Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Plot Summary

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Summary

Vanity Fair is a frame story. The frame introduces a narrator who refers to himself as the manager of a puppet show and his characters as puppets. At the novel's end, the narrator returns to make final comments on the show.

As the novel opens, two young women leave school to begin their adult lives. Amelia Sedley is sweet but somewhat naive. For her, adult life means marrying her informal fiancé, George Osborne, whom she blindly adores, and living out a stable, happy life as the children of wealthy merchants. Becky Sharp, in contrast, had to work her way through school, and is to become governess in the aristocratic Crawley family. Cunning and unencumbered by morality, Becky has plans to claw her way up in the world. Before taking her position, she visits Amelia's family and meets her much older brother, Jos. Jos is home on sick leave from his job with the East India Company. Becky tries to catch Jos as a husband, but his awkwardness around women makes him shy away from her. Before Becky leaves to begin work as governess, she, Amelia, Jos, and George attend a concert where they meet William Dobbin, George's army friend. Two important plot events occur at the concert. First, Dobbin falls in love with Amelia. Second, George, a vain young man, sees Becky for the social climber she is and mocks Jos for being attracted to her. Her chances with Jos spoiled, Becky leaves for the Crawley estate.

Sir Pitt Crawley is a wealthy baronet, but his aristocratic breeding has not produced good manners. Becky easily manipulates her dissipated employer with her charm. In the process, she often ignores his young daughters, whom she is supposed to be teaching. She does manage to get her hands on the estate's books under the guise of helping Sir Pitt manage the estate. Becky adapts her charms to other members of the family, as well. She feigns saintly behavior around the older son, Pitt, a prim young man, and acts standoffish around the younger son, Rawdon Crawley, to provoke his admiration. Also in the Crawley household are Bute Crawley, Sir Pitt's younger brother, and half-sister Miss Matilda Crawley, a wealthy spinster. Both become targets of Becky's machinations. Miss Crawley is impressed by Becky and takes her to London, where Becky cares for her during an illness. Becky is caught off guard when Sir Pitt visits London and proposes to her. Wealth is within her reach—except that she is already married, secretly, to Rawdon. Miss Crawley becomes furious when she learns that her favorite nephew has married without family approval. She had planned to leave her fortune to Rawdon, but she changes her will to favor his older brother, Pitt, instead.

Meanwhile, the Sedley household faces its own problems. As Napoleon, having escaped exile, rebuilds his forces for another assault on the continent, the stock market becomes jittery, causing Mr. Sedley's investments to fail. The family faces bankruptcy and ruin, and George's wealthy father insists his son break off his engagement to Amelia, although George considers such an action dishonorable. From their tiny new home in a poorer part of the city, Mr. Sedley responds to Mr. John Osborne's insult by forcing Amelia to return George's letters. William Dobbin observes the family's slide into desperate straits and, concerned for Amelia's health, tells George she is dying. George, more in love with his own honor than with Amelia, secretly marries her, against both families' wishes.

The young couples' paths cross again at Bath, where George and Amelia, with Jos in tow, go to honeymoon. Becky and Rawdon are there, too. They hope to get Miss Crawley to forgive them, and reinstate Rawdon in her will. The four young people visit and try to enjoy their stay in Bath. However, only Rawdon, an easy-going man with an affinity for cards and billiards, is content. Becky finds her access to Miss Crawley blocked by Mrs. Bute Crawley, George loses money he doesn't have to Rawdon, and poor Amelia is neglected by her husband. Worse is yet to come: back in London, Dobbin informs the Osbornes about the marriage, and George is promptly disinherited.

These melancholy plot lines are interrupted when George, Rawdon, and Dobbin are deployed to Brussels, Belgium, to prepare to oppose Napoleon's forces. Mrs. O'Dowd, the motherly, pragmatic wife of George and Dobbin's commanding officer, Major O'Dowd, looks after Amelia. Becky, as wife to a general's aide-de-camp (military aide), enjoys access to Brussels's elite circles. There, George falls under her charms and betrays his bride, offering to run away with Becky instead. But when marching orders arrive, George renews his affections with Amelia, leaving her pregnant and impoverished. He dies in battle, and Amelia returns to her parents' home to raise her son, named after his father. Dobbin, who has long loved Amelia, supports her financially and becomes the child's godfather. Nonetheless, he can't make a dent in her devoted grief, and leaves to work abroad.

