W.M. Thackeray and “Vanity Fair”

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William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 – 1863) was born in India to a prosperous middle-class family. When he was just 3 years old, his father, an English official in Calcutta, died. As a result, Thackeray was sent to England for his education, attending school and later Cambridge University. While studying, Thackeray developed a strong interest in creating cartoons and writing poetry, particularly parodies.

Unable to tolerate the academic atmosphere at the University, he left before finishing his degree and instead decided to study art in Germany, Italy, and France. Upon returning to London, he made the choice to complete his education by enrolling in a law course in 1833. Unfortunately, his father’s investment in an Indian bank failed, leaving him with no money. As a result, he had to give up on his studies and find work for financial assistance.

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Thackeray opted for journalism as his occupation and became well-known for his amusing articles, essays, reviews, and short stories. In 1836, he wedded Isabella Shawe and they had three daughters together. Nevertheless, their marriage was overshadowed by sadness caused by Isabella’s illness and deteriorating mental state. Thackeray made the decision to give up his work in order to take care of her and offer solace, but unfortunately she never recovered her health. Eventually, an older woman assumed the responsibility of caring for Isabella. She lived for many years after Thackeray passed away.

William Makepeace Thackeray is a representative of Critical Realism in 19th century English literature. In his novels, Thackeray vividly describes both middle class and aristocratic society, including their lifestyle, manners, and preferences. He exposes their pride, tyranny, hypocrisy, snobbishness, selfishness, and wickedness. Thackeray’s sharp understanding of human nature allows him to analyze and satirize his characters. His criticism is forceful and his satire is sharp and cutting.

He is adept at realistically depicting negative characters, showcasing an exact and objective realism. Thackeray continues the tradition of realism established by his predecessors, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding, and emerges as a prominent realist and satirist of his time. His characters undergo development throughout the story instead of remaining static, portraying the natural consequences of their surroundings and the society they were brought up in. He presents his characters through a detached perspective, a novel aspect in literature later termed objective realism.

Thackeray’s lack of belief in the potential for reforming mankind and his pessimism mark the emergence of the crisis of bourgeois humanism that characterizes the literature of the second half of the 19th century. According to Thackeray, the world is a “Vanity Fair” where individuals are characterized by their greed, arrogance, pettiness, and a contentment with their supposed virtue. They disdain poverty and kindness, displaying snobbish behavior. Thackeray coined the term “snob” in his “Book of Snobs.” A snob is someone who flatters their social superiors and looks down upon their inferiors. The book features a gallery of snobs, demonstrating that snobbery was pervasive among the ruling class in England at that time. Thackeray states that a society that claims to be polite but dismisses art and literature is inherently snobbish. Those who despise their neighbors or forsake their own friends to pursue those of higher social standing are also snobs. Likewise, those who feel shame over their poverty or profession, or who boast about their lineage or wealth are categorized as snobs. “Vanity Fair” stands as a prime example of 19th century Critical Realism.

Thackeray not only succeeded in portraying the epoch in which he lived, but also in depicting human nature, people’s lives, and the passage of time. The subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero” emphasizes that the author does not focus on individual characters, but instead on English bourgeois-aristocratic society as a whole. Thackeray presents a diverse range of individuals, showcasing their thoughts and actions in various situations. The author believes that a society dominated by the worship of money cannot have true heroes. “Vanity Fair” is a social novel that explores the laws governing bourgeois-aristocratic society, where everything is bought and sold. The author compares the characters in the novel to puppets and society itself to a puppet show. Thackeray criticizes the vanity, pretentiousness, prejudices, and corruption of the aristocracy (such as Lord Crawley and Lord Steyne), as well as the narrow-mindedness and greed of the bourgeoisie (such as the Osbornes and the Sedleys). Overall, the author presents a satirical depiction of England during that time.

The novel revolves around two girls with contrasting personalities: Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky, being the offspring of a destitute artist, is depicted as an unscrupulous and audacious woman. Conversely, Amelia, the daughter of an affluent urban merchant, embodies integrity but lacks cleverness. The portrayal of Becky’s character skillfully highlights her attractiveness, intelligence, and talent. She possesses a keen wit and a deep comprehension of human behavior. Ultimately, Rebecca personifies the core essence of Vanity Fair.

Her sole purpose in life is to infiltrate high society at any cost, disregarding the notions of love and friendship. She is willing to marry any man who can provide her with wealth and a title. Eventually, she marries Captain Rawdon Crawley, the son of Sir Pitt Crawley, in hopes that her husband will one day inherit a substantial sum from his affluent aunt. However, her aspirations remain unfulfilled. Through flattery, deceit, and treachery, Becky manages to ascend the social ladder, yet finds no happiness in her newfound status. In contrast to Rebecca Sharp, Amelia Sedley is known for her sincerity, generosity, and kindness.

Thackeray portrays Amelia as lacking the intelligence to recognize the true nature of those around her, thus she cannot be considered the novel’s heroine. She remains naive and unsuspecting of the manipulative actions of her cunning friend, Rebecca. Amelia’s love for George Osborne, her thoughtless and self-centered husband, causes her best years to become ruined. Thackeray uses subtle irony to depict Amelia’s character. Despite experiencing poverty and despair following her father’s bankruptcy, she manages to secure her position among the snobbish middle class after receiving an inheritance from a relative.

Thackeray’s satire reaches its peak when he portrays Sir Pitt Crawley, a typical snob from Vanity Fair. As the owner of Queen’s Crawley, he is a baronet with both money and a title. In Becky’s words, Sir Pitt can be described as an old, vulgar, cruel, and untidy man who wears shabby clothes and smokes a dreadful pipe. He speaks with a rural accent and swears frequently. Furthermore, he is known for being stingy and never giving money to anyone. Lord Steyne also falls into the category of aristocratic snobs.

He is both cynical and clever, completely corrupted to his core. He achieved his title and wealth by marrying a wealthy woman from a high social status and is highly regarded as an influential member of society. Thackeray’s writing style is characterized by frequent disruptions in the narrative, allowing him to directly address the reader regarding the various characters. Instead of explicitly stating his thoughts about them, the author often conveys his attitude through the actions and dialogues of the characters or through vivid descriptions that prompt the reader to adopt the author’s perspective.

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W.M. Thackeray and “Vanity Fair”. (2017, Jan 30). Retrieved from


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