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Thackeray's original title, Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, indicates his intention to describe a succession of social situations. As he was writing his novel, the idea of society as a Vanity Fair came to him, and he changed both his plan for the novel and the title. Though the name Vanity Fair comes from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Thackeray uses the concept in a very different way from Bunyan. For Bunyan, Vanity Fair comprises all the worldly activities which distract the Christian from salvation and lead to damnation; they are vanities for this reason. At risk is the Christian's immortal soul.

The phrase "vanity fair" came to mean "a place where all is frivolity and empty show; the world or a section of it as a scene of idle amusement and unsubstantial display" (the Oxford English Dictionary or OED ). For Thackeray, everyone lives in Vanity Fair or society; vanity has become the desire for society's approval and rewards; the individual seeks, not spiritual salvation, but the rewards of this world–success, status, and wealth.

The change from sketches about society to society as a vanity fair raises a major critical question; is the novel rambling and formless? To paraphrase the subtitle, is it a novel without a structure? This issue was raised by contemporary reviewers. Robert Rintoul, who praised Thackeray's realism, saw the novel as episodic: "if putting Vanity Fair aside as a fiction of high art, we look at it as a series of bits from life, it is entitled to the first ranks as a set of sketches lifelike and natural" (1848). Supporting this view is the time difference in the first half and the second half of the novel; the first half covers two years before Waterloo and is compact while the second half sprawls over the next twenty-five years. Even if the novel lacks form, is that necessarily a serious flaw? The Victorians did not perceive structure and unity in a novel the same way as modern readers, who have been raised on James and Conrad and critical theories focusing on structure.

But is the perception that the novel lacks unity accurate?

  • Do major themes, like selfishness, give it form?

  • Do the parallel lives of Becky and Amelia structure the novel? They leave school together, to enter the world; their subsequent careers, which include marriage, motherhood, and financial struggles, intersect several times; the tender, loving, and passive Amelia contrasts with the ruthless, ambitious, and active Becky.

  • Is his portrayal of society, with its crippling, perverted values and its lovelessness, the center which holds the novel together?

  • Does the narrator hold the novel together and structure it?

  • Is Vanity Fair a panoramic novel, i.e., a novel which presents a broad view of a society? Percy Lubbock uses Vanity Fair as an illustration of the panoramic novel; he says that Thackeray creates
    the impression of a world, a society, a time–certain manners of life within a few square miles of London, a hundred years ago. Thackeray flings together a crowd of the people he knows so well, and it matters not at all if the tie that holds them to each other is of the slightest... The light link is enough for the unity of his tale, for that unity does not depend on an intricately woven intrigue. It depends in truth upon one fact only, the fact that all his throng of men and women are strongly, picturesquely typical of the world from which they are taken–that in all their different ways can add to the force of its effect. The book is not the story of any of them, it is a story which they unite to tell, a chapter in the notorious career of well-to-do London. Exactly how the various "plots" evolve is not the main matter; behind them is the presence and the pressure of a greater interest, the mass of life which Thackeray packs into his novel.


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

Feb. 15, 2009