Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero is Thackeray’s best-known work, and it established his reputation as a master of social satire. The title is taken from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it is, as Thackeray reveals in the preface, in the same manner a frankly moralistic novel. Posing as the Manager of the Performance, he reminds his readers to avoid simply passing through the emblematic Vanity Fair and to experience it in a “contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind,” for everyone, including the author, is a part of the fair.
Thackeray’s intrusive comments serve the purpose of distancing the reader from the characters, thereby forcing the reader to judge not only the “puppets” but also himself or herself. Thus, the reader cannot feel simple approval or disapproval for any of the main figures, least of all for Becky Sharp, the best character that Thackeray ever created. Indeed, Becky is clever, underprivileged, and courageous; she is also heartless, selfish, and amoral. She takes advantage of the gentle nature of her school friend Amelia Sedley and literally stalks Amelia’s brother Jos as a husband who could give her wealth and social position. In characteristic Thackerayan style, Becky’s plans are foiled through no fault of her own, and Jos returns to India still a bachelor. Thus, the vicissitudes of life, over which Thackeray’s characters have no control, sustain the story and propel Becky into...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley become good friends while they are students at Miss Pinkerton’s School for girls. It is proof of Amelia’s good, gentle nature that she takes as kindly as she does to her friend, who is generally disliked by all the other girls. Amelia overlooks the indications of Becky’s selfishness as much as she can. After the two girls finish their education at the school, Becky accompanies her friend to her home for a short visit. There she first meets Joseph Sedley, Amelia’s older brother, called Jos, who is home on leave from military service in India. Jos is shy, unused to women, and certainly to women as designing and flirtatious as Becky. His blundering and awkward manners do not appeal to many women, but Becky is happy to overlook these faults when she compares them with his wealth and his social position. Amelia innocently believes that her friend fell in love with her brother, and she discreetly tries to further the romance.
To this end, she arranges a party at Vauxhall. Becky and Jos, along with Amelia and her admirer, George Osborne, are present. There is a fifth member of the group, Captain Dobbin, a tall, lumbering fellow, also in service in India. He was in love with Amelia for a long time, but he recognizes that dashing George is much more suitable for her. All the maneuvering of the flirtatious Becky and the amiable Amelia, however, is not sufficient to corner Jos, who drinks too much punch and believes that he made a silly figure of himself at the party. A day or so later, a letter delivered to the Sedley household announces that Jos is ill and plans to return to India as soon as possible.
Since there is no longer any reason for Becky to remain with the Sedleys, she leaves Amelia, after many tears and kisses, to take a position as governess to two young girls at Queen’s Crawley. The head of the household is Sir Pitt Crawley, a cantankerous old man renowned for his miserliness. Lady Crawley is an apathetic soul who lives in fear of her husband’s unreasonable outbursts. Becky decides that she has nothing to fear from her timid mistress and spends most of her time ingratiating herself with Sir Pitt and ignoring her pupils. Becky also shows great interest in Miss Crawley, a spinster aunt of the family, who is exceedingly wealthy. Miss Crawley pays little attention to Sir Pitt and his children, but she is fond of Rawdon Crawley, a captain in the army and a son of Sir Pitt by a previous marriage. She is so fond of her dashing young nephew that she supports him through school and pays all of his gambling debts with only a murmur.
During Becky’s stay, Miss Crawley visits Sir Pitt only once, at a time when Rawdon is also present. The handsome young dragoon soon falls prey to Becky’s wiles and follows her about devotedly. Becky also takes care to ingratiate herself with the holder of the purse strings. Miss Crawley finds Becky witty and charming and does not attempt to disguise her opinion that the little governess is worth all the rest of the Crawley household put together. Becky, therefore, finds herself in a very enviable position. Both Sir Pitt and his handsome son are obviously interested in her. Miss Crawley insists that Becky accompany her back to London.
Becky is expected to return to her pupils after only a short stay with Miss Crawley; but Miss Crawley takes ill and refuses to allow anyone but her dear Becky to nurse her. Afterward, there are numerous other excuses to prevent the governess from returning to her duties. Certainly, Becky is not unhappy. Rawdon is a constant caller and a devoted suitor for Becky’s hand. When the news arrives that Lady Crawley died, no great concern is felt by anyone. A few days later, however, Sir Pitt himself appears, asking to see Miss Sharp. Much to Becky’s surprise, the baronet throws himself at her feet and asks her to marry him. Regretfully, she refuses his offer. She is already secretly married to Rawdon.
Following this disclosure, Rawdon and his bride leave for a honeymoon at Brighton. Chagrined and angry, old Miss Crawley takes to her bed, changes her will, and cuts off her nephew without a shilling. Sir Pitt raves with anger. Amelia’s marriage also precipitates a family crisis. Her romance with George proceeds with good wishes on both sides until Mr. Sedley loses most of his money through some unfortunate business deals. Then George’s snobbish father orders his son to break his engagement to a penniless woman. George, whose affection for Amelia was never stable, is inclined to accept this parental command; but Captain Dobbin, who sees with distress that Amelia is breaking her heart over George, finally prevails upon the young man to go through with the marriage, regardless of his father’s wishes. When the couple arrive...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)