

Dystopian thinking can be traced to the disillusionment that follows the inevitable failure to realise the envisaged paradise. Even Sir Thomas More, a pragmatic utopian, had to concede, “Except all men were good, everything cannot be right.” One can only hope for a community in which the common good reigns and in which there is limited scope for baser instincts. Such is the vision at the end of Vanity Fair but only a select few enjoy its fruition. The little community at Queen’s Crawley, consisting mainly of those once duped by Rebecca Sharpe, cannot expand beyond the rather incestuous familial bonds that characterise its new and improved version at the novel’s end. After all, utopian societies are not for everyone. They rely on isolation from the corrupt world at large and the exclusion of those who do not belong.[4]

Samuel Butler’s no-where, Erewhon, accomplishes consensus through repression, ostracism, and social Darwinism. The desired end is a society that is ideologically, racially, economically, or politically homogeneous, if not some combination of these elements. But Thackeray seems to ask, “What does one do about the corrupt nature of human beings, even utopian ones?” “How does one keep them from importing that corruption into the ideal society?” His answer might well be that one doesn’t keep the corruption out; it will always pervert even the most carefully planned society. In fact, that careful planning is often based on faulty principles. London as Thackeray presents it has little hope since it is far from being carefully planned, its people are unprincipled, and its gates no longer exist.

Vanity Fair began to run in serial form one year before the publication of John Stuart Mill’s The Principles of Political Economy (1848), and some twenty years before Mill coined dystopia during a parliamentary address in 1868.[5] It was used to highlight the impracticability of his opponents’ proposals for dealing with the complex and far reaching Ireland Question. Whether Mill read Thackeray, or vice versa, is less important here than the idea that Thackeray’s presentation of a dysfunctional society based on the wrong principles anticipates Mill’s remark that “What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”[6] Like Mill, Thackeray points out that dystopia is equally untenable — but not because it can’t be created — only because it’s no more sustainable than the utopian ideal.

London as Dystopia
Dystopia for Thackeray is not as elusive as it would later be for Mill, who didn’t seem to think human beings any more capable of producing something perfectly awful than they were of producing something perfectly good. However, it is similarly abstract. Thackeray distances us from the realism of the novel’s situations and characterisation by never permitting us to forget that we are reading a novel. He also makes the familiar world of London parallel the far distant Utopia of Thomas More by miniaturising it and setting it in contexts that remove it still farther from the everyday: the fair and the puppet show. What he reveals, however, is the immorality and ugliness beneath the spectacle, the tawdriness that underlies the paint and gilding of the stage, the mud and ordinariness behind the stalls at the fair.

In Vanity Fair, London is a dystopia so potent and poisonous that its denizens take it into themselves and take it with them wherever they go. If utopia is a good society with no geographical reality, Thackeray’s London is a bad place that is not fixed. Its citizens keep it socially, economically, and conceptually mobile. Like the fair, London can be pulled down and set up again in far-flung places such as Paris and Rome and it can colonise whole countries and continents like Belgium and India as characters leave the metropolis to seek the same pleasures and opportunities abroad. The people who inhabit London, whether they helped to create it or not, must adapt to it and take on some of its characteristics in order to survive. And so they do. Dystopia is more than a geographical location; it is a state of mind.

Thackeray implies that no society can thrive where there is no moral centre, wealth is the only virtue, and social and economic stability are illusory. Unlike Dickens, who separates his characters into the good and bad, the deserving and undeserving, those buffeted by life and those who bring misfortune on themselves, Thackeray saw only mixed characters. Their financial and social interests formed the City — a generic, commercial substitute for “London” — which rewarded only their basest instincts, even as it destroyed those who could not bend their ethics or acknowledge the supremacy of money and artifice. Both Mill and Dickens are reform-minded. Thackeray is not; he sees no possibility of changing a society whose people are committed to the idea that they could some day join the ranks of the moneyed and powerful. He presents a picture of the depths of cruelty and moral turpitude to which people will sink under the influence of this idea. Vanity Fair is not a self-contained world where morality is victorious and the base are punished, because Thackeray sought to “make a set of people without God in the world.” (Letters, II. 309) Such people cannot experience redemption, nor can they maintain a good society.

