Vanity Fair Summary

William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair

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Vanity Fair Summary

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William Makepeace Thackery’s novel Vanity Fair was originally published as a serialized fiction in nineteen volumes in 1847 and was subtitled, Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society. When the satire was published in book form in 1848, the subtitle was changed to A Novel without a Hero. Its characters are virtually lacking in positive qualities and are obsessed with social climbing and the acquisition of wealth. The title, Vanity Fair, comes from a reference in John Bunyan’s novel-like allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a city called Vanity hosts an ancient festival, Vanity Fair, where the devil is worshipped and Christians are mocked for their faith. Thackeray’s novel centers on the lives of Becky Sharp and Emmy Sedley during and following the Napoleonic Wars.

As the novel opens, Becky and Emmy are at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for young women. They are friends but have more differences than similarities. Becky is smart and conniving and from a poor background. Emmy comes from wealth and has an aura of innocence. Miss Pinkerton cannot tolerate Becky’s conduct and arranges for her to serve as a governess on the estate of the Crawley family. Before beginning her position as a governess, Becky spends a week at Emmy’s home where she finds acceptance with Emmy’s family and seduces her brother Jos, who is home visiting from his job as a tax collector in India. Becky almost has him ready to marry her but Emmy’s romantic interest, George, convinces Jos he is acting foolishly. Jos quickly leaves and an angry Becky proceeds to her job.

The main goal of the Crawley family is to position themselves to be in line for the inheritance of ailing Aunt Matilda. Becky, as she was able to do with Emmy’s family, gets herself in the Crawleys’ good graces and in particular becomes the object of desire for Sir Pitt and Rawdon, both of whom want to marry her. She secretly agrees to marry Rawdon, raising the ire of the family and Sir Pitt. Emmy meanwhile is feeling rejected by George, who is in the military and seems to have forgotten about her. George’s friend Dobbin is in love with Emmy. In time, George wants to marry Emmy, while at the same time the Sedley family loses its fortune as a result of bad business decisions, and George is disowned by his father.

Soon, the Duke of Wellington declares war on the Napoleonic army and, with most men in the military, characters move to Belgium in preparation for the battle. Emmy is worried about George, and Rawdon regrets having to leave Becky, who seemingly unconcerned with Rawdon, appears to be developing feelings for George. George is killed in the Battle of Waterloo. Sir Pitt, whose second wife has died, begins an affair with the daughter of a butler and scandalizes the household. Aunt Matilda takes a liking to Sir Pitt’s oldest son although she never liked any of his other boys. Sons are born to Emmy and Becky. Becky and Rawdon survive without much money while the financial situation of Emmy’s family continues to deteriorate.

As the plot unfolds, Sir Pitt dies, his son inherits Aunt Matilda’s money, and asks Becky, Rawdon, and their son to live at the estate with him. When Becky takes up with Lord Steyne and becomes part of society, he sends her son away to school and keeps her from her husband. Rawdon is in prison for not paying gambling debts. Later, when he returns home, he discovers her relationship with Steyne and challenges him to a duel. The duel does not take place and Rawdon leaves. Dobbin reappears in England where Emmy continues to mourn the death of George. Dobbin helps her take care of her son. In time, Emmy’s son is taken in by Mr. Osborne, George’s father, who will be able to give him a better life than Emmy could. He does not change his negative view of Emmy, however. After twelve years go by, Dobbin remains loyal to Emmy. Osborne dies shortly after reconciling with his daughter-in-law and leaves both Emmy and his grandson well provided for.

Emmy and Dobbin travel to Germany where they find Becky penniless and living among the dregs of society. Old feelings and jealousies emerge, complicating things among Becky, Dobbin, and Emmy. Emmy and Dobbin eventually move on from the past and return to England together. Becky ultimately, under potentially suspicious circumstances, receives a benefit from Jos when he dies and is able to start a new life in England.

Vanity Fair, in spite of containing elements some consider to be flaws, is a classic of English literature. Minor plot inconsistencies are cited as well as an overabundance of allusions. The subtitle, A Novel without a Hero, is considered most appropriate in that all of the characters are flawed and are slaves to greed, vanity, and hypocrisy. Thackeray’s use of character flaws as a focus rather than idealizing the characters is seen as a strength that attempts to build a sense of realism more than the typical fiction of his time.