Ripple Effects and the Fog of War in Vanity Fair

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The previous chapters have discussed several ways in which realist fiction tries to step in and fill some of the moral lacunae of political economy, either by imagining a secular omniscient overview that may have a subtle moral influence on the reader or by directly challenging the reader to respond to the social problems caused by industrialization. This chapter will focus on a narrative that aims less to solve social problems than to thematize the difficult ironies of a society organized around the political-economic world-view of self-interested behaviour and unintended consequences. Whereas Smith focuses on the positive results of invisible hand social theory, the comic view of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847–48 Vanity Fair is sometimes optimistic but more often darkly satirical, critiquing both the narrator’s and the reader’s inadequacies of vision. The self-consciousness of Thackeray’s narrator, while parodying Fielding, also expresses much more doubt about society’s ability to turn disadvantages into advantages and straying characters into worthy protagonists. Thackeray’s narrator uses his omniscience to dramatize the characters’ delusions, manipulations, and ignorance of each other’s intentions, vices that sometimes lead to happy outcomes but sometimes to undeserved disaster. Even the novel’s happy ending, in which Dobbin finally gets his Amelia, is undercut by Dobbin’s growing awareness that his devotion was directed towards an unworthy object. Meanwhile, the novel’s anti-heroine Becky Sharp has only been temporarily deflected from her attempt to transform others’ vanity and folly into her own social power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages25
StatePublished - 2011

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture
ISSN (Print)2634-6494
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6508


  • Complex Adaptive System
  • Invisible Hand
  • Political Economy
  • Ripple Effect
  • Unintended Consequence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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