Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Context


Victorian Social Structures

Vanity Fair is set in the recent past for its mid-19th century Victorian readership. The social structures, manners, and expectations William Makepeace Thackeray observes and satirizes in the novel formed the fabric of his readers' lives. Although a middle class began to emerge during the Victorian period, class structure was still fairly rigid. Despite the increasing stability and political clout of the middle class by midcentury when Vanity Fair was published, mobility among classes was limited. Power and wealth were still concentrated in the hands of the aristocracy and gentry. It was traditionally accepted that higher-class people were not just richer or more educated—they were also better and more deserving. However, this viewpoint was increasingly coming under fire, as evidenced in Thackeray's often unflattering descriptions of wealthy people. In addition, as class structures became more destabilized, intelligent young men from the middle and even lower classes might rise through education or military service if they were fortunate enough to have patrons promoting their interests. But for young women, marrying into a higher class was the only way to rise socially.

To move among people in the upper classes required knowledge of respectable behavior and elite etiquette, which is why the Sedleys pay for years of schooling for their daughter, Amelia. They are not seeking a traditional academic education, but an education in social graces. Miss Pinkerton lists them in her letter to the Sedleys. She writes that Amelia excels "in music, in dancing ... in every variety of embroidery," and in spelling—essential for writing good letters. (No one seems concerned that Amelia's grasp of geography leaves "much to be desired.") Moreover, Amelia has learned obedience and morality required of women in a "polished and refined circle." Becky Sharp, too, benefits from this training, and then weaponizes it in her assault on the upper classes. A ruthless, charismatic opportunist, Becky uses her beauty and charm to mingle with the elite as she hunts for patronage and a wealthy husband. What readers make of her amoral and self-serving behavior guides their understanding of the novel's themes.

The Mirror of Satire

Thackeray considered himself a satirist, even a moralist. He argued that his satirical writing helped readers become aware of their own frailties and vices—which he admitted to sharing—and thus overcome them. As he expressed in a letter to his mother, the writer's profession "seems to me as serious as the Parson's own." Thackeray took seriously the function of satire: to hold up the novel as a mirror in which readers see something of themselves so they can address their weaknesses, but to do so with humor so readers laugh as they recognize their weaknesses. Thackeray is now considered one of 19th-century England's finest satirical writers, on par with Charles Dickens.

Thackeray's vision of humankind is generally not flattering. Vanity Fair is, as its subtitle indicates, "a novel without a hero": no character acts as a reliable moral or emotional center for the reader. Becky, while charming, clever, and high-spirited, is disturbingly ruthless. Even Amelia, a paragon of sweetness and gentleness, is weak and deluded, unable to see the true natures of the people around her.

Vanity Fair was first published serially in Punch, a popular British magazine known during Thackeray's life for its humor, satire, and topical cartoons. Monthly installments of the novel ran from January 1847 to July 1848. The series secured Thackeray much-needed financial stability, and helped him stand out from the throng of Victorian writers who wrote amusing articles. Thackeray was part of Punch's staff for a time and drew the illustrations for Vanity Fair himself. He used the popular periodical to dole out his satirical commentary on 19th-century English society three or four chapters at a time. But the novel as a whole met with mixed reviews when it debuted later in 1848. Some reviewers embraced Thackeray's wide-ranging satire. Charlotte Brontë—writing under the pseudonym Currer Bell—dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray. She regarded him as a writer whose satire made him "the first social regenerator of the day." Brontë acknowledges Thackeray's words can cut deeply and "are not framed to tickle delicate ears." Yet if readers would take his criticism to heart, she wrote, they might avoid painful outcomes.

Other Victorian reviewers were not as thrilled with Thackeray's satire, however. Harriet Martineau, a British writer and intellectual, could not force herself to finish the novel because of "moral disgust." Other reviewers complained that the characters' vices were untruthfully exaggerated. However, Charlotte Brontë's prediction about Thackeray, in a letter she wrote in 1848, proved correct. As Vanity Fair became better known, the genius of its author, "the legitimate High Priest of Truth," became widely acknowledged.

Influence of the Picaresque Form

A picaresque is a novel in which a main character, usually of lower class, goes from place to place, surviving by wit and observing society's vices and whims as he goes. The hero (or picaro) is usually a person of questionable morality, willing to do what he or she must to get by. Most picaresque novels are satirical first-person narratives. In Vanity Fair, however, Thackeray's narrator is a witty but snide third-person narrator who comments on the events of the novel. He occasionally hints that he has seen a particular event take place or heard something from a character, but he is more frequently an outside observer. Still, Becky Sharp is a picaresque protagonist. She connives her way through life unrestrained by conventional morality, and cynically measuring each person's ability to help her rise in society. The plot's progression from location to location, from high to low social settings, mirrors Becky's status as an outsider, never really belonging to any one group. It also allows the narrator to critique people in many walks of life.

Thackeray the Historian

The events of Vanity Fair play out in a rich historical context. Before Thackeray wrote novels, he was a journalist and amateur historian who wrote and gave lectures on recent English history. He moved among England's cultural and political settings, using short pieces to observe and comment on excesses he witnessed. Therefore, Thackeray set Vanity Fair against a backdrop of the early-19th-century Napoleonic conflict in Europe to report on human foibles. The conflict affects the young characters who serve in the military, and it leads, eventually, to George Osborne's death.

Because Thackeray knew history, and because he was versed in cultural and political events, he peppers Vanity Fair with many topical references. A topical reference is a mention—in passing—of a real-world detail the novel's original readers were likely to know. For today's readers, these references can be frustrating and mystifying. Thackeray's approach is not unlike a late-night comic's: both drop in references to current happenings as a kind of shorthand, trusting the audience will understand and draw meaning from the references. Some editions of Vanity Fair provide footnotes to help today's readers make sense of the many references, some of which contain barbed critiques. However, readers don't need to understand every reference to grasp Thackeray's satirical comments on human nature, which, unlike celebrities and politicians who come and go in each period, remains much the same across time.

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