Gone With the Wind is the new improved Vanity Fair

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Lex Fridman’s reading list doesn’t include William Makepeace Thackeray‘s Vanity Fair, but Steve Sailer’s review has me intrigued:

It’s extremely enjoyable. Despite a fairly rambling plot covering almost 800 pages from roughly 1813 to 1828, it’s a page-turner because the characters and situations are interesting enough that you want to find out what happens.

I’d describe Vanity Fair as the precursor to Gone With the Wind, in that it centers around two young women, the nice but mopey Amelia (the precursor of Melanie Hamilton, played by Olivia De Havilland) and the not nice but more interesting Becky Sharp (Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh).


The male characters in both tend to be army officers who go off to a big battle, Waterloo in VF and Gettysburg in GWTH.

Overall, I’d say that GWTH is the new improved VF, with more memorable characters and settings. Margaret Mitchell always denied having read Vanity Fair, but Gone With the Wind sure seems like a punched up version of Vanity Fair, with Mitchell raising the stakes wherever Thackeray was inclined to let them ride.

For instance, while the British win at Waterloo and so English society mostly goes on as before, the Southerners lose at Gettysburg and soon the old society is, like the title says, gone with the wind. The Southerners need to learn a lot of hard new lessons about life. Melanie and her husband Ashley Wilkes fail to adapt to the new world, while Scarlett, despite her self-centered sense of entitlement and general knuckleheadedness, eventually succeeds.

In contrast, from the first page of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp, a poor orphan, is smarter than the rich people around her. Thackeray points out near the beginning of the book that when she claims to love children that she would soon learn not to make claims so easily disproved. “The little adventuress” seldom learns over the 800 pages because she was already supremely worldly wise from a tender age.

In contrast to Scarlett, Becky is always rational to the point of being cold-blooded. Becky wants material comfort and to rise in status, but she lacks particular passions (until late in the book when she starts to develop a gambling problem). She has no Ashley Wilkes to pine over.

Indeed, Becky is so reasonable that she often behaves surprisingly nicely to the other characters because, having calculated all the factors, she doesn’t see how it could cost her much.

And Mitchell takes Thackeray’s admirable but stiff Captain Dobbin, who is lovelorn over Amelia throughout who foolishly ignores him, and turns him into the pirate king Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instead of being lovelorn over Melanie is lovelorn over Scarlett. This creates the 20th Century’s most popular fictional couple.

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