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 one adventure after another.
Forced to earn an income, Becky takes a position as a governess for the household of Sir Pit Crawley. At Queen’s Crawley, Thackeray begins to introduce the crowd of minor figures that populates the novel and whose purpose it is to authenticate the sprawling, wandering plot and emphasize the profuse and disorganized world in which both the characters and the readers live. The best example of these minor characters occurs in chapter 47 with the Gaunt family, which is given a history; Thackeray even describes Gaunt Square, with its statue of Lord Gaunt.
In Becky and her quest to gain entry into the rich and pretentious life of the upper class, Thackeray expresses his resentment against English society. Becky makes fools of the pretentiously proud Crawleys and triumphs over the aristocratic Bareacres. Her adulterous affair with Lord Steyne and her murder of Jos Sedley (if she is indeed guilty) are far less damning in the reader’s eyes than her lack of motherly love. That same motherly love is Amelia Sedley’s only virtue. Other than that, Amelia is absolutely vapid. Her self-indulgent devotion to her dead husband’s (George Osbourne’s) memory and her unworthy attitude toward Captain William Dobbin are irritating. That Thackeray focuses upon Amelia’s motherly love, however, suggests Thackeray’s childhood and his separation from his mother at such an early age and reveals the systematic thought that underlies all of his works.
In the end, Becky is reunited with the unsuspecting Jos, and although she cannot obtain a divorce from Rawdon Crawley, they live as man and wife. Upon Jos’s suspicious death, Becky receives a considerable insurance payment and spends the rest of her life as a virtuous widow with a reputation for benevolence and generosity.
If, then, everyone is a part of the vanity fair, to condemn Becky or any of the other characters is to condemn oneself. As the puppets are put back in the box, Thackeray suggests that the best that can be expected is to possess charity toward others and to care for others as one cares for oneself. Otherwise, all is vanity.
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.
(The entire section is 2,171 words.)