(Novels for Students)

There is one clear, overarching theme in Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, and Thackeray telegraphs it in his title and subtitle. In the pages of Vanity Fair, all is vanity and all are vain. Some are more vain—more obsessed with self and with the ephemeral treasures of social position and money—than others, but none, in the author's estimation, can be called heroic.

The title is borrowed from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in which Vanity Fair is a town that exists for the purpose of diverting men and women from the road to heaven. The town's residents are all mean and ignorant, and they all make their living by enticing passersby to spend what they have on worldly vanities—items that offer brief sensual pleasure but have no lasting value. Thackeray transports Vanity Fair to London in the early 1800s and peoples his version with characters, primarily from the middle and upper classes, who live only to obtain higher social status and more money, and who are happy to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and betray in the pursuit of these goals. It is worth noting, as well, that Thackeray's Vanity Fair, like Bunyan's, is explicitly a godless place; both authors believe that the unrestrained vanity they portray is possible only among people who have no concept of a God who sets, upholds, and enforces moral standards. In an often-quoted letter to a personal correspondent, written in July 1847, before Vanity Fair was finished, Thackeray wrote, "What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world. . . greedy, pompous, mean, perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue."

Thackeray succeeded so well in doing this that the novel has been faulted, more often than for anything else, for the unrelenting baseness of its characters. The vainest of all is Becky Sharp. Becky is proud of the physical attractiveness and clever wit that allow her to charm men. Her ultimate effect on them is similar to a spider's effect on a fly, which finds itself trapped and consumed. As her first husband, Rawdon...

(The entire section is 891 words.)