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Greed, gold-digging and deception sit at the heart of "Vanity Fair." It's no joke that it's subtitled "a novel without a hero" -- William Makepeace Thackeray mercilessly skewered the pretentions and flaws of the upper class all throughout it. The result is a gloriously witty social satire.

It opens with two young women departing from a ladies' academy: dull, sweet Amelia (rich) and fiery sharp-witted Rebecca (poor). Becky Sharp is a relentless social climber, and her first effort to rise "above her station" is by trying to get Amelia's brother to marry her -- an effort thwarted by Amelia's fiancee. So instead she gets married to another family's second son, Rawdon Crawley.

Unfortunately, both young couples quickly get disinherited and George is killed. But Becky is determined to live the good life she has worked and married for -- she obtains jewels and money from admiring gentlemen, disrupting her marriage. But a little thing like a tarnished reputation isn't enough to keep Becky down...

"Vanity Fair" is actually a lot more complex than that, with dozens of little subplots and complicated character relationships. Reading it a few times is necessary to really absorb all of it, since it is not just a look at the two women in the middle of the book, but at the upper (and sometimes lower) social strata of the nineteenth century.

The main flaw of the book is perhaps that it sprawls too much -- there's always a lot of stuff going on, not to mention a huge cast of characters, and Thackeray sometimes drops the ball when it comes to the supporting characters and their little plots. It takes a lot of patience to absorb all of this. However... it's worth it.

Like most nineteenth-century writers, Thackeray had a very dense, formal writing style -- but once you get used to it, his writing becomes insanely funny. Witticisms and quips litter the pages, even if you don't pick them all up at once. At first Thackeray seems incredibly cynical (Becky's little schemes almost always pay off), but taken as a social satire, it's easier to understand why he was so cynical about the society of the time.

Becky Sharp is the quintessential anti-heroine -- she's very greedy and cold, yet she's also so smart and determined that it's hard not to have a grudging liking for her, no matter what she does. Certainly life hasn't been fair for her. Next to Becky, a goody-goody character like Amelia is pretty boring, and even the unsubtle George can't measure up to Becky.

To sum up "Vanity Fair": think a period soap opera with a heavy dose of social commentary. In other words, it doesn't get much better than this, Thackeray's masterpiece.
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on 26 August 2011
I have just had another go at this classic novel, using the dog-eared Penguin edition that I read 36 years ago. I remember finding it tough going then and this time around I gave up on it. I tried to keep going - twice I gave up but returned to it, but three-fifths of the way through I'd had enough.
Reading the reviews posted here it's clear that VF is very dear to many people and to some extent I can see why - the authorial voice is so intelligent, perceptive and ironic. But the book is very long, rambling and episodic. And while Thackeray starts by being critical of all his characters, a splendid antidote to Victorian sentimentality, he seems to become captivated by the truly awful Amelia, showing increasing sympathy to her as he goes on. There are some chapters that are worthy of Dickens in their slushy embrace of her charms. And I don't really see why readers find Becky so wonderful - she is monumentally selfish!
Well, each to her/his own. I do wonder though how many people will continue to read this novel except as a set text. It creaks so much.
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VINE VOICEon 14 October 2010
As some of the other reviewers have already stated, the text in this edition of Vanity Fair is very small, so for those who may struggle with such small text I would advise you to buy a different edition. However, if this is not a problem for you then this £2 Penguin classics edition is a bargain for such a mammoth novel. I have been thinking of reading Vanity Fair for some time but have been put off in the past by the sheer length(this edition being approx 650 pages of very small text!), but having some time off work sick I thought I would take the plunge and finally read it. I am so glad I did.

Thackeray's most successful novel is truly an epic saga of the intertwining lives of two schoolgirls and their acquaintances. I wont summerise the story here as others have already done so, and I wouldnt want to spoil it for the reader. Suffice it to say that the story is compelling and gripping from the start. The story is of course complex, given the length of the book, but Thackeray succeeds in drawing together all the strands very successfully although there are one or two characters I would have loved to see more of. The story is easy to follow but not predictable in the way literature can sometimes be, making this a real page turner.