Capitalist London coarsens people by elevating their worst instincts to the status of virtues. It doesn’t corrupt or disillusion otherwise innocent people because, in Thackeray’s view, there are no innocent people. London can’t be utopian because it’s a business district with only a façade of culture, learning, and gentility. It is a nest of bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, and clerks who produce nothing of intrinsic worth and whose drive to make money overwhelms their humanity. This is why Thackeray treats Sedley the stockbroker so harshly in Vanity Fair. Not only do we see Sedley financially ruined, but repeatedly maligned by the man he once employed. He is made to experience the failure of his subsequent efforts to regain his wealth in a sort of ritual humiliation. In this world, anyone for whom the profit motive is paramount and for whom all things could be bought with money,[7] is as damnable as any city he or she dominates.

But London is not hell in Thackeray’s novel, though to some characters and at some points in Vanity Fair, it can seem infernal. It is not a place of punishment or expiation. Sinners often prosper. The wicked do as they please. London in the novel is a recurring nightmare, a vision in which people get what they want — and are destroyed by it. Even those who suppose they will benefit from the way it is structured are often hurt by it. Modern London, as Thackeray presents it, can only be a Hogarthian[8] caricature of itself, because it is founded on capitalism, with the particular interests of capitalists in mind. The George Osbornes who finance and rule it tend to assume that non-capitalists will thrive by a kind of parasitism, and that those who don’t thrive aren’t fit to exist.

Complicating the dystopian vision of London in Vanity Fair is the debt-driven economy signalled by the constant circulation of IOU’s and bank notes that become increasingly difficult to redeem for money. In this novel, Thackeray explores how debt distorts human relationships, destroys lives, and strips people of their carefully crafted public identities. He devotes the chapters “how to live well on nothing a year” and “the subject continued” to the twin concepts of debt and credit. There, we learn that Rawdon and Rebecca Crawley represent a new approach to personal and family finance. They are willing to make use of goods and services for which they have not paid. Unlike Pitt Crawley, the younger, who insists on settling the debts his father has incurred and buys only what he can pay for outright, these Crawleys are willing to live in a permanent state of indebtedness. In fact, they hold on to their cash and “repay” merchants with promissory notes. The nature and implications of debt overshadow most of the other chapters in the novel as well. Its significance in the lives of the characters varies because this dystopia is marked by inconsistencies of every kind. The old idea of being neither a borrower nor a lender exists alongside the new idea of the designed life.

This notion of lifestyle can exist only in a world where social and economic mobility are possible. People in nineteenth century England (and France) were increasingly able determine what sort of life they wanted and acquire its trappings because they were no longer restricted to the class and way of life to which they were born. Credit enabled the impecunious to gratify their wishes to advance socially even if they lacked the necessary resources. This ability to construct an alternate self with the aid of good manners, clothing, and other possessions often produces crisis. People who have no money can masquerade as wealthy and important personages, gain access to more credit, and contract enormous debts. Payment can be deferred — or even avoided at the cost of one’s integrity, as Thackeray demonstrates through Rawdon and Rebecca Crawley. However, the old order still has a strong presence. In Vanity Fair, debt is still disgraceful — but only if discovered.

Because appearances are more important than reality in Thackeray’s London, indebtedness, once revealed, becomes an outward sign of dishonesty. It represents the unfulfilled promise to pay and renders the word of the debtor dubious. But, class differences affect the way people experience indebtedness. While in the lower classes, indebtedness implies moral weakness and reckless presumptuousness, in the upper middle classes, failure to pay one’s debts when due indicates incompetence and dishonesty in an environment where the ability to access money on short notice is an index of power and trustworthiness.[9] Hence the failed businessman, John Sedley, is denounced as a swindler by George Osborne.

A man is found to be virtuous on the basis of solvency — a criterion that is not directly related to his honesty — as witches were once “discovered” by water trial. Morality and ethics are displaced by considerations of profitability in personal and business dealings alike: they are in effect only if the transaction is not profitable. While the failed speculator is a thief because he has lost the money of investors and cannot repay it, his speculation is rewarded with esteem as well as money if it has been successful.

Although nearly everyone in the novel is in debt, not all have credit. The notion of credit, with its financial and moral implications, permeates Thackeray’s London to such a degree that the loss of finances means the loss of morals. Indebtedness is a burden heavy enough to weigh down the most exalted. Becky Sharpe’s loss of financial and social credit drags her husband into much the same predicament, thanks to her legal status as her husband’s ward. Her assets, debts, and shame are equally his. Her indebtedness causes her to cheat tradesmen, masquerade as something she is not,[10] and forces an emasculated Rawdon Crawley unwittingly to assume the role of bawd to a wife who prostitutes herself to keep up appearances. Once they are known to be in debt and unlikely to pay, Rawdon and Rebecca become criminals in the eyes of the law and swindlers in the eyes of those who have extended them credit. The mask of respectability drops and they in turn drop out of upper class society. Neither can claim respectability since respectability is based on ownership and the power to acquire — or the ability to convince others that one has such power.