Meanwhile, Becky and Rawdon also have a son. Rawdon is smitten by the boy, while Becky shows the child little affection. They spend time in Paris and then return to London. Throughout, Becky employs her beauty and charm to gain access to people of wealth. She attracts the attention and support of the Marquis of Steyne (also known as Lord Steyne), and is presented at court. She also launches an assault on Rawdon's older brother—now Sir Pitt—who has inherited the estate, and his kind wife, Jane. Her manipulations work on Sir Pitt, but Lady Jane sees how cold she is toward her son and is repelled.

The Sedleys, meanwhile, continue to struggle financially, despite a small allowance Jos sends. Amelia, naive as usual, overspends on pretty clothes for her adored, increasingly spoiled son. Soon, the family can't afford to eat. But about this time, George's sister happens to see Amelia and the baby, who looks like his father. For love of his grandson, Mr. Osborne offers to raise the child in wealth, and to support the Sedleys. Amelia hands the child over with regret. Not long after, Amelia's parents die, and with the later death of Mr. Osborne, Amelia inherits enough money to raise her son comfortably.

Back in London, Lord Steyne, a degenerate old man, uses his protégé, Becky, to impress and sway other powerful men. She, in turn, plots to milk him for money and a better job for Rawdon, who prefers to take care of his son and enjoy time at cards with humble soldiers. But Becky pushes her good fortune too far. Instead of using the money Lord Steyne gives her to support her family, she allows Rawdon to go into debt—a crime for which people could be imprisoned at the time. When Rawdon ends up in jail, his brother and sister-in-law must bail him out, and when he finds Becky dressed lavishly, singing for Lord Steyne, he attacks the old man, assuming the two are having an affair. Steyne, rather than challenging Rawdon to a duel that might not end well for him, arranges for Rawdon to be governor of an island under British control. Rawdon must leave his son at the estate and go.

Rumors about Becky and Lord Steyne spread, and she is forced to leave London. In the years that follow, she moves from city to city, repeating the pattern of acquiring a wealthy patron, rising in social circles, and then suffering when her London reputation catches up with her, likely due to Steyne's vindictiveness. Becky lands in a German town where, although poor again, she enjoys the freedom of a Bohemian lifestyle. Coincidentally, Jos, Amelia, and William Dobbin (who has returned to London) decide to travel through Europe. They run into Becky, who seizes the opportunity to take advantage of Jos and Amelia, despite Dobbin's warnings. Dobbin, frustrated that after over a decade Amelia still hasn't let go of her love for George, declares his own love outright. When she refuses him, he realizes that she is unworthy of his love, and departs. Becky then performs an uncharacteristically kind act: she shows Amelia the note George sent her in Brussels, offering to run away with her. Finally aware that George is not worth her heart's devotion, Amelia agrees to marry Dobbin. Later, they have a daughter, and though the disillusioned Dobbin never again loves Amelia as intensely as he did before, their marriage endures.

Time passes. Rawdon, still stuck on the island, dies of yellow fever. When his older brother, Sir Pitt, dies shortly after, Rawdon and Becky's son Rawdy inherits the Crawley estate. Becky, still in Europe with Jos, doesn't benefit from her son's wealth at all. Jos dies under suspicious circumstances, and Becky hires lawyers to collect his life insurance money. She settles comfortably in Bath and turns to works of piety and charity, but she never wins back her good reputation, or the affection of those who once called her "friend." The narrator closes the novel's frame by putting his puppets back in their box, their story told.

Vanity Fair Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Becky visits the Sedleys and fails to get Jos to propose.

Rising Action

2 Becky insinuates herself into the Crawley household.

3 Becky and Rawdon secretly marry; his aunt disinherits him.

4 The Sedleys lose their income and spiral toward bankruptcy.

5 George marries Amelia and is disinherited.

6 George, Dobbin, and Rawdon are deployed to Brussels.

7 George dies; Amelia and their baby move in with her parents.

8 Rawdon dotes on his son, while Becky seeks patronage.

9 Amelia surrenders Georgy to be raised by her father-in-law.

10 Rawdon hits Steyne and finds himself assigned to an island.

Climax

11 Becky travels to other cities seeking patronage.

Falling Action

12 Becky reveals George's betrayal; Amelia marries Dobbin.

13 Rawdy inherits Queen's Crawley and befriends Georgy.

14 Jos dies mysteriously; Becky gets his life insurance payout.

Resolution

15 Becky settles into a new life in Bath.

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