(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.)