John Osborne’s constant avowal that he can buy and sell his former patron, John Sedley, is no less than a crass assertion of his purchasing power. He can issue paper, which people will view as valuable because they are confident he can pay anyone who wishes to exchange that paper for the sum indicated. Sedley’s paper is worthless, since he is known to be bankrupt. Yet, the paper itself, as substance and as potential financial instrument, is no different from the paper Osborne freely trades. Osborne can acquire money and assign value to essentially worthless paper, a difference Thackeray repeatedly presents as arbitrary and having little to do with being careful, shrewd, or deserving, any more than the value of a promissory note has anything to do with the value of paper.

Paper money makes an appearance in Thackeray’s dystopia as a tangible representation of debt. It is a real object, but it is also sign of the arbitrariness and ephemeral quality of modern institutions, and of people’s willingness trust in the insubstantial.[11] Thackeray’s novel can be seen as a tacit rebuttal to businessman Thomas Attwood’s repeated calls to take Britain off the gold standard and replace its commodity-backed currency with government-issued paper. But Attwood was credited by at least one nineteenth century biographer[12] with averting revolution in England in 1832 as he worked tirelessly for the Reform Bill that extended the franchise to the business classes, eliminated rotten boroughs, and gave his own Birmingham and other large industrial cities the representation in Parliament they had previously lacked.[13] His efforts helped enfranchise a business class that could then enter the government in larger numbers and directly and profoundly affect the legislative process.

With the Reform Act of 1832, Attwood and others like him could begin to reshape their world according to their own interests. Thomas More points out the tendency of noblemen, bankers, and goldsmiths to “bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect.”[14] If this was to be observed as early as the sixteenth century, when the economy of England was primarily agrarian, it was still more obvious in the nineteenth century, particularly after the Reform Act of 1832. Thackeray, who repeatedly found himself in debt and on the wrong side of this new world order, must have been aware of the irony inherent in the notion of an act likely to re-form Britain in the image of Birmingham.

Thackeray’s problem with Osborne, Sedley, and others might also be the problem he had with the Attwoods of the new Britain: they don’t make anything — except money. His harsh treatment even of the hapless landlord Raggles reflects the train of thought underlying More’s rhetorical question in Utopia:

What justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?[15]

Thackeray’s novel reveals an image of the business classes buying and selling on the basis of mutual trust. The system he describes, however, is fragile and susceptible to rumour, to events seemingly unrelated to finance, or to the bankruptcy of a debtor. And if being in debt is the most undesirable position to be in, being owed money was scarcely better. It is true that the creditor in mid-nineteenth century England owned the debtor — could, in fact, attach his person or his possessions and sink him further or forgive the debt: “English contract law allowed creditors who were owed … more than thirty shillings to arrest and imprison their debtors’ bodies for safe custody”.[16] The creditor could restore the debtor’s credit — again, in both senses of the word — if he chose. Because the world Thackeray lived in and described sees those who are not paid what is theirs as injured parties, the creditor also owned the moral high ground.

However, a creditor is also vulnerable, for he who extends credit on the basis of trust or calculations regarding human relationships, rather than on the debtor’s ability to pay can be utterly ruined if the debtor is genuinely dishonest or simply cannot pay. Complicating the picture is the fact that a person’s word, lifestyle, and outward appearance were the only means of determining whether he or she was a good credit risk. As Margot Finn puts it:

Creditors sought constantly and unsuccessfully to read debtors’ personal worth and character from their clothing, their marital relations, their spending patterns and their perceived social status, attempting to assign stable cash values to consumers in markets continuously buffeted by the vagaries of credit” (21).

So the creditor is also credulous (the two words have the same Latin origin: credere, meaning “to trust to”) and therefore out of his depth, or greedy. He is therefore deserving of his ruin — or is at least no worthier than the next man. Here, then, is another confirmation that the victims in Thackeray’s dystopia are never innocent. In fact, they are as mercilessly punished as the victims of fraud and theft Samuel Butler presents in Erewhon (1872) twenty-four years after Vanity Fair first appeared as a bound volume.