Being a Regency period novel, the language can take a little bit of getting used to, especially if you are new to 19th century literature. However, it is worth persisting with it as once you get used to it the prose is beautifully composed and the story fascinating. My only criticism of the novel would be that sometimes Thackeray seems to go off on a tangent which is not necessary for the story and prolongs the novel by perhaps 30-40 pages too many. However, this is far outweighed by the quality of the story and the characters within. Thackeray is willing to tackle subjects other writers of this period rather gloss over, such as infidelity and murder, which means the novel is still suitable for more modern tastes.

The characterisation is probably, however, the strongest element of the book. Becky Sharpe in particular is a masterpiece of characterisation in all literature - a truly memorable character, and not just a soft, flighty or love obsessed creature like many of the female characters in literature of this period. The subtitle of the book - A Novel Without A Hero - is very apt as none of the characters are wholly likeable and without flaw, but nonetheless Thackeray still succeeds in making you care, and even like, these less than perfect individuals. The characters, even those more peripheral to the story, leap off the page and I had no problem imagining them and joining their world.

If you are thinking of reading Vanity Fair I would strongly recommend you do so - it is a memorable novel which will stay with me throughout life as one of my all time favourites.
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on 21 July 2009
You may have read all the other reviews and still be wondering if you should tackle this 800 page Victorian novel. After all, it will involve a lot of reading hours. So let me stress one thing above all else: it is a very funny book. Repeat: it is a very funny book. Not laugh-out-loud gags but page after page of delicious irony as Thackeray dissects the follies of his characters. I chuckled away for weeks and it was a real loss when I finished the final page.
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on 18 October 2006
It really is that good. How much you like this book will depend to a large extent on how much you like the Victorian novel. If you like Dickens, the Brontes, Elliot and the like, then you are in for a real treat, because Thackeray is the best of the lot. Less verbose and rambling than Dickens, less sentimental than Elliot, more ironic than the Brontes, Thackeray is a supreme writer of English - ironic, cheerful and pessimistic by turns, sometimes tender and affectionate then cruel and caustic, he maintains a narrative control that invites the reader to share his moral vision of the hypocrisies and absurdities of Victorian England, and the world we all inhabit.

Vanity Fair has that universal quality of the best fiction - it enables you to see the world in a new way. An hour reading this novel is time spent with a true comedian, someone who sees the grotesque, humorous, admirable, cruel, stubborn, heroic, gentle etc reality of the human condition and can tell it in chapters of the best English since Shakespeare.
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Greed, gold-digging and deception sit at the heart of "Vanity Fair." It's no joke that it's subtitled "a novel without a hero" -- William Makepeace Thackeray mercilessly skewered the pretentions and flaws of the upper class all throughout it. The result is a gloriously witty social satire.

It opens with two young women departing from a ladies' academy: dull, sweet Amelia (rich) and fiery sharp-witted Rebecca (poor). Becky Sharp is a relentless social climber, and her first effort to rise "above her station" is by trying to get Amelia's brother to marry her -- an effort thwarted by Amelia's fiancee. So instead she gets married to another family's second son, Rawdon Crawley.

Unfortunately, both young couples quickly get disinherited and George is killed. But Becky is determined to live the good life she has worked and married for -- she obtains jewels and money from admiring gentlemen, disrupting her marriage. But a little thing like a tarnished reputation isn't enough to keep Becky down...

"Vanity Fair" is actually a lot more complex than that, with dozens of little subplots and complicated character relationships. Reading it a few times is necessary to really absorb all of it, since it is not just a look at the two women in the middle of the book, but at the upper (and sometimes lower) social strata of the nineteenth century.

The main flaw of the book is perhaps that it sprawls too much -- there's always a lot of stuff going on, not to mention a huge cast of characters, and Thackeray sometimes drops the ball when it comes to the supporting characters and their little plots. It takes a lot of patience to absorb all of this. However... it's worth it.

Like most nineteenth-century writers, Thackeray had a very dense, formal writing style -- but once you get used to it, his writing becomes insanely funny. Witticisms and quips litter the pages, even if you don't pick them all up at once. At first Thackeray seems incredibly cynical (Becky's little schemes almost always pay off), but taken as a social satire, it's easier to understand why he was so cynical about the society of the time.

