"An Insuperable Repugnance to Hearing Vice Called by Its Proper Name": Englishness, Gender, and the Performed Identities of Rebecca and Amelia in Thackeray's Vanity Fair
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 32, Number 2, 2006
- pp. 1-25
- View Citation
- Additional Information
"An Insuperable Repugnance to Hearing Vice Called by Its Proper Name": Englishness, Gender, and the Performed Identities ofRebecca and Amelia in Thackeray's Vanity Fair Kit Dobson Identities in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair: A Novel Withouta Hero are at every turn constituted through performances, but these performances are only sustained with difficulty. The successful social acceptance ofcharacters among the "geneteel society" ofthe novel is predicated, I believe, upon the at-times active misrecognition ofsuch performed identities as being somehow "natural ."1 That is, characters perform what they deem to be roles that are socially "appropriate" according to what they have learned, but this performance is only recognized as appropriate as long as it is publicly construed as natural. Eventually, however, in the gossiping world that makes up Vanity Fair, the characters who attempt to perform what they perceive as an acceptable identity are undercut by others who recognize and denounce their performances as such, and thereby negate their supposed naturalness. The circulation ofinformation and gossip is thus invested with the power to make or unmake characters ' social standing, and controlling its flows thus becomes crucial to those in less secure positions. I want to explore the criticisms that the narrator and characters make of one another to undermine their posited-as-natural identities, focusing on Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp, two characters with shifting and unstable social positions. Critically, Amelia and Rebecca have long been read as opposing figures, but, while it is not unfair to do so — there is much in the text to support such a reading — examining the two in terms of their performed identities reveals a less sharply differentiated and binaristic Victorian Review (2006) K. Dobson perspective. While Rebecca's identity is often viewed explicitly as a performance, Amelia's "appropriately" feminine and English identity, consciously or not, remains a naturalized performance — it is simply performed with far greater success. In contrast to Rebecca's less appropriate actions, which are often interpreted by others as being "artful" or deceptive, Amelia is usually effective at having her performance of what Elizabeth Langland calls the "passive virtues" ofEnglish femininity (116) misrecognized as being authentic, rendering less apparent the points at which her performance can be recognized as artificial. By focusing especially upon William Dobbin's final disillusionment and reconciliation with Amelia, I want to explore the operations ofperformance in the text, examining its construction ofboth Rebecca and Amelia's identities as performed and, as a result, somehow lacking. In this exploration, I see the deployment ofperformed roles as potentially liberating, as enabling a disruption ofthe norms ofnaturalized identities and pointing towards a possible proliferation ofalternative identity categories; simultaneously, I see the social rejection of performed identities as an operation ofrepressive social structures that seek to maintain naturalized categories. An analysis ofthe more obvious performativity ofRebecca and its more subtle naturalization in Amelia - and ofits repression in both cases - thus points towards an unrealized liberatory potential. Though unrealized, this potential remains. Performed Identities: Gender and Nationality The concept ofperformativity in this essay is informed by the writing ofthe psychoanalytic gender theorist Judith Butler. Butler uses the concept ofperformativity in order to undermine the supposed naturalness ofgender categories, as she suggests that gender is constituted through nothing more than a repetition ofspecific acts and that, as a result, gender identities might be reconceived as a personal / cultural history of received meanings subject to a set of imitative practices which refer laterally to other imitations and which, jointly, construct the illusion ofa primary and interior gendered self volume 32 number 2 "An Insuperable Repugnance" or parody the mechanism ofthat construction. (Gender Trouble 176) Gender identity, for Butler, is constituted through an imitation ofan original that proves to be, ultimately, absent, as gender maintains no strictly identifiable essence; it consists ofeither "illusion" or "parody." For Butler, gender is imitative, but it is "an imitation for which there is no original" ("Imitation and Gender Insubordination" 21). Gender is thus constituted through repeated and sustained performances ofa gender identity that is presented as being stable through the concealing ofthe discrepancies between these repetitions: that gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions ofan essential sex and a...