Vanity Fair: A Guide to Motherhood

“Mother is the name for God in the mouths of little children”.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray describes the lives, sorrows, and triumphs of two women: Amelia and Becky.  Anyone reading this book immediately sees Amelia as the good-natured, kind, and spiritual woman. Becky, on the other hand, is clearly selfish, manipulative, and hard-hearted. As the novel progresses, they both become mothers.  Becky has no natural affection for her child and her son is left “worshiping a stone”.  She is cold and heartless towards the child.  Amelia, on the other hand, is the picture of the “perfect mother”.  Her husband dies and she is left in a state of perpetual mourning.  She devotes herself completely to her son.  

Thackeray shows a deep understanding of human nature. Rather than portray Amelia in the way typical of many Victorian authors – as the delicate and angelic woman who is the model for all women – he shows that Amelia’s dependence and softness are not her virtues. Her weakness and over-nurturing lead to as much turmoil as that caused by Becky’s detachment and pride. Amelia is helpless without the love and support of family and friends. While Becky’s son worships a stone, Amelia’s son worships a puppy. Their sons’ personalities and world-views develop around these mother-imposed perceptions. Becky’s son resents the coldness of his mother and he becomes detached. Amelia’s son becomes spoiled and is disrespectful of others.

Becky shatters Amelia’s idol, Charles Crombie

The power of literature lies in its ability to allow us to see ourselves in both heroes and villains, to realize that we are all a bit of both, and to change our own course as we see the consequences unfold in their lives. We can pull-out the virtues found in both Amelia and Becky, and avoid their lower natures.

On the other side of every weakness is a strength.  While a nurturing and attentive mother is crucial in raising a strong child, so is a strong and independent woman. Amelia’s humility and kind-heartedness help her gain the love and admiration of those around her.  Becky’s strength of will and independence allow her to succeed where others fail.. A sensitive mother, like Amelia, can dwell in self-pity or emotionality, or she can be conscious of the joys and potentials which are oblivious to the less-sensitive.  A woman, such as Becky, who is independent and strong-willed, can narcissistically disregard the needs or desires of others, or she can be an example of confidence and resilience to her children. 

What is worth having?

Vanity Fair was “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”

Amelia and Becky, despite their seemingly opposite natures, were doomed by the same vice – Vanity.  In modern English, the word vanity most often refers to pride or a focus on appearance.  However, vanity has a second meaning, and Thackeray’s book was an ode to this form of vanity:  futile effort.  Amelia’s life became a vain attempt to feel secure and happy through the love and protection of others.  Becky’s life was a vain attempt to feel secure and happy in money and prestige.  

As mothers we must recognize what it worth having, and the best way to get it.  It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Rather than depending on others, or using others for our own ends, we actively seek out the good of others.  As mothers, (recognizing that a “mother is the name of God in the mouths of little children”), it is crucial that we give them a proper view of God.  We are not dependent on others, and we do not manipulate others.  We love, we serve, but we are strong and capable. As we examine ourselves, we discover we are not perfect – we most likely have aspects of Amelia and Becky in ourselves.  It is vital to recognize these weaknesses.  That is where healing begins and hope emerges.  Only when Amelia saw the damage she had done by her dependence and over-nurturing, could she change course. As mothers progress, so can their children.  We have never ruined our chances with our children.  The most powerful thing children can witness is their mother recognizing her weaknesses and determining to change; such attempts will not be done in vain.



Link to Vanity Fair Book

A well-done miniseries version of the book

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