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Vanity Fair

From Academic Kids

This article is on the novel, Vanity Fair. "Vanity Fair" is also the name of a large-circulation American glamour magazine. See Vanity Fair magazine and was also the name of a 1960s UK pop group recording on Page One Records.


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Vanity Fair book cover

The novel Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero by William Makepeace Thackeray satirizes middle-class English society of the early 19th century. As usually is the case with many 19th century novels, Vanity Fair was published serially in Punch magazine in 1847 and 1848 before being committed to book form. It was the first work that Thackeray published under his own name, and was extremely well-received and popular at the time. Some editions had illustrations by Thackeray himself, unfortunately lost in most present editions.

Thackeray made clear as the narrator and in his private correspondence that the book was meant not to be only entertaining, but instructive as well. Although being a very rich novel, some say that it possesses some structural problems. Thackeray sometimes lost track of the huge scope of his work, mixing up characters' names and minor plot details. Also, the number of allusions and references make it a rewarding, albeit tough read.

The title is a reference to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

The novel has inspired several film adaptations.

Contents

Plot

The story opens at Miss Pinkerton's Academy for young ladies, where we meet the main characters, Becky Sharp, a strong-willed and cunning young woman determined to make her way in society, and Amelia Sedley, a good natured though simple-minded young girl. The book accompanies Becky and Amelia's life through happy times and sorrowful days between London, Brighton, the countryside and the Battle of Waterloo.

After Amelia's completation of studies at Miss Pinkerton's Academy, she invited her friend Becky to her home. It was there that Miss Sharp met with Amelia's lover George Osborne and her brother, Joseph Sedley, a clumsy and vainglorious official who serves in India. Because of his wealth and status, Becky purposely enticed him and hoped to marry him, though eventually failed as a result of Joseph's shyness and his foolish act in party at Vauxhall.

With the failure of this hope, Becky Sharp said farewell to Sedley's family and headed to baronet Pitt Crawley's home to serve as a governess. Her behaviour at baronet's house gained the favour of Sir Pitt, who eventually proposed to marry Miss Sharp, but was politely rejected.

Sir Pitt's sister, Miss Crawley, was a woman of affluence. Her great wealth was a source of constant conflict between members of Crawley family who fought for her inheritance. Captain Rawdon Crawley, nephew of Miss Crawley, was the inheritor and favourite of her aunt. Miss Sharp succeeded in gaining Rawdon's heart and eloped with him. Miss Crawley, enraged by the elopement because of Becky's low birth, eventually disinherited her nephew.

While Becky Sharp was trying to gain her wealth and status, Amelia's father went bankrupt. Captain George Osborne, persuaded by his friend Dobbin, married Amelia in spite of her poverty and his father's fierce objection.

When all these personal incidents were going on, Napoleon escaped Elba and reorganised his army. George Osborne and William Dobbin were sent to Brussels in order to fight the French army. In Brussels George met with Becky and the disinherited Captain Crawley. The newly wedded Osborne was by now growing tired of Amelia and he became increasingly attracted to Becky, who was now Mrs Crawley.

Before Osborne could run away with Mrs Crawley, he was sent to Waterloo and killed in the battle, leaving behind Amelia and his posthumous son George (same name as his father) in the world. With the death of Osborne, young George's godfather Dobbin gradually expressed more love and concern to Amelia. However, his regiment was dispatched abroad before he could confess his true affection to Amelia.

After the war, Becky and Rawdon Crawley went to Paris; then they returned to London, leaving behind a large amount of debts in France. Becky's obscure relationship with Lord Steyne was discovered by Rawdon, who in a rage abandoned his wife and moved abroad. Mrs Crawley, having lost both husband and status, became a wanderer.

As Amelia's son George grew up his grandfather became fond of him and took him away from his daughter-in-law when her family lacked the money to foster him. Meanwhile both Joseph Sedley and William Dobbin returned to England. Dobbin professed his unchanged love to Amelia, although Amelia was also affectionate to Dobbin, she could not forget the memory of her dead husband and thus refused.

While in England, Dobbin managed a reconciliation between Amelia and her father-in-law. The death of George's grandfather gave Amelia and young George a large fortune.

After the death of old Mr Osborne. Amelia, Joseph, George and Dobbin went on a trip to Germany, where they encountered the destitute Becky. Dobbin again professed his love to Amelia, but was refused again, thus left her.

However, Becky, in a moment of conscience, showed Amelia the note that George (Amelia's dead husband) gave her which asked her to run away with him. This broke George's idealised image in Amelia's mind, thus eventually bringing Dobbin and Amelia together, who happily lived ever after.

Becky resumed her seduction of Joseph Sedley and gained control over him. He eventually died of a suspicious ailment after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance. It is hinted that she may have murdered him to make her fortune.

Criticism

With very few exceptions, none of the characters in the novel is good; they are all flawed in very human ways. Vanity Fair can be seen as an exposition of human flaws (vanity itself being chief among them) and paints a fairly bleak view of the human condition.

Films

The book has inspired a number of film adaptations, the first being a silent movie in 1911. Notable movie versions include:

External links

ISBN

  • Vanity Fair: ISBN 0192834436 (Oxford World Classics edition, that has explanatory notes and original illustrations)

The term "vanity fair" originates from the allegorical novel The Pilgrim's Progress published in 1678 by John Bunyan, and from the fair held in the town of Vanity in that work.

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