Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Vanity Fair takes place in early 19th Century England (with glimpses of France, Brussels, and bits of India as well). There is much of the pomp and circumstance one might expect from a British Victorian novel about class & society, but Thackeray also channels a bit of the Dickens and exposes his characters (or his readers) to the darker underbelly of England’s caste system as well, particularly those unwitting victims who never stood a chance. This is the third novel (after Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities) that I can remember employing the England-France struggle, and the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, as a narrative stimulant or plot device. This would be, also, probably the third in importance as far as the time spent on explaining the historical significance of the battle on history and relations between these nations, though many characters in Vanity Fair are military men or their relations. I found the setting and plot to be interesting, particularly the misanthropic spin that Thackeray weaves into the story: many writers of the time, given a similar inspiration or subject matter, would have focused just on the beneficence and “play” of the rich, or on the plight of the poor but Thackeray somehow manages to create a more honest work, in which the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, the character flaws and redeeming traits of all are factored into the play (because, as readers will see, Vanity Fair, though a novel, really is quite a play – and Thackeray is the stage master).

3 – Characters well developed.

As mentioned above, one of the brightest spots for this novel is the attention paid to all of the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Hardly any characters, save some minor ones, come across as flat or static – or even wholly motivated by one single impetus. The main characters, Rebecca (Becky, the wench!) and Amelia (oh, humble Emmy!) are clearly opposing forces, one portrayed as a vindictive, win-at-all-costs vixen; the other, a charming, generous, and kind-hearted (and heartbroken) virgin-mother figure. The surprises come in nearer to the end, though, when Thackeray begins to show the lovelier side (can it be?) of Becky, and the selfishness of our dear Emmy. This was clever and truly helped keep the story engaging, and allowed it to end in an interesting manner. Without their two stories and the sometime surprises afforded to the reader from both of the women, Vanity Fair really could have been quite a bore (which is, really, probably Thackeray’s point). Still, beyond these two – and perhaps the good Dobbin, not much is to be said about the remaining characters. While they too demonstrate their goodness (charity, beneficence, humility) and their poorer qualities (shallowness, dim-witted gullibility, greed) – none ever truly seem to grow or change as the story goes on. The only exception may be Amelia’s father-in-law who, in the end, may surprise the readers.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Thackeray’s prose and style, fortunately, are fluid and engaging. The novel is a hefty one, my copy weighing in around 850 pages. Had the prose been too lofty or the style to vague or disconnected, I could have easily given up on the book before getting halfway. It is Thackeray’s wit and subtlety, his elegance of phrase and his talent for dialogue and (albeit slightly skewed/biased) narration which help guide the reader along and keep him or her engaged in the tryst through Vanity Fair (treated by the author as an actual place – which is, perhaps, the most obvious element of satire and irony though much more abounds throughout the pages). There was a nice balance of short and long chapters, so that it was not possible, really to anticipate how detailed a particular portion of the story would be until you were done with the relevant chapter. I also enjoyed the inclusion of certain interjections by the narrator about what was happening, either relating it to the farce of “Vanity Fair” in general, or to history as it was. At times, epistolary moments were brought in to add another layer of humanity and profundity to the moment – a son lost, a wife betrayed, a friend in need. What would have improved my particular addition of the novel, though, would have been footnotes at the bottom of the pages, rather than in the back. I do not enjoy breaking the flow of reading to flip to appendices and notes – particularly in a book of this length. That, however, is publishing/editorial choice, and not the fault of the author.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and enhance the story.

There are many themes which persist throughout the novel. The most obvious of these themes, of course, are vanity and social values/status. Almost every character in the novel, with the exception, again of Major Dobbin and perhaps Amelia’s young son (who shows a genuine consideration for certain people, as opposed to their stature), are concerned entirely with wealth, status, and getting their “due.” Even Emmy, who perhaps not vain in the monetary sense, was the cause of ruin to a man and his family because she refused to accept that a better, more suitable match should have been found (yes, we die-hard romantics might side with her at first – but keep reading!). Another theme is the idea of illusions and reality – how many of us can truly tell what the reality of a situation is, and how much of it is actually our own or others projections based on what we desire to see? It is also interesting to try to divine what Thackeray’s real point is. Certainly he is condemning vanity in general but, as he is equally harsh in his treatment of the rich and the poor, it seems he may be expounding a general condemnation for “civilized” society as absurd and backward (it is hard not to channel Kurt Vonnegut when reading Vanity Fair under these terms). Robert Louis Stevenson posed an interesting question after reading the book. He wondered whether, without the character of Rawdon Crawley (Rebecca’s husband) striking the Lord Steyne (Rebecca’s generous benefactor) upon walking in on the two at a rather compromising and suspicious time, would this novel seek to be a work of art and, instead, be just another book? At first, I was hard-pressed to believe that one action by one character in an 800 page novel would be the barometer for greatness but, upon days of reflection, I must agree that, had Crawley not taken action in that very moment he, like the rest of the players in Vanity Fair would have continued to exist only in a superficial light. That Thackeray gave Crawley a spine, if just for a moment, seems to hint that he does believe, underneath all the farce and the money and the struggle for power and inheritance, humanity might just rear its real and passionate head.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literature, English caste history, British fiction, Historical fiction

8 Comments on “Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

  1. >Not gonna lie- Vanity Fair is one of the only books (other than Kafka's Trial) that I just couldn't finish. Becky is so annoying that I couldn't see myself investing 800 pages worth of effort into finding out what happens to her. Maybe I'll pick it up again someday, but I doubt it. Different strokes, I guess!


  2. >Becky Sharp is incredibly annoying. So is Amelia, in her own way. The only truly redeeming female characters (in my opinion) are Jane Sheepshanks (who marries Pitt) and Peggy O'Dowd. Still, Becky and Amelia are supposed to be annoying and even a bit obnoxious. Which is fortunate for Thackeray, 'cause he wrote them brilliantly to play the parts. ;P


  3. >And – I gave up on Anne Radcliffe's The Mystereis of Udolpho. I still have it on my shelf and I plan to go back to it because all of my literati friends speak incredibly highly of it. I didn't get more than maybe 90 pages into it and had to call it quits. Pages and pages about the description of a tree and a field.. ugh. Stop.


  4. >I have to also say that Vanity Fair is one of the few books I couldn't finish. I had to read it for a university class (where I also read Dickens and the Brontes and loved them). I ended up just reading the beginning, the end and the chapters my professor said were important. It sits on my shelf and sometimes I wonder if I'll ever actually read it. After your review, I might… eventually.


  5. >"After your review, I might… eventually." LOL! Glad to know my thoughts made such an impact. ;P Just kidding, of course. It certainly was not my favorite novel, but it was good for what it was. If you go into it knowing (and reminding yourself throughout the many, many pages) that Thackeray is a big doofus who is essentially just mad at the world and making fun of everyone who is "serious" about everything, which amounts to nothing, well, then it gets better. I think. 🙂


  6. >I'm generally terrified of chunky books for the simple reason that I tend to have little time lately (work, baby). However, I did take the plunge and download this one to my Nook because I REALLY want to read it. Thanks for an enlightening review! Well done.


  7. >Thanks for all the comments! I'm glad to hear that there is still at least some interest in the classics and real literature. Seems like a good 90% of the book bloggers I find are mainly into, well, fluff fiction. Not that there isn't a place for that – I read plenty of fun & simple stuff. But, you know, gimme the good'uns too!


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