English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Victorians Institute Journal 38:1 (2008): 167-191. Copyright 2008 The Victorians Institute.


Victorian sartorial convention allowed for the routine inspection of only two body parts: the head and the hands. While it is well-documented that the perceptual codes of phrenology and physiognomy shaped psychological, aesthetic and fictional conventions by the middle of the nineteenth century, the hand has attracted relatively little attention. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to identify a critic of Vanity Fair who does not comment on the relationship between Becky Sharp's facial expressions and the pervasiveness of her manipulative temperament. However, even within the heavily sifted topic of "manipulation" in Vanity Fair, critics have overlooked the extent to which Becky's social maneuverability depends on Thackeray's representation of her hands.

As I intend to demonstrate, the partial invisibility of Becky's hands is a deliberate and fundamental aspect of Vanity Fair's thematic and formal design. That is, for her subversive gestures to have social efficacy, they must be both observable and camouflaged. Drawing on the work of body theorists who discuss the ways that social values are anatomized in unremarkable attributes of physical bearing, I show how the indeterminacy of Becky's manual gesture allows her to perform subordinate social actions while still asserting individual agency. Since her gestures fulfill social obligation yet contain sublimated aggression, Becky's hand constitutes one of the few sites where Victorian hierarchies can be contested, destabilized, and even inverted. Her hand is so frequently the object of Thackeray's narrative and pictorial attention in Vanity Fair not merely because it was a central topic of popular discourse in the 1840s, but also because it provides a dynamic location for the novel's overarching concern with the physical and psychic foundations of social control.