By using a location from The Pilgrim's Progress as the title of his novel, Thackeray suggests that it will be a moral tale, of the sort that would presumably delight the sensibilities of "decent people" in the mid-nineteenth century. But Vanity Fair is instead an attack on the values of the Victorian novel, on the lazy morality that insists that the good should be rewarded and the bad punished which permeates even Charles Dickens. In the novel, the good are deceived by the bad, taken advantage of; the bad scheme shamelessly, lying and cheating to grab worldly rewards. Much more like real life, in other words. The only morality is a lesson which the Puritan Bunyan would have agreed with (and is the point of Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim's Progress): these worldly rewards are empty, so that in the end there they do not bring happiness.
The main character is Becky Sharpe, who is both clever and amoral. She uses her looks and brains to put her background of scandalous poverty behind her: son of an artist and a French opera dancer, she marries the son of a baronet and becomes fashionable in "polite society", at least to an extent. Her machinations don't always succeed, but she still develops a strong contempt for those around her, particularly her husband. Rawdon is on the receiving end of the worst of her behaviour, because he is the only person she can openly sneer at, dismissing him as stupid and childish, and assuming he will always be loyal to her and put up with her activities. It is clear that she sees relationship almost solely as tools for manipulating others to her advantage, and the reader soon understands that she will never be happy, but she is the character that they find themselves wanting to see succeed, and they are eager to see just what she will try next. Her contempt for others causes her problems, as she cannot accept that anyone can be kind to her without an ulterior motive. When she leaves school in an early chapter of the novel, for example, one of the teachers presents her with the dictionary which is normally given to departing students, even though the headmistress refused to do so (Becky only being at the school because she teaches French as well as learning other subjects); Becky throws it out of the window of the coach as it sets off.
The big contrast to Becky, who is in fact the closest thing to a friend she has, is the virtuous and bland, Amelia Sedley. She is the typical Victorian heroine, a pattern to act as a moral compass. She disastrously falls in love with the shallow George Osborne, who always reminds me of Flashman as portrayed by George MacDonald Fraser, and continues stalwartly to believe that he is a hero, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This makes it impossible for her to have a happy ending. She is nice, pretty but not very bright, and like Becky only in being something of an outsider, at least after her father is ruined and she no longer has the money to keep her place in society.
By comparison, the male characters are less important, making Vanity Fair truly a "novel without a hero", as Thackeray's subtitle has it. The closest to a traditional hero, in terms of virtuousness if not in drive, is William Dobbin, who loves Amelia from afar. He is always nice but ineffective (despite being a successful army officer), similar to Amelia in his passive acceptance of life's vicissitudes.
Perhaps the most interesting male character, and probably the closest to a happy character in the novel, is Sir Pitt Crawley, Rawdon's father. He is something of a relic of the looser attitude to public morality of the eighteenth century, and runs his life exactly the way he wants it, indulging his taste for low class women. After leaving school, Becky takes up a post as governess to his youngest children, and he eventually proposes to her after the sudden death of his second wife. This novel would have been so different if she had been free to marry him; she has already secretly married Rawdon, but feels that Sir Pitt (already a baronet, rather than a younger son of a baronet) would have been a better catch despite his age, if he had been available. Perhaps with a cleverer, more forceful, husband - and more money, Becky might have been able to find a measure of happiness.
One of the most famous parts of Vanity Fair is its portrayal of the 1815 Waterloo campaign, which involves both Rawdon and George who go to Belgium with Wellington's army, accompanied by their wives. Waterloo only occupies a few chapters, but has an immense effect on the characters: it is the turning part of the first half of the story. I don't know if it is deliberate, but Thackeray wrote the novel at a time when radical revolutionary fervour gripped Europe, and so it describes the end of the wars which followed the French Revolution while the serial appeared at what could have been the beginning of a similar period of violent fighting.
What actually seems more interesting to me than this episode are the humorously self-deprecating passages in which Thackeray directly addresses the reader. These still seems quite modern, despite clear antecedents in the eighteenth century: both Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy come to mind. The tone is established in the first chapter, with an address to "Jones", who would despise the sentimentality of the details of Amelia's departure from school, if he had not already thrown Vanity Fair aside in disgust. This kind of commentary was not common in the 1840s, and may well be one of the reasons that Vanity Fair took a while to become popular: the publisher actually considered cancelling the serial at one point.
At 950 pages Vanity Fair is also a very long novel for its time; the only nineteenth century novel I own a copy of which has more is War and Peace. It is also somewhat uneven, some chapters being a little dull, but overall it is a stimulating, witty, and fascinating read and deserves its classic status, on a par with the best novels of the century. For those daunted by its length, there is an excellent TV adaptation starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharpe, one of the very best costume dramas ever made, catching much of the mood of the novel (despite the decision to omit the author's commentary to the reader). My rating: 9/10.
Edition: Wordsworth Classics, 1994 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1412