London, then, is ideal only in the minds of those who are winning at the games played there—all of which involve gambling. The City is a place for winners like John Osborne the stockbroker; losers like his son — George, Jr. — and John Sedley are swept aside and best forgotten. There is symmetry in the presence of two Johns and two Georges; one of each matched pair wins, while the other loses. Yet, nearly all of the characters seem bent on remaining in the game on the premise that they just might strike it rich. Thackeray takes issue with one of the essential characteristics of the ideal society, stasis or to be generous, equilibrium by presenting characters whose ups and downs are governed almost entirely by chance, and pointing out that the same individual can experience both more than once in a lifetime.

Setting the novel in the regency period emphasises the lack of stability that constantly undermines the vision of an ideal city. The period between 1803 and 1815 is a period of social, political, and economic transition both in England and in France and this idea permeates Thackeray’s novel. Rebecca Sharpe can plausibly be a painter’s con artist daughter, a schoolteacher’s assistant, dewy-eyed orphan, governess, Montmorency, and wife of a baronet’s son because of the period in which the story is set. People’s identities and circumstances could change drastically without arousing the same level of suspicion and resistance in polite society they might encounter in less troubling times and in a place less hostile to ingenuousness and stability of relationships. Thackeray essentially asserts that London has bred hordes of people like Becky Sharpe.

Robert Owen once asserted that: “Man becomes a wild, ferocious savage, a cannibal or a highly civilised and benevolent being according to the circumstances in which he may be placed from his birth.”[17] Though Vanity Fair is certainly not utopian, Thackeray must have been aware of Owen’s ideas and may have agreed with this statement, to an extent. London is not blamed in order to transport his characters to a better place somewhere else. In fact, he’s arguing that people born into the dystopian nightmare imbibe its distorted values as the norm and then perpetuate them in adulthood because they know no other approach to living in society. They naturally assume they can achieve happiness within its faulty system. Living as he did in a revolutionary age, Thackeray must also have known what it would take to dislodge it — and replace it with something worse. Owen’s remark might easily be made by Becky Sharpe as she points out that only the well off can afford morals. But since a character we learn to distrust endorses that view, we need not suppose the author endorses it as well. Vanity Fair does not satirise utopia or utopians, nor does it push utopian principles to their most absurd or terrifying conclusions. Rather, it explores a world based at the outset on the principles of greed and individualism likely to produce his nightmare vision of London, a place where characters work assiduously to create an ideal situation for themselves with the expectation that all is right with a world in which they have what they want.

Thackeray follows two trains of thought in this novel. The first is that Vanity Fair represents temporal existence. The fact that all who live are destined to die renders life meaningless, empty, and hopelessly transient. All it is possible for a human to do is derive as much pleasure from existence as possible, whilst inflicting as little pain on self and others as possible. The second train of thought entails the view of London as a fair, a place where artifice reigns and vice is rewarded. It mimics, even magnifies the emptiness of human existence and offers few of its comforts. It is the world in miniature. What Thackeray asserts about it is meant to apply to the world in general: “o brother wearers of motley! Are there not moments when one grows sick of grinning and tumbling, and the jingling of cap and bells? This dear friends and companions, is my amiable object — to walk with you though the fair, to examine the shops and the shows there; and that we should all come home after the flare, and the noise, and the gaiety, and be perfectly miserable in private.” (225) The use of polysyndeton here reinforces the sense of an undifferentiated jumble of pleasure and pain, things to buy and things to see, loved ones and acquaintances. The repetition of the word “and” places them all on par — all are thrown into the fair together. But, by whom?

The mention of a Becky puppet at the novel’s outset implies a puppeteer — and a cruel one at that, for she is led to scheming because she is an orphan and is punished for doing so. But the “Amelia doll” and “Dobbin figure” are not quite the same. A doll is a toy, a child’s plaything and vulnerable to harm by a careless or destructive child. A “figure” is something to be admired for its realistic appearance –it is on show and not meant to be manipulated or toyed with—but, by the end, all three are “puppets.” The bitterness for which Thackeray was often chided in response to this novel reaches its most corrosive in this idea that London is distorted not only because of human nature, but also because any divinity presiding over it couldn’t possibly have human happiness at heart. London is not utopia gone wrong because it could never have been right to begin with. It is overseen by a higher power that at worst is malicious and at best, negligent, and it’s a bad place founded on its citizens’ self-interest but expected to function as a community. This is why the fate of the landlord Raggles is so pathetic. He begins by accepting the principle of self-interest and makes his calculations regarding extension of credit to people of no obvious means of support based on their family connections. When he is ruined by their inability to pay him, he returns to an older model of exchange based on mutual trust and trustworthiness and feels betrayed.

