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File:VanityFair.jpg

William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-48) is a multiplot novel tracing the varied fortunes of the charming (but vicious) Becky Sharp and her sometime friend, the beautiful (but blank) Amelia Sedley. During the Napoleonic era, the novel's many characters travel throughout Europe--fighting battles, scheming, and looking for cash. As the title suggests, the novel satirizes the social and sexual pretensions of a thoroughly dissolute High Society. The reader meets adulterers, gamblers, and con(wo)men of every description, only some of whom get their rightful comeuppance. Although readers, both in the Victorian Era and since, have sometimes found Thackeray's treatment of Amelia to be gushingly sentimental, Vanity Fair can be exceptionally hardheaded in its attacks on moral hypocrisy and romantic cliches. The subtitle may be ironic, but it's also serious: even the honest soldier William Dobbin, who is the closest thing the novel has to a moral center, doesn't end the novel unscathed.

Notably, the novel was first published with Thackeray's own illustrations, some of them crucial to the plot.

Vanity Fair has been filmed and televised several times, beginning with a silent film released in 1911. The most famous of these adaptations is Becky Sharp (1935), which inaugurated the Technicolor era. Mira Nair's 2004 film version, starring Reese Witherspoon, turned Becky into the real heroine.


Tropes used:

  • Affably Evil: Becky, for the most part.
  • All the Little Germanies: The setting of the "Am Rhein" section of the novel.
  • All There in the Manual: Or, rather, in the illustrations. Most famously, while it is hinted in the text that Becky may have murdered Jos, it is much more strongly suggested in an illustration.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The appalling Marquess of Steyne. Also, Sir Pitt Crawley, who is a classic "bad baronet."
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Massively averted. Becky ignores her child, Amelia spoils her son because of his rotten father, and ultimately Amelia realizes that Dobbin's affections are mostly tied up in their daughter.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted with Becky but played straight(ish) with Amelia. Dobbin looks horsey, but is the most noble character in the novel -- in fact, the subtitle can be taken to mean both that the novel has heroines and that Dobbin doesn't look the way a hero "should."
  • Being Good Sucks: Dobbin spends the entire novel doing good things, virtually all of them going unrecognized and unrewarded; in fact, Amelia ascribes some of them to her Jerkass beloved, George. To make matters worse, Dobbin gets his "reward," marrying Amelia, only after he has ceased to value it.
  • Betty and Veronica: Amelia and Becky.
  • Broken Pedestal: It is only very near the ending when Becky gives Amelia physical proof that George was planning to run away with her, that Amelia comes to realise that her beloved husband wasn't the perfect angel she had spent years thinking of him as.
  • Deconstruction: Amelia pretty much deconstructs the Purity Sue Victorian novel heroine. Sure, she's nice and well-intentioned, but she's also a Horrible Judge of Character and can be pretty oblivious to others' feelings.
  • Deliver Us From Evil: Averted or subverted with Becky. She shows no love to her child, and this demonstrates how nasty and utterly self-seeking she is.
  • Dirty Coward: Jos initially grows a Badass Moustache to try to attract women, but shaves it off and hides when he hears that Napoleon is slaughtering the British troops. It's because of this detail that, as with other characters, his pitiable features are balanced by some really unsympathetic traits/actions.
  • Dirty Old Man: Sir Pitt Crawley
  • Downer Ending: Amelia has finally married Dobbin, but he does not love her nearly as much as his daughter; Jos Sedley is dead, quite possibly at Becky's hands; and Becky is playing the part of a virtuous widow, once again working her way into society.

  "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?--Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."

