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...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)
As Vanity Fair opens, Amelia Sedley, a conventional girl from a well-to-do family, and Becky Sharp, Sedley's orphaned, penniless, and already corrupt friend, are leaving Miss Pinkerton's school where they have met and become friends. They go to the Sedley home where Becky will be a guest until she goes on to the governess position that Miss Pinkerton has arranged for her.
Becky meets Amelia's older brother, Joseph, called Jos, who is on leave from his government post in India. Although Jos is fat, lazy, conceited, and shy with women, he is also financially well-off, and Becky schemes to marry him. Through flattery and false modesty, Becky succeeds in making all the Sedleys believe that she truly is enamored of Jos, and Jos is inclined to propose to her. George Osborne, Amelia's fiancé, intervenes, persuading Jos that he has embarrassed himself in Becky's presence. George does not want a governess for a sister-in-law. Defeated, Becky leaves for the Crawley estate where she is to be governess.
The mean-spirited and stingy Sir Pitt Crawley is the patriarch of Queen's Crawley where Becky takes up her post as governess to his two young daughters, Rosalind and Violet. Sir Pitt also has two...
(The entire section is 1585 words.)