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Thackeray and Vanity Fair
Contemporary Response to Vanity Fair
Thackeray as Humorist, Writer, and Moralist
Thackeray Websites
Discussion of Vanity Fair


Vanity Fair was a turning point in Thackeray's life and career. A gentleman by birth and education, Thackeray was forced to earn his living by writing because most of his money had been lost in a financial crash. The articles, reviews, essays, and sketches he produced for magazines and newspapers did not provide sufficient income either to support a gentleman's status or to provide for the futures of his two daughters. In addition, writing for a living made his status as a gentleman somewhat tenuous. The serialization of Vanity Fair, which was a financial success, quickly established Thackeray's literary reputation. Thackeray was jubilant, "There is no use denying the matter or blinking it now. I am become a sort of great man in my way--all but at the top of the tree: indeed there if the truth were known and having a great fight up there with Dickens." Though Thackeray's novels never sold at the rate of Dickens's novels (in the tens of thousands), he became financially secure with Vanity Fair. Also his social status as a gentleman was assured because of his acknowledged genius; he was no longer an amusing, talented hack writer, just one of a crowd of London journalists.


Contemporary reviewers and novelists appreciated the brilliance of the novel. John Forster wrote, "Vanity Fair is the work of a mind, at once accomplished and subtle, which has enjoyed opportunities of observing many and varied circles of society. . . his genteel characters... have a reality about them... They are drawn from actual life, not from books and fancy; and they are presented by means of brief, decisive yet always most discriminative touches" (1848). Charlotte Bronte, whose admiration for his genius was boundless, called him "the legitimate high priest of Truth":
The more I read Thackeray's works, the more certain I am that he stands alone--alone in his sagacity, alone in his truth, alone in his feeling (his feeling, though he makes no noise about it, is about the most genuine that ever lived on a printed page), alone in his power, alone in his simplicity, alone in his self-control. Thackeray is a Titan, so strong that he can afford to perform with calm the most herculean feats; there is the charm and majesty of repose in his greatest efforts; he borrows nothing from fever, his is never the energy of delirium--his energy is sane energy, deliberate energy, thoughtful energy. (1848)
George Eliot's praise was more restrained, "I am not conscious of being in any way a disciple of his, unless it constitute discipleship to think him, as I suppose the majority of people with any intellect do, on the whole, the most powerful of living novelists" (1857).

Not all reviewers and readers agreed. Some were repelled by his realism and his focus on society's moral corruption. Robert Bell complained:

        The people who fill up the motley scenes of Vanity Fair, with two or three exceptions, are as vicious and odious as a clever condensation of the vilest qualities can make them. The women are especially detestable. Cunning, low pride, selfishness, envy, malice, and all uncharitableness are scattered amongst them with impartial liberality. It does not enter into the design of Vanity Fair to qualify these bitter ingredients with a little sweetness now and then; to shew the close neighbourhood of the vices and the virtues as it lies on the map of the human heart, that mixture of good and evil, of weakness and strength, which in infinitely varied proportions, constitutes the compound individual. (1848)
An anonymous reviewer wondered, "is it advisable to raise so ruthlessly the veil which hides the rottenness pervading modern society?" (1848). Harriet Martineau could not finish the novel "from the moral disgust it occasions" (1848).

From Thackeray's day to the present, Vanity Fair has generally been regarded as a masterpiece and as his best novel. What has changed is the flaw Thackeray, as well as Vanity Fair, is most commonly charged with. Critical readers of his day called him cynical and even depraved; comparable readers today call him sentimental and even cloying.


Until the publication of Vanity Fair, Thackeray was known as a humorous writer; he wrote regularly for Punch. Thackeray regarded humor as doing more than making readers laugh, "the best humour is that which contains most humanity, that which is flavoured throughout with tenderness and kindness." He was compelled to write the truth about what he saw and how he understood what he saw:
To describe it otherwise than it seems to me would be falsehood in that calling in which it has pleased heaven to place me; treason to that conscience which says that men are weak; that truth must be told; that faults must be owned; that pardon must be prayed for; and that love reigns supreme over all.
There may be wishful thinking in his statement that as the writer "finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best, we regard him, esteem him–sometimes love him." In order to tell the truth, the novelist must "convey as strongly as possible the sentiment of reality." Language should identify exactly, not elevate or exaggerate; for instance, a poker was just that--a poker, not a great red-hot instrument and a coat was only a coat, not an embroidered tunic. He disliked Dickens's highly emotional outbursts and vivid personification of objects; Thackeray protested that the very trees in Dickens's novels "squint, shiver, leer, grin and smoke pipes." A realist, Thackeray consistently deflated the heroic and the sentimental both in life and in literature.