Becky Sharp is the quintessential anti-heroine -- she's very greedy and cold, yet she's also so smart and determined that it's hard not to have a grudging liking for her. Certainly life hasn't been fair for her. Next to Becky, a goody-goody character like Amelia is pretty boring, and even the unsubtle George can't measure up to Becky.

To sum up "Vanity Fair": think a period soap opera with a heavy dose of social commentary. In other words, it doesn't get much better than this, Thackeray's masterpiece.
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on 7 November 2008
I must admit that I owned Vanity Fair for quite a while before I actually got around to reading it...I kept making attempts but drifted off after a few chapters. However, once I shook myself and forced myself to proceed my interest was quickly hooked. I did already know the story and how everything turned out for the characters beforehand but despite this the novel still gripped. However, be warned! If you like your Victorian literature with a hero, Vanity Fair doesn't really have a suitable candidate to offer. Instead, the sheer joy of the book comes largely from the enterprising social climber Becky and her gleefully unrepentant struggle for the top.
Because of the large number of relatively small chapters involved, its perfect long-term bedside reading to savour.
A true classic.
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on 29 December 2014
'Vanity Fair' is a long novel. That was my primary reflection on completing it. There are a lot of positive things one can complement Thackeray on, of course, yet, the novel remains overlong. Throughout, the drama is punctuated with chapter length swathes of rather tedious portrayals of showy gatherings - society at play in all its pomp. Of course, this is Thackeray's intention, to expose the conceit and vanity, and shame it publicly. However, the effect is quite often dull and impedes the momentum of the stories.

That's another thing. The novel has the dimensions of an epic saga with a number of key protagonists, starting with the two girls, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, and extending beyond to their families and connections. It is fairly heavily populated. To keep up with these characters over the years of the novel takes some skill and attention on Thackeray's part, which, on the whole, he succeeds in. However, the uneventful passages often only serve to delay and diffuse the simmering dramas we are most interested in, which are themselves already fractured - disconnected by place and circumstance.

Otherwise, the novel is a compelling study of selfishness and vanity which is as applicable today to our modern selves as it was then to upper-class Regency England - it tells, universally, of the 'civilised' human condition. Thackeray's observations are unadorned, rapier-like, and often darkly amusing. (I believe he would have proved a most witty and illuminating dinner guest.) And in Rebecca Sharp, by the way, Thackeray creates perhaps the most complex and irredeemable scheming villainesses in all of literature (Emma Bovary x Scarlett O'Hara?).
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on 11 September 2014
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com

In 1899, Veblen published his The Theory of the Leisure Class, arguing that most of society’s activities were focused purely on establishing status. We engage in conspicuous consumption, we train ourselves in skills with no remunerative reward, we even pursue conspicuous leisure, all to prove we have the money and status such activities require. It’s not clear much has changed, unfortunately.

Fifty years before, Thackeray wrote on a similar subject. He satirized early 19th century Britain, with its class-obsessed, materialist fixations and flaws. His novel, subtitled A Novel without a Hero, has only flawed characters, with a devil’s assortment of opportunists, snobs, fools, hypocrites, adulterers, psychopaths, and more. No character is wholly flawed, however: many are explained to be products of their poverty or straightened circumstances, or also have redeeming virtues. From a mild beginning, it descends into a bleak view of human nature from which there is no escape or possibility of reform.

The glory of the book, however, is in Thackeray’s narration. One of the best known omniscient narrators, he is at times scornful, biting, and incisive, and always clever. He even insults his readers, suggesting that anyone interested in such Vanity Fairs must be lazy or sarcastic. Though grim, however, his insights are brilliant, and maintain their potency today, particularly in a world of increasing inequality and consumption.
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on 26 April 2006
Although a mammoth read, Thackeray has voiced what other Victorian writers felt obliged to conceal. Vanity Fair retains its relevance in today's capitalist consumer society. I believe there is a Becky Sharp lurking within all of us! Best read I have read in the past year.
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