    • Mira Nair's film subverts the Downer Ending by having Becky head off to India with Jos.
    • Also, there is some debate on whether the ending is completely unhappy or whether it can be read as more like Amelia and Dobbin have their eyes open, and so are relatively happily married, but far from Sickeningly Sweethearts. The text is in the direction of straight Downer Ending, but it leaves a bit of room for something happier.
  • Evil Redhead: Becky; Lord Steyne
  • Fat Bastard: Jos
  • Freudian Excuse: Becky's father beat her and her mother and basically encouraged her to act as a Fille Fatale as a way of getting his debtors to hold off their demands for repayment.
  • Generation Xerox: To the extent that the novel has anything of a happy ending, it's because the younger generation shows signs of being better than their parents' generation -- George the younger is set on the right path by Dobbin, so doesn't end up a jerkass like his father, and Rawdon the younger is willing to take care of his mother (but not see her), showing himself to be less reprehensible than either of the two previous baronets, the Messrs. Pitt.
  • Girl of My Dreams: Amelia for Dobbin, although he eventually comes to his senses.
  • Gold Digger: Becky.
  • Grande Dame: Thackeray displays a number of haughty, humourless old ladies in the novel -- for instance, Miss Pinkerton, Lady Bareacres, and Lady Southdown.
  • Green Eyed Red Head: Becky, again.
  • Heel Face Door Slam: George, to a degree. He claims to regret some of his treatment of Amelia right before dying at Waterloo, but it seems unlikely that he really would have changed for the better had he survived.
  • Heel Face Turn: Rawdon.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Phil Glenister plays Dobbin in the BBC miniseries.
  • Hollywood Costuming: When Thackeray was drawing his illustrations to the story, which is, of course, set in the Napoleonic era, he appended a note to the text explicitly stating, "I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous," (!) and so clothed them in the fashions of the years of the novel's serial publication (1847-1848).
  • Jerkass: George Osborne, Amelia's husband. He caps his jerkishness by asking Becky to elope with him weeks after marrying Amelia.
    • George's son George isn't what you'd call a nice young chap, either.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: E.g., "In Which Miss Crawley's Relations Are Very Concerned About Her."
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title "Vanity Fair" is taken from The Pilgrims Progress. It was originally a fair held in the sinful town of Vanity that sat athwart the road to Heaven.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Becky Sharp, obviously.
    • "Dobbin" was a common name for horses at the time (Dobbin is a little horse-faced).
    • The Marquis of Steyne is both filthy and an utter pig.
    • Lampshaded in the novel by the Crawleys, who name their sons to curry political favor. The name Crawley, however, is itself a straight example of the trope.
    • George Osborne: George IV, the king at the time the novel was set, was notorious for being a selfish, depraved jerk. It's no coincidence that Osborne shares his name. Also, Osborne contains the word "snob," which is also not coincidental. (Incidentally, Thackeray invented the word "snob.")
  • Nice Guys Finish Last: Dobbin's problem for most of the novel.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Steyne is based on the third Marquess of Hertford, to the point that Thackeray's illustrations of Steyne look like Hertford.
  • Parental Abandonment: Becky and her son, Rawdon.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Both Becky and Amelia run into this problem; in Amelia's case, George Osborne's father makes up for it in his will.
  • Professional Gambler: Becky's husband Rawdon Crawley makes what little money he has this way.
  • Secret Relationship: Becky and Rawdon Crawley.
  • Self-Made Man: Plays out in an interesting way with the Osbournes', Sedleys', and Dobbins' backgrounds. The Osbournes made their way into society the earliest in the novel's past, and really hate people remembering that they ever worked for their money. Thus, George's father betrays Amelia's father when his financial situation sours, and George is contemptuous of Dobbin for being new money.
  • Shrug of God: In a famous interview, Thackeray was asked if Becky murdered Jos. Thackeray's response? "I don't know."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Sliding very much to the cynical. Even the nicest people in the novel turn out to be somewhat problematic.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Becky, though she isn't of noble birth, but she earns the lady status.
  • The Pilgrims Progress: A much darker version, in which none of the characters manage to get themselves beyond Vanity Fair.
  • Villain Protagonist: Becky Sharp.
  • What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: Amelia is terrified of the bed she has to share with her husband.
  • What Does She See in Him?
    • Amelia and George.
    • In Dobbin's case, this is a What Does He See In Her.
    • An in-universe example is Becky and Rawdon -- people constantly wonder that she is married to such a bore.
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