Nineteenth century London fosters such speculation as that in which Raggles engages. It also makes labour and women of every class commodities and provides a vast forum for the display and dissipation of wealth. John Osborne’s intimidating display of plate at dinner parties is only one memorable example of this. For the stockbrokers and financiers, the city of London becomes “The City,” as though it might be anywhere. Its principal financial institution, as well as its physical location, are referred to as simply ‘Change — the elided “e” underscoring the instability the institution fosters, even as it strives to represent the lasting wealth of the United Kingdom.

London loses its particularity and, like its people, can wear a variety of faces: Pleasure garden (Vauxhall; Hyde Park), exclusive, ancient neighbourhood (inhabited by hypocrites and posers), pretentious middle class enclave (inhabited by the self-satisfied and materialistic), and the invisible, romantically named “cottages” inhabited by forgotten people whose humanity is hardly acknowledged.[18] London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the setting for Jos and Becky’s abortive engagement, is actually a business enterprise and is poisoned by drunkenness and debauchery. It’s a post-lapsarian Eden but we never see the “before” image — there isn’t one — and the main characters are expelled from it directly into the chaos that is the rest of London. It’s no wonder that a novel with such characters at its centre and set in such a milieu does not have a hero. Its denizens, who have accepted the notion of “The City” as abstraction, have so internalised the distorted values of capitalist London, as to be able — or forced—to carry them wherever they go.

Society as Dystopia
The dystopia Thackeray creates is not the dystopia of post World War II fiction that Gottlieb describes or that informs Booker’s notions of dystopian fiction. There is no Big Brother, master mainframe, or similarly chilling authoritarian presence that has called this world into being and that controls the lives of the people in it. Yet, a dystopia must be a product of self-conscious modernity — of the questioning of progressivist assumptions and ideas of human perfectibility. It must also stem from the humanistic assumption that human societies are formed — and distorted — by human needs, desires, and vices; they are not called into being by a divine power. Thackeray’s Londoners are living in a bad place of their own, deliberate creation. Because their own interests and wrong assumptions about the purpose of a city and the way its social and economic life should function inform their good intentions, they have created a dystopia, literally “a bad place”.

In Vanity Fair, dystopian London is mobile. Londoners are Londoners everywhere they go: “There never was…such a brilliant train of camp-followers as hung round the Duke of Wellington’s army in the Low Countries, in 1815,” writes Thackeray. In the beginning of the chapter entitled “Brussels” (320), we’re told, “it was almost like Old England. The house [opera house] was filled with familiar British faces.” presumably, the “almost” refers to the inevitable presence of “foreigners”. Only a great crisis will induce them to step beyond the imaginary walls of their moveable metropolis when they’re abroad. During the confusion about the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo, says the narrator: “even the great English lords and ladies condescended to speak to persons whom they did not know” (358). Brighton, Brussels, Paris, Queen’s Crawley: the same things happen in all of these places; Becky poses as a lady, the poor but pretentious attempt to wheedle money from the rich and pompous; everyone thinks of personal gain with little honest effort. In these places, Becky Sharpe and Amelia Sedley wear the black of widowhood, the worn garments of poverty, and the rich silks of prosperity; though each character remains essentially the same, they are treated differently with each costume change, as Becky is well aware.

Just as in England, this moveable London — now an abstraction, rather than a geographical location — is also a place within which people have tremendous social and economic mobility. Because they live with the possibility of bettering their lot, they are restless, striving risk-takers. The dark underside of such mobility, as Thackeray’s own experience might have told him, and as he frequently points out, is the slide into poverty and obscurity and the ability to pull others down, too. Mobility from this perspective, is yet another form of instability. Characters drop into and out of polite society, bringing scandal, ruin, and cynicism as they come and go.