Thackeray saw the writer as serving a necessary function–to raise the consciousness of his readers. Concerned, he asked his mother in a letter, "Who is conscious?" He came to see himself as a Satirical-Moralist, with a dual responsibility--to amuse and to teach, "A few years ago I should have sneered at the idea of setting up as a teacher at all... but I have got to believe in the business, and in my other things since then. And our profession seems to me as serious as the Parson's own." He aimed not only to expose the false values and practices of society and its institutions and to portray the selfish, callous behavior of individuals, but also to affirm the value of truth, justice, and kindness. This double aim is reflected in his description of himself as satiric and kind: "under the mask satirical there walks about a sentimental gentleman who means not unkindly to any mortal person."

Though Thackeray set his novel a generation earlier, Thackeray was really writing about his own society (he even used contemporary clothing in his illustrations for the novel). Thackeray saw how capitalism and imperialism with their emphasis on wealth, material goods, and ostentation had corrupted society and how the inherited social order and institutions, including the aristocracy, the church, the military, and the foreign service, regarded only family, rank, power, and appearance. These values morally crippled and emotionally bankrupted every social class from servants through the middle classes to the aristocracy. High and low, individuals were selfish and incapable of loving.

Well aware of himself as flawed, he identified with the self-centered and foolish characters he portrayed in Vanity Fair; his object in writing the novel was

to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people "desperately wicked" and all eager after vanities....I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story–we ought all to be with our own and all other stories. Good God don't I see (in that maybe cracked and warped looking glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses wickednesses lusts follies shortcomings?.... We must lift up our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools: so much as least has been my endeavour.

His identification with the fools and the sinners of Vanity Fair could not be stated more clearly. The image of the cracked-mirror provided the basis of the drawing for the frontispiece when the serialized novel came out in book form in 1848.

What were some of his flaws? By temperament, he inclined to be self-indulgent, liked to eat and drink well, and until he lost his money gambled enthusiastically; today, we might,  perhaps, say he had a gambling problem. The Bohemian lifestyle and Bohemians had a strong attraction for Thackeray, as he acknowledged:

I like Becky in that book. Sometimes I think I have myself some of her tastes. I like what are called Bohemians and fellows of that sort. I have seen all sorts of society--dukes, duchesses, lords, and ladies, authors and actors and painters--and taken altogether I think I like painters the best, and Bohemians generally.
As you read the novel, think about whether Thackeray's identification with the characters and perhaps the life of Vanity Fair affects the novel. Does he show a compassion for the follies he describes and for the characters who commit those follies? Is there a sense of connection with them, or does Thackeray adopt a superior stance and look down on them, judging them harshly? Or is Thackeray ambivalent? Is Vanity Fair, as A.E. Dyson says, "one of the world's most devious novels, devious in its characterization, its irony, its explicit moralising, its exuberance, its tone. Few novels demand more continuing alertness from the reader, or offer more intellectual and moral stimulation in return"?


Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray
    Online text of the entire novel, search engine. Biographical note. Criticisms and interpretations of the novel by eight critics. A list of characters.

William Makepeace Thackeray
    This entry in the Victorian Web contains biography, works, political history, social history (discusses social class and the gentleman), religion, economic contexts, literary relations, themes, etc. as these are relevant to Thackeray. Well worth exploring.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)
    List of Thackeray Websites and chronological list of events in Thackeray's life

WIlliam Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
    Note on Thackeray. Links to nine of Thackeray's online works.


 Day 1

Thackeray, Vanity Fair. pp. ix-170
Overview of Thackeray and Vanity Fair
The Narrator, the Reader, and Ambiguity
The Structure
Thackeray's Illustrations: A Discussion

 Day 2 Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Attitude Toward Women
 Day 3 Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
 Day 4 Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Becky's Innocence
 Day 5 Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
Album of All the Vanity Fair Drawings

Revised: February 16, 2011