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Faculty of Economic and Human Sciences, Miercurea Ciuc

SAPIENTIA Hungarian University of Transylvania
Vanity Fair is a novel by English author William Makepeace Thackeray, first published
in 184748, which satirizes the early 19th century British society. The book inspires from John
Bunyan's allegorical story The Pilgrim's Progress, widely read at the time of Thackeray's novel.
In that work, "Vanity Fair" refers to a stop along the pilgrim's progress: a never-ending fair held
in a town called Vanity, which is meant to represent man's sinful attachment to worldly things.

The novel is one of the classics of English literature, and has inspired several film adaptations.

The novel is filled with symbols, which Thackeray takes from the Bible, from everyday
situations, and from the classics. Thackeray sets his novel not in his time, but 30 years earlier
during the wars. Why did he choose this setting? This is a basic background; it serves for
introducing historical elements, but not for being realistic. The whole story is like a stage
performance, and Thackeray and his narrator self insist on this. Beyond the real war, there is
another war, the war of vanities. Each character in Vanity Fair is crazy obsessed with where and
how they rank in the social hierarchy. This serves for showing the difference between nobility,
merchants, and peasants. Everyone knows what they need to do to lift them, and that is enough to
understand a part of their personality. Even the secondary characters get this kind of treatment.
For example Georges sister Maria Osborne tries to work out what her marriage with Fred
Bullock means to her status.

In a book about materialistic, clothes have crucial meaning. What characters wear, how
they get dressed, what kind of clothes they like or dont like. Walking on the streets we often
look at peoples clothes. Actually when you get dressed in the mornings, you dont choose based
on the massage you want to send to others. Thackeray describes what people wearing, and each
dress seems important. When a character enters to a new stage of life, Thackeray gives them a
paragraph or two, where he describes the new clothes this position requires. When Amelia gets
married, George tells her and her mother:

[. . . ] to purchase everything requisite for a lady of Mrs. George Osborne's fashion [...] They had but
one day to complete the outfit. [Amelia loved] shopping, and bargaining, and seeing and buying
pretty things [...] She gave herself a little treat, obedient to her husband's orders, and purchased a
quantity of lady's gear, showing a great deal of taste and elegant discernment, as all the shop folks
As this is Georges idea, it shows that for him this marriage is not about the feelings, more about
the appearance.

Another symbol, which points out a character personality, is the allusion to The Arabian
Nights. Dobbin loves Amelia, and he is a romantic and idealist figure. He fell in love with
Amelia at the first sight, and this love is an idealized image reflection. He doesnt even know her
but he has a sentimental ideal of love that he learned from books, and pairs this image with
Amelia; the narrator also reinforces this idea: "But what man in love, of us, is better informed?
or is he much happier when he sees and owns his delusion? Reading tales means that he is lost
in imagination, he regards George as the hero of these, idealizes him, endows him with the
virtues he doesnt have.

The narrator uses direct characterization to show personalities. He also uses to

reintroduce a character, who appeared earlier, and because the novel was published in series,
some of the readers may have forgotten characters; therefore Thackeray uses some peculiar
quality that grabs the attention and stands out in readers mind. Miss Pinkerton a pompous old
Minerva of a woman. Minerva is a symbol taken from mythology, and its characteristics are
referring to Miss Pinkertons characteristics.

In literature we can find a lot of examples of incest. Naturally this is always appears by
suggest, its never expressed in a direct way. In Vanity Fair appears a hint that refers to incest
Rebecca Sharp never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years
old Knowing this, the reader might be able to understand much better Beckys personality,
and her evil figure becomes less demonic, and also generates a feeling of sympathy.

Bible also appears in the novel, for example in the 17th chapter; it is told the story of a
rich man Dives, who is a biblical figure in Luke apostles evangelism. The story it is related to
Amelias familys situation, and introduces the sale. Amelia's giving up Georgy is compared to
Hannah's giving up Samuel. The Bible story has religious significance; Hannah gives up her son
to the Lord. In Vanity Fair Amelia surrenders her son to advantages that money and position can
provide. The symbol here may be ironic.
Thackeray shows Rebecca seduces Joseph in a tangle of green silk, at their first meeting.
As Becky climbs the social stairway, she is like a spider. She has destroyed Joseph just as a
spider would its victim. She took his money, his vitality, his personality from him. At the
charade party Rebecca plays Clytemnestra, symbolic of her destruction first of Rawdon, second
of Joseph. (Clytemnestra killed her husband, Agamemnon, when her lover's courage failed.)
Rebecca is also called Circe, the siren who attracts men to their death. Sir Pitt refers to the Bute
Crawleys as Beauty and the Beast, a symbolic hint that Bute has married a battle-axe, which he

The Osborne household keeps time by a clock representing the sacrifice of Iphigenia.
Iphigenia, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, was sacrificed by her father for success in
war, another route to power and position. Old Osborne tries to sacrifice George to a marriage for
money; he destroys Miss Jane's one romance for his own selfish convenience. The Iphigenia
clock, then, symbolizes the obsession of the Osbornes to money.

Vanity Fair is an ingeniously composed novel, it contains philosophical and literary

references, but also historical elements, it is full of symbols from mythology, Bible. There are
hints inbuilt for reason, that requires and permits interpretation and explanations.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Sheets, Robin Ann. "Art and Artistry in Vanity Fair." ELH, Vol. 42, No. 3, 1975
Hardy, Barbara. "Art and Nature." Modern Critical Interpretations: William Makepeace
Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publisher,
1987. 19-35.
Stewart, D. H. "Vanity Fair: Life in the Void." College English, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1963
Lears, Jackson, "The Ad Man and the Grand Inquisitor Intimacy Publicity Managed Self
in America 1880-1940." Constructions of the Self. Ed. George Levine. New Brunswick:
Rutgers UP, 1992
"William Makepeace Thackeray: A Brief Biography." 2010-05-15.