Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray


Vanity Fair


William Makepeace Thackeray published his classic novel Vanity Fair for the first time between 1847 and 1848. Set against the backdrop of early 19th-century England, the novel presents a satirical and insightful exploration of society, ambition, and human nature. Through a diverse cast of characters and a richly woven plot, Thackeray delves into the themes of social climbing, morality, and the pursuit of happiness. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive analysis of Vanity Fair, covering its plot, characters, themes, writing style, setting, historical context, and impact on literature.

Plot and Storyline

Vanity Fair follows the lives of two contrasting women, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, brought together as schoolgirls and later navigating the complexities of society. Rebecca, a resourceful and ambitious orphan, is determined to rise above her humble origins and secure a place in the upper echelons of society. Amelia, on the other hand, is a kind-hearted and naive young woman who represents traditional values and innocence.

The novel traces their journeys through various social circles, highlighting the stark contrast between their personalities and ambitions. Rebecca, with her manipulative nature, uses her wit and charm to ascend the social ladder, often resorting to deceit and manipulation. Meanwhile, Amelia remains loyal to her unrequited love for George Osborne, a charming but self-centered man who eventually marries another woman.

Throughout the narrative, Thackeray presents a series of events and encounters that shape the characters’ lives and reveal the complexities of human nature. He skillfully weaves together subplots and introduces a host of intriguing secondary characters, such as the wealthy and influential Sir Pitt Crawley, the honorable and steadfast Captain William Dobbin, and the conniving social climber, Mrs. Bute Crawley.

Twists and turns abound in Vanity Fair, as characters face moral dilemmas, experience betrayals, and confront the consequences of their actions. Thackeray masterfully explores the themes of ambition, love, greed, and social hypocrisy, creating a compelling story that keeps readers engaged until the final pages.


Vanity Fair boasts a diverse ensemble of characters, each with their own motivations, flaws, and virtues. Rebecca Sharp, the novel’s anti-heroine, is a complex and captivating character. She is intelligent, resourceful, and determined to secure her place in society, even if it means sacrificing her integrity. Through Rebecca, Thackeray explores themes of ambition, social mobility, and the pursuit of happiness.

Amelia Sedley, in contrast, represents innocence and traditional values. Her unrequited love for George Osborne, a person who is self-centered and driven by vanity, serves as a critique of the shallowness and superficiality of society. Amelia’s journey highlights the themes of unrequited love, loyalty, and the consequences of idealizing others.

Captain William Dobbin emerges as a moral compass in the novel, displaying unwavering loyalty and genuine affection for Amelia. His steadfastness and integrity provide a stark contrast to the other characters, showcasing Thackeray’s exploration of true virtue and the complexities of human relationships.

Themes and Symbols

Thackeray skillfully weaves several themes and symbols throughout Vanity Fair, enriching the narrative and offering deeper insights into the human experience. One prominent theme is social climbing, as characters navigate the rigid social hierarchy of the time. Thackeray exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness of society’s values, questioning the pursuit of wealth and status as the ultimate measure of success.

Another significant theme is morality, explored through the choices and actions of the characters. Thackeray examines the consequences of deceit, manipulation, and greed, emphasizing the importance of personal integrity and the potential for redemption.

The symbol of the “vanity fair” itself represents the transient nature of worldly pursuits and the fickleness of societal values. Thackeray critiques the superficiality and emptiness of a society obsessed with appearances and the pursuit of fleeting pleasures.

Writing Style

Satirical wit, social commentary, and astute observation are all characteristics of Thackeray’s writing style in Vanity Fair. His prose is richly descriptive, capturing the nuances of characters and settings. The author employs irony, humor, and biting sarcasm to expose the follies and vices of society, creating a satirical tone that both entertains and provokes reflection.

Thackeray’s narrative structure is multi-layered, with subplots and digressions that contribute to the overall tapestry of the novel. He frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly and providing commentary on the events and characters. This technique adds depth to the storytelling and engages the reader in a dialogue about the themes and ideas presented.

Setting and Atmosphere

Vanity Fair is primarily set in early 19th-century England, a time of significant social and political change. Thackeray vividly depicts the various social circles, from the opulent mansions of the aristocracy to the humble dwellingsof the lower classes. The contrast between these settings serves to highlight the disparities in wealth, privilege, and social standing.

The atmosphere of Vanity Fair is often satirical and cynical, reflecting Thackeray’s critique of society. The author creates a sense of decadence, shallowness, and moral ambiguity through his vivid descriptions and character portrayals. The setting and atmosphere contribute to the novel’s overall tone, providing a backdrop against which the themes and conflicts unfold.

Historical, Social, or Political Context

Vanity Fair was written during a period of significant social and political change in England. The novel reflects the Victorian era’s emphasis on social class, wealth, and the pursuit of respectability. The prevailing values and norms of the time have an impact on Thackeray’s critique of society and his investigation of human nature.

The novel also reflects the gender roles and expectations of the Victorian era, as women like Rebecca and Amelia navigate the limited opportunities and societal constraints placed upon them. Thackeray’s portrayal of these female characters offers insights into the challenges and restrictions faced by women during this period.

Impact and Reception

Vanity Fair has had a lasting impact on literature and continues to be regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Thackeray’s satirical and insightful portrayal of society has influenced subsequent works and remains relevant today.

The novel received mixed reviews upon its initial publication, with some critics praising its social commentary and characterizations while others found fault with its moral ambiguity. Over time, Vanity Fair has garnered recognition for its literary merits and its exploration of universal themes and human nature.

The cultural significance of Vanity Fair lies in its critique of societal values and its examination of ambition, morality, and the pursuit of happiness. Thackeray’s portrayal of flawed and complex characters resonates with readers, provoking thought and reflection on the human condition.

How does Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray reflect the societal values and moral complexities of the Victorian era?

Answer: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray provides a scathing critique of the societal values and moral complexities prevalent during the Victorian era. Through the characters and their actions, the novel exposes the obsession with social climbing, the superficiality of appearances, and the pursuit of wealth and status. Thackeray’s exploration of themes such as ambition, morality, and the consequences of deceit reflects the societal pressures and constraints faced by individuals in a rapidly changing society. By examining the flawed and complex nature of his characters, Thackeray offers a thought-provoking commentary on the moral ambiguities and contradictions of the Victorian era.

Final Conclusions

Vanity Fair is a masterful work of literature that delves into the complexities of society, ambition, and human nature. Thackeray’s richly woven plot, memorable characters, and incisive social commentary make the novel a timeless exploration of universal themes.

Through its examination of social climbing, morality, and the pursuit of happiness, Vanity Fair offers valuable insights into the human experience. Thackeray’s writing style, which is characterized by satirical wit and keen observation, enhances the narrative and engages readers in a stimulating dialogue.

Set against the backdrop of early 19th-century England, the novel captures the nuances of the social hierarchy, cultural context, and historical period. Thackeray’s critique of society and exploration of gender roles provide a deeper understanding of the Victorian era and its values.

Vanity Fair’s impact on literature is significant, with its enduring relevance and influence on subsequent works. The novel’s reception among readers and critics has evolved over time, solidifying its place as a classic of English literature.

In conclusion, Vanity Fair stands as a remarkable literary achievement, offering a compelling narrative, complex characters, and profound themes that continue to resonate with readers today.


Vanity Fair (novel) – Wikipedia

Vanity Fair | Victorian England, Satire, Social Criticism | Britannica

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray Plot Summary | LitCharts