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Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero

Serialized cover of Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848).


Thackeray, an artist and writer, traveled in the same social circles as many writers, including Charles Dickens. Not only did Dickens and Thackeray read each other’s works, but they also had a well-known literary rivalry.  Thackeray desired to write against Dickens, especially in Vanity Fair, which appeared in monthly parts at the same time as Dombey and Son. Despite some healthy competition, Thackeray wrote a letter of praise on Dombey and Son to Dickens in 1848, to which Dickens responded, "I am saving up the perusal of Vanity Fair until I shall have done Dombey" (qtd. in Tomalin 200).

Like Dickens, Thackeray desired to be the storyteller of the ages. He once wrote, "If the gods would give me the desire of my heart, I should be able to write a story which boys would relish for the next few dozen centuries" (qtd. in Caracciolo 20-21). Vanity Fair's subtitle, "A Novel without a Hero," displays Thackeray's penchant for irony. The novel illuminates portraits of modern English domesticity, like those in The Book of Snobs, and mocks characters whose ambitious desires ultimately remain unattainable fantasies in reality. In contrast to Becky Sharp, the novel's most amoral character and social climber, William Dobbin is the novel's closest thing to a protagonist. Even though the novel is "without a hero," Dobbin represents Thackeray's attempt to reconfigure "honor" in the domestic community. Thackeray presses his readers to compare Dobbin’s unexciting, yet ultimately gainful, heroism to other characters' immoral adventures and ploys, to define appropriate means of asserting the self in Victorian society.

Vanity Fair

Book cover to the 2004 Penguin edition of Vanity Fair to celebrate that year's film, featuring Reese Witherspoon as the socially ruthless Becky Sharp.

In 2004, Vanity Fair was adapted into a major motion picture by Focus Features, directed by Mira Nair and starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. The movie received mixed reviews; while painting a vivid portrait of Victorian society in scenery, Becky's upbeat and more likable character strays from Thackeray's novel. Because of the novel's expansive nature, critics have stated that the movie often feels hurried and does not successfully mix satire and romance, different from Thackeray's main emphasis on satirically portraying Victorian society. Despite Ms. Nair's changes from the novel and other film adaptations, the movie was nominated for the "Golden Lion" Award in the 2004 Venice Film Festival.