Vanity Fair, love, and women’s ambition

So, I recently watched Vanity Fair — the movie with Reese Witherspoon (I’m hoping to both read the book and watch the miniseries soon) and I’m not sure yet what I make of it.

I feel certain that I’m missing important chunks of the story– at one point, for example, Becky and Emilia decide that they will have to wait out the war in Brussels, and we get a brief shot of the two of them inside a room. Then the war is over, and they can go back to England! I think it’s likely that something happened in the book which was not plot-critical enough to make it into the movie, but might nevertheless shed light on the overarching themes. The same goes for the vaguely hilarious cut from Becky’s husband storming out on her in London, to “Twelve years later, in Germany!” I suspect some things may have happened in between, and I shall be investigating further to find out what.

Anyway, of the story that the movie did tell, two brief lines, both related to Becky’s ambition, really stand out to me:

Mrs. Sedley: I thought her a mere social climber, but now I see she’s a mountaineer.

This was actually the tagline for the movie, and it’s said with a little bit of a sneer in the movie. I’m not sympathetic at all to the idea that women shouldn’t be ambitious, which means I hate it when people call Hillary Clinton a “ball-buster,” and I hate it when people cast aspersions upon women in earlier times who were only trying to improve their own lives in the only way available to them. Yes, Becky was trying to “marry up” as much as possible, to acquire wealth and fame. But so were basically all the men in the same movie, and nobody had a problem with that! The whole idea that “oh, ambition is so unladylike, it would be unseemly” is just another case of putting women on a pedestal in order to keep them down, and I won’t hold with it. I like Becky’s ambition! She should be a mountaineer!

However, none of the characters really understood it that way, which brings me to the second quote (loosely paraphrased, as I couldn’t find the exact wording online):

A Friend: Have you sold your horse?

Becky: Does no one love me for myself? No, you may buy my horse.

The scene happens as everyone is trying to flee Brussels so as to avoid being in town when the French invade; Becky has just refused her horse to a social enemy of hers. Her comment is meant jokingly, but the answer is… no. They don’t. Absolutely nobody in the movie even understood her ambition, let alone condoned it; several people loved her regardless, but none of them loved her for herself. Her first husband, Rawdon Crawley, seems to get a little close with this quote:

Becky Sharp: I’ll manage.

Rawdon Crawley: Won’t you just. There never was a woman that could manage like you, Becky Sharp.

However, later on, when Becky “manages” by leading on a wealthy man who pays their household’s debts, Crawley is less than impressed. When he walks in on this wealthy benefactor attempting to rape Becky, he doesn’t just fail to believe it is an attempted rape, he assumes that Becky has been having an affair the whole time and ignores her pleas that “nothing has happened.” He walks out on her for good (prompting the “twelve years later, in Germany!” cut.)

He had seen Becky flirting with the wealthy man before (we got a lot of shots of him lurking sullenly in the corner and drinking), but he completely failed to understand why. It was necessary to cover their debts, but possibly more importantly, it was allowing Becky to advance in society in the way she had always wanted. Even though Rawdon loved her, and she loved him, in her way, he didn’t love her for herself. He loved who she was sometimes, and the son she bore him, and other incidental facts about her, but not the ambition that drove her.

No one else in the movie even manages to love her for other things, let alone for herself!

This is probably why the ending felt so unsatisfying to me. Nobody ever does love her. Becky gets Emilia together with the fellow who had been mooning over her for the whole story, returns to the casino where she works, sighs a heavy sigh, and then, lo! It is Mr. Sedley, come to whisk her away to India! Which he does! And the movie ends with the two of them newly-married (presumably) and riding an elephant, and Becky’s last line is something like, “It’s so beautiful!” Hurray!

It would be one thing if the movie acknowledged the ways in which this is an incomplete ending, but instead we get all the typical “happy ending!” hurrah, with triumphant music and painfully-stereotyped happy Indian people. I just can’t help asking, why in the world would we expect Becky to get on with Mr. Sedly at all well? She hardly knew him, and her interest in India seemed almost entirely feigned. Sure, she’s gotten what she was trying to get at the very beginning of the movie– but that’s really not the same as being happy. There’s still nobody who loves her for herself, and anything less makes a bittersweet ending.

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One Response to Vanity Fair, love, and women’s ambition

  1. Jo says:

    I watched that recently too (haven’t read the book or seen the miniseries, either), and I found the ending entirely dissatisfying. It was, however, an extremely accurate representation of the patriarchy — and a woman’s journey through it. I thought the “goes off with Mr. Sedley” was supposed to be “romantic” — Aww, here’s the man who really loved her all along, and she’s going off with him, boo hoo, hooray — but how it actually played was more like the cycle starting over again — her having to be the property/under the ‘protection’ of some man, and it was desperate chunky guy who would accept her, even when she’s ‘ruined’.

    I was hoping for something more, but then I should know better with 18th/19th c. period dramas about women. It’s always about a woman’s place in the patriarchy (whether approving or disapproving) and the woman never wins.

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