Thackeray's initial At the close of Vanity Fair the reader is left to wonder whether or not the irrepressible Becky Sharp has murdered Joseph Sedley for his money. The novel leaves matters ambiguous, and numerous scholars have speculated about whether or not Becky is the sort of character who would actually commit a premeditated homicide (most notably John Sutherland in his 1996 book Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction). Sutherland ultimately argues that Becky is innocent of the crime, but the ambiguous ending provides the perfect opportunity for an undergraduate class to explore the circumstantial evidence provided in the text.

For this assignment, the class is told that after reviewing the circumstances of Jos Sedley's death, the authorities have decided to arrest Rebecca Sharp and try her for murder. The class is then divided into three, with one group working on the prosecution's case, another constructing a defence for Becky, and a third serving as a makeshift jury (the instructor can serve as judge or assign this role to a student). The defence must select one person to be Becky, and three people to serve as her infamous lawyers: Messrs. Burke, Thurtell, and Hayes; the prosecution group members choose one person amongst themselves to be the crown prosecutor, and three people to be the key prosecution witnesses against Becky: Amelia Sedley, Captain Dobbin, and little Rawdon Crawley.

The prosecution begins by putting on its three witnesses to testify for five minutes each, with five minutes of cross-examination allowed in between each of the witnesses' testimony. The students playing Burke, Thurtell, and Hayes should decide beforehand which of the characters they will cross-examine, and also who among them will give the defence's closing arguments. Once the prosecution has rested, Becky takes the stand and is allowed to give testimony for ten minutes before being cross-examined for ten minutes by the crown prosecutor. Once this is finished and both sides have rested, the jury retires to consider its decision. The jury has ten minutes to reach a unanimous verdict, otherwise a mistrial is declared.


Victorian Web Overview W. M. Thackeray

Last modified 2000