Even though the two protagonists of Vanity Fair are women, the question of what it means to be a man – particularly the masculine ideal of a gentleman – is central to the novel. Each male character represents a separate and distinct version of how gentlemanliness could be achieved: through wealth and external appearance, intellectual and political power, blue blood, or the cultivation of personality and character (with the implication that this last should serve as a model for readers). At the same time, there are secondary masculine characters that offer a vision of manhood run amok, whether through extreme and undeserved vanity or through the corruption of the power that high social rank brings.
Women are actually completely totally secondary to the novel, which is in reality about the way men want to be close to each other, or even be each other. For example, Jos is never happier than when hanging out with just George and Rawdon in Bath. When women are involved, it is as a go-between for the men – for instance, Amelia is simply a way for Dobbin to be as close as possible to his childhood idol George (and even become him by replacing him as her husband).
Rather than the more familiar ways of defining manhood as success in public life or through the display of machismo, the novel argues that true masculine achievement is revealed through a man's relationship with children. Those who form lasting and meaningful connections with children (Rawdon with his son, Dobbin with his daughter and George Jr.) are forgiven past trespasses. Those who cannot (Lord Steyne with Rawdon Jr., Pitt Crawley and his own children) are regarded as failures at being men.