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.
The desire to constantly rise higher in the social sphere is the only motivation for action or movement in Vanity Fair. No character exerts effort unless it's in the service of finding a better-placed patron, campaigning for a new position, or acquiring a new status symbol. Those who plateau in their journey upward or who never really have the desire to elevate themselves become stagnant, boring, domestic people whose lives are secondary to the thrilling adventures of the strivers.
The world of the novel portrays all ambition (even seemingly innocuous ambition like the desire to marry or have a family) as necessarily having a sinister and selfish side. At the same time, there is no alternative offered for how to satisfied with one's position. This creates a very dark vision of humanity indeed.
The most determined character in the novel is Dobbin, who attempts to love and woo Amelia without distressing or bothering her in a way that would be ungentlemanly. His ultimate commitment to his own integrity in a sea of people who don't even know the meaning of the word is deeply optimistic and surprisingly ambitious.
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.
Even within the relatively narrow confines of the roles available to middle- and upper-class women near the beginning of the 19th century, Vanity Fair presents a wide variety of ways to be a woman. As with the men, these are usually taken to extremes: an excess of feminine daintiness and passivity, an excess of strategizing opportunism, or an excess of cold ruthlessness. At the same time, there are a few models of exemplary behavior as well. For younger women, the novel prescribes an emphasis on nurturing motherhood, while older ones do best when cheerfully serving domestic responsibilities.
Although Becky is the most accomplished actress in the novel, every one of the women we see is forced to play some kind of role in public. Authenticity (you know, letting your true colors shine through, just being yourself and letting it all hang out) does not exist in the world of Vanity Fair, and women are necessarily performing who they are at any given time, especially in public.
Vanity Fair takes a knowing and mature look at adult sexuality. Thackeray does not shy away from describing the sexual appeal of his characters and the way they carry out their intimate relationships, and he makes a slew of double-entendre jokes. Of course, in keeping with the standards and practices of the time, there is no overt description of the physical. Still, with its interest in the vagaries of sexual appetites, from the depraved to the extramaritally curious to the monogamously satisfied, the novel isn't afraid to look at the seamier and steamier aspects of adult life.
Despite the generally prudish attitudes of the Victorians, and despite the morally questionable sexual shenanigans of such characters as Becky and Lord Steyne, the novel is surprisingly sex-positive. It implies that Rawdon and Becky are enjoying married life and the general sense that desire and its fulfillment are a natural part of adulthood.
Although she is appealing to others, Becky does not seem to have any sexual desire herself. This is why she is able to attract so many men – she has the ability to seduce without the hindrance of wanting someone herself.
Because Vanity Fair is a satire, it is by definition an exploration of the moral and ethical questