Vanity Fair
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"Vanity Fair" Summary

By William Makepeace Thackeray

classics | 684 pages | Published in 2021

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) was an Indian-born English author, novelist, and illustrator. During the Victorian era he was ranked second only to Charles Dickens, and today he remains famous for his classic English novel “Vanity Fair”. Originally published as a 19-volume serial between 1847 and 1848, the story revolves around the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley during the Napoleonic Wars. A satirisation of British society in the early 19th-century, “Vanity Fair” was highly successful when first published and is today considered a timeless classic. A true masterpiece of English fiction and a must-read for all literature lovers. Other notable works by this author include: “Men's Wives” (1852), “Catherine” (1839–40), and “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” (1844). Read & Co. Classics is republishing this novel now in a new edition complete with a biography of the author from “Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition, Volume XXIII”


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A satirical novel following two women as they navigate a society obsessed with wealth, status, and personal ambition.


"Vanity Fair" is a classic novel written by William Makepeace Thackeray and was first published in 1847-1848. This satirical novel takes place in the early 19th century England and follows the lives of two contrasting women, Rebecca "Becky" Sharp and Amelia Sedley, as they navigate through the social hierarchy in their pursuit of happiness and success.

Brief Synopsis

The plot of "Vanity Fair" revolves around the lives and fortunes of the two main female characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. The story is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the Regency period in England.

Becky Sharp, an orphan, is described as a clever, ambitious, and beautiful young woman who uses her wit and charm to climb the social ladder. She begins as a governess for the wealthy Crawley family and quickly captivates the attention of several influential men. Despite her lower social standing, Becky is determined to secure her place amongst the upper class and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals.

On the other hand, Amelia Sedley, daughter of a wealthy merchant, represents the stereotypical Victorian ideal of femininity. She is portrayed as a kind and innocent woman who often relies on others for her happiness. Amelia falls in love with George Osborne, a charming and handsome young man from a respectable family, but their relationship faces numerous challenges and obstacles.

Throughout the novel, Becky and Amelia's lives intertwine, and their contrasting personalities and aspirations become the driving force behind the narrative. The story encompasses their love affairs, marriages, joys, sorrows, and the consequences of their choices.

Main Characters

Character NameDescription
Rebecca "Becky" SharpA clever, ambitious, and beautiful woman who aspires to ascend the social ladder.
Amelia SedleyA kind and innocent woman, who personifies the ideal Victorian femininity.
George OsborneA charming and handsome young man from a respectable family, with whom Amelia falls in love.
William DobbinA close friend of George Osborne and a loyal admirer of Amelia Sedley.
Sir Pitt CrawleyA wealthy baronet who takes an interest in Becky Sharp.

Themes and Insights

Social Mobility

One of the central themes in "Vanity Fair" is social mobility. Thackeray uses the characters of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley to explore the opportunities and limitations faced by individuals based on their social status. The novel exposes the harsh realities of a society where wealth and social connections often determine one's place in society. And it portrays how characters like Becky navigate through these limitations, using their wit, charm, and manipulative tactics to rise above their circumstances.

Morality vs. Ambition

Thackeray raises the question of morality and its clash with ambition throughout the novel. Becky Sharp is often seen as an amoral character who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate and deceive others. Her relentless pursuit of wealth and status challenges the traditional values and ethics. In contrast, the characters like Amelia Sedley embody the ideals of innocence and moral virtue. The novel explores the tension between these opposing forces and poses moral dilemmas to its characters and readers alike.

Illusions of Society

"Vanity Fair" is a scathing critique of the vanity and superficiality of society. Thackeray exposes the hypocrisies and pretensions of the upper class, highlighting how social status and appearances can often be deceiving. The characters are driven by their desires for wealth, fame, and societal approval. The novel exposes the hollowness of these pursuits, suggesting that true happiness lies beyond the pursuit of material possessions and social recognition.

Gender Roles

Thackeray delves into the traditional gender roles prevalent in Victorian society. The novel explores the limited opportunities available to women and the societal expectations placed upon them. Becky Sharp challenges these gender roles by using her intelligence and ambition to carve her own path in a male-dominated world. The contrasting character of Amelia Sedley represents the ideal Victorian woman who adheres to societal norms and relies on others for her happiness.

Reader's Takeaway

"Vanity Fair" is a captivating novel that provides a deep insight into the intricacies of social hierarchy, ambition, and morality in Victorian England. Thackeray's skillful portrayal of characters and his satirical commentary on society make this novel a must-read for those interested in classic literature and social commentary. The contrasting journeys of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley provide readers with a compelling exploration of human desires, the consequences of one's choices, and the illusory nature of societal expectations.


"Vanity Fair" is a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers in the modern era. Thackeray's masterful storytelling and keen observations of human nature make this novel a compelling read. Through the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, the novel offers an incisive critique of social values and explores themes of social mobility, morality, the illusions of society, and gender roles. Whether you are a fan of period dramas or interested in exploring the complexities of human nature, "Vanity Fair" is a must-read that will leave a lasting impression.

Vanity Fair FAQ

  1. What is Vanity Fair about?

    Vanity Fair is a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, which tells the story of two young women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, as they navigate their way through the social hierarchy of early 19th-century England.

  2. Who is the author of Vanity Fair?

    Vanity Fair is written by William Makepeace Thackeray, an English novelist known for his satirical works during the Victorian era.

  3. When was Vanity Fair first published?

    Vanity Fair was first published in serialized form from 1847 to 1848 and later released as a complete novel in 1848.

  4. Is Vanity Fair based on a true story?

    Vanity Fair is a work of fiction. While it incorporates elements of real events and historical settings, the characters and plot are products of the author's imagination.

  5. What are some major themes in Vanity Fair?

    Some major themes explored in Vanity Fair include social climbing, ambition, morality, and the corrupting influence of wealth and status.

  6. Are there any film or TV adaptations of Vanity Fair?

    Yes, there have been several adaptations of Vanity Fair for both film and television. Some notable adaptations include the 2004 film directed by Mira Nair and the 2018 miniseries starring Olivia Cooke.

  7. Is Vanity Fair suitable for all ages?

    Vanity Fair is generally considered more suitable for mature readers due to its complex themes, historical setting, and occasional adult content.

  8. What is the writing style of Vanity Fair?

    Vanity Fair is written in a satirical and ironic style, often using witty commentary to critique and expose the flaws of high society and human nature.

  9. How long is Vanity Fair?

    The length of Vanity Fair can vary depending on the edition, but it is typically around 800 to 900 pages.

  10. Is Vanity Fair a standalone novel or part of a series?

    Vanity Fair is a standalone novel and is not part of a series. However, it has become one of Thackeray's most famous works.