The Gentleman as a Hero? (Mis)representations of Heroic Masculinity in W. M. Thackeray’s <em>Vanity Fair</em>

  • Katri Sirkel KVÜÕA Keelekeskus Riia 12 51013 Tartu
Keywords: William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, English gentleman, gentlemanliness, the Regency period, Victorian literature, Victorian masculinity, heroic ideal


The aim of the article is to analyse the concept of gentlemanliness with regard to heroic masculinity in W.M. Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. Set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and written in the 1840s, the novel casts light on the controversial nature of the notion of gentleman. In the Victorian period, gentlemanliness came to be modelled on the principles of chivalry but there was nevertheless an implicit assumption originating from the Regency era that being a gentleman meant yielding to leisurely elegance rather than performing heroic deeds. Thackeray, whose formative years had passed in the Regency-tinted 1820s and early 1830s but who as a novelist gained maturity in the mid-nineteenth century, was acutely aware of the contradiction between the Regency and Victorian perceptions of gentlemanliness and the unease resulting therefrom. Thus, the paper argues that although the Regency standards of gentlemanliness were discarded as incompatible with Victorian heroic masculinity, they had a considerable influence on how heroism as a component of gentlemanliness was perceived in the Victorian era. The analysis of gentlemanliness focuses on the four principal male characters in the novel – Jos Sedley, Rawdon Crawley, George Osborne, and William Dobbin, of whom each represents aspects of gentlemanliness not entirely compatible with the Victorian heroic ideal. The article suggests that the characters take heroism as an asset for creating a heroic image rather than as a manifestation of heroic deeds, thus presenting vividly the contradiction within the concept of Victorian heroic masculinity.