Because artifice is valued over substance, characters have some control over their public identities. Rebecca Sharpe, the trickster daughter of an opera singer and alcoholic painter can pass herself off as the scion of an aristocratic French family and is never seriously questioned until someone becomes jealous of her success as a socialite. Dobbin develops the reputation of a simpering and feckless person whose social ineptitude prevents him from understanding when he has been slighted. But if the patrons of Vanity Fair can wear a variety of masks, they can also be unmasked. In a letter written by the author, Amelia Sedley is revealed to be “an overrated woman” (Letters, vol. II 26-28 July 1848). Dobbin has found her to be a prize “not worth the winning” (787). And even Dobbin himself, workhorse that he is, reveals himself to be a man of uncommon bravery and intelligence. Because identity is not stable in this environment, characters often lose social station: Miss Crawley’s paid companion, Briggs, a once-flourishing gentlewoman, creeps back into genteel society, only to find herself in the role of a “sheep-dog” (442) as a member of the socially and financially uncertain household of Rawdon and Rebecca Crawley, who are busily masquerading as wealthy socialites. Titled characters such as Lord Steyne mingle with the penniless daughters of alcoholic painters, and the parson’s son bears a striking resemblance to the boxers and demimonde characters with whom he socialises. Becky really becomes the mother of a baronet, though she herself is never a baronet’s lady. But this is no matter for the flexible Becky puppet Thackeray describes in the prologue. She simply masquerades as one.

There are also characters that are given false identities either because they are viewed through the lens of wrong assumptions, or because it simply suits others to have the wrong idea. So a well-meaning character like Dobbin is ridiculed and marginalised for being the gawky son of a man who sells goods, by the sons of those who trade paper. In London’s suburbs, Amelia Sedley learns superficial feminine graces but we are reminded of the City’s proximity and that she can never entirely escape its taint. While at Miss Pinkerton’s, she can be her best self (which happens to be a gothic heroine or the heroine of a Burney novel) but, back in London, she is self-absorbed to such an extent that she can render no service to the self-described poor orphan, Becky Sharpe, as the latter attempts to secure comfort and a place in society by marrying into the Sedley family. Amelia Sedley is content to marry a man she knows doesn’t love her. She simply pretends he does; though she suspects his interests and family relationships will be materially harmed by the connection, she seems to think her affection entitles her to marry him. She is content to require Dobbin to sacrifice his feelings and his wealth to be of service to her (knowing he loves her) and give him no real friendship in return. Amelia also proves willing to sacrifice her child’s development to her fears of losing him — until at last she “sells” him to George Osborne, Sr. to secure an annuity for her parents in a moment of repentance. And this is a character presented as one of the least corrupt.

People in this world are bound by a variety of institutions that are at odds with each other: Society v. religion, morality v. the profit motive, among others. Dobbin, whose discretion, generosity, and willingness to sacrifice his own gratification for a larger purpose represents the qualities of the ideal citizen, is the only character who provides some idea of what is required in a functioning society. But not only is he alone, he is also universally underestimated and undervalued. The best he can hope is to buy a country house and live quietly like the gentleman he actually is. However, his talents and goodness are limited in their usefulness to the small family circle of which he becomes a part (Utopia Limited?). In this way, he achieves the stability that eludes the restless Becky and others of her ilk.

Vanity Fair explores the ways in which flawed humanity gets in the way of its own happiness and reveals the author’s deeply sceptical view of progressivism, utopian communism and the notion of human perfectibility. At best, he holds out the hope of a partial redemption at the end of the novel, as the Senior Rawdon Crawley makes a go of a governorship got through morally dubious means — then dies. Dobbin at last gets the woman he loves though he doesn’t think she deserves him, and they settle into middle age in the country — far from the fair.

In one respect, Thackeray’s novel is intensely satirical. There is embedded in its bitter cynicism the hope that the picture he paints is so unlovely as to make people want to improve it. In an 1848 letter to the reviewer Robert Bell, he defiantly asserts that his purpose “is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people ‘desperately wicked’ and all eager after vanities.” But he also goes on to express the desire “to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story” (Letters vol. II 424). That dissatisfaction and his hope of inspiring it in readers is an indication that Thackeray sees opportunity for something better. All that seems necessary is the exchange of self-interest for a sense of commonality and collective interest. One can have a good society in spite of human nature and the distortions to it that modern life permits if people abandon their obsession with money and ownership and focus instead on living well and not causing anyone else pain. But the tendency to anything resembling social satire has long disappeared by the end as he talks himself into despair that such change will ever happen: “Ah Vanitas Vanitatum [SIC]! Which of us is happy in this world?” Thackeray ultimately does not offer an improved alternative to Vanity Fair, though he hints at the possibility of one. He settles for revealing London, and Britain by extension, as a dystopia: “We must lift up our voices about these [weaknesses wickednesses lusts follies shortcomings] and howl to a congregation of fools: so much at least has been my endeavour.” (Letters vol. II 424) He can still see the possibility of a better world but can’t help acknowledging how unlikely it really is.


