Vanity Fair presents a world in which people are almost entirely defined by the socioeconomic rank within which they find themselves. Some try to claw their way up and end up crashing down; some are buoyed up and down by fate; and some simply remain in place but experience the ups and downs of others around them. But none can escape the fact that all human interactions are based on a detailed, up-to-the-minute calculation of exactly how and where those involved stand in relation to each other.
There is a lot of emphasis on knowing whether the qualities that make a gentleman or a lady are physical (beauty), innate (blue blood), or cultivated (good character). In other words, Dobbin is a gentleman not because his father gets a title, but because he is a good man. Lady Jane is a lady because she is a good mother, not because she is born into aristocracy. Still, by not giving us an example of a gentleman who is actually untitled, the novel tries to have it both ways. We end up agreeing that anyone whose character is good should be considered true nobility, but secretly we are happy to see only high ranking characters considered noble.
Social climbing in the novel is presented as non-gendered – an activity that both men and women do (unlike, say, taking care of babies, which is just for women, or fighting in the war, which is just for men). Thus, although the actions of the characters are pretty horrendous, the fact that both and women have the same goals and use the same strategies to achieve them makes this a surprisingly cutting-edge work.