[1] In the Oxford English Dictionary

[2] First published in 1516, Translated from the Latin by Ralph Robinson in1551, and again in 1684 by Gilbert Burnet.

[3] See Peter Mudford’s introduction to Erewhon in the 1970 Penguin Classics edition: “the route taken by Higgs into Erewhon is derived from the landscape around Butler’s sheep run at Mesopotamia, and the route taken by Higgs into Erewhon is faithful to the actual landscape” (8).

[4] Fanny Wright’s (1795-1852) commune, Nashoba, was meant to be the establishment of a society free of slavery, class prejudice, and cultural and religious institutions she saw as tending to limit human existence and distort human morals. It is a real world attempt at utopia, while Plato’s Republic is an example of an imaginary one built on the Greek approach to colonisation and whose extent and population would necessarily be very small.

[5] (HC Deb. 12 March 1868 vol. 190 col. 1517)

[6] Thackeray’s chapters on “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year” accord well with Mill’s treatise on capitalist economics and the instability of an economy in which inconvertible paper money is treated as hard currency and where borrowing and buying on credit are the main activities of the people who comprise it.

[7] To paraphrase Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. The sentiment is expressed by the morally bankrupt Londoner, Mary Crawford.

[8] In a letter to friend James Crossley written in 1837, William Harrison Ainsworth discloses his and Thackeray’s plan to write “Hogarthian novels.” Vic Gatrell points out in City of Laughter that Hogarth inspired novelists as well as illustrators such as James Gillray and George Cruikshank to create satirical images that, like Hogarth’s works, commented upon and satirised contemporary society. These narrative images constitute a reading of modern life that often presented it as absurdly dystopian and just as often fed the descriptive imaginations of novelists such as Thackeray, Ainsworth, and Dickens.

[9] See Patrick Brantlinger in Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694-1994. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. 141-2

[10] Deidre Lynch identifies this idea of the woman who consumes as a means of inventing, reinventing, or further defining the self as a pervasive feature of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels in The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[11] Karl Marx points out the problem with money as abstracted from its original role as medium of exchange in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (rough draft). Martin Nicolaus, trans. Penguin Classics, 1993 (written in winter 1857-1858) “What the producing capital demands is not a specific use value, but value [sic] for itself, i.e. money—money not in the role of medium of circulation, but as a general form of wealth, or a form of the realization of capital in one regard, a return to its original dormant state in the other” (Notebook IV, p. 412).

[12] Wakefield, C.M. The Life of Thomas Attwood. London: Harrison & Sons, St. Martin’s Lane, 1885.

[13] Wakefield, ix.

[14] Utopia

[15] Sir Thomas More. Utopia., accessed 2 September, 2009.

[16] Finn, Margot. 52

[17] Morris Hillquit. History of Socialism in the United States. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1903. 52

[18] In Thackeray’s London (London: J.W. Jarvis and Son, 1885. 3), William Henry Rideing points out that unlike Dickens, Thackeray was not given to rendering the details of landscape with humorously exhaustive detail. However, the dwellings of the poor, the ruined, and the hopelessly striving are presented through the Carroll-esque image of people’s faces appearing in upstairs windows, while their feet must be “in the parlors below.”

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1994.

—.The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694-1994. Ithaca,New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Finn, Margot. The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.

Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Hillquit, Morris. History of Socialism in the United States.New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1903.

Lynch, Deidre. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Madach, Imré. The Tragedy of Man.é _madach_001.html. Accessed 14 November, 2009

Mill, John Stuart. The Principles of Political Economy (1848). and

—.House of Commons Debate. 12 March 1868. ( Accessed online 1 July, 2009.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. Translated by George M. Logan, George M. Logan and Robert Merrihew Adams, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Moss, David J. Thomas Attwood: the Biography of a Radical. McGill-Queen’s Press, 1990.

Rabkin, Eric S., Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations In Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Ray, Gordon N. The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray. In four volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1946.

Wakefield, C.M. The Life of Thomas Attwood. London: Harrison & Sons, St. Martin’s Lane, 1885.

To Cite This Article:

Nicola Minott-Ahl, ‘Dystopia in Vanity Fair: The Nightmare of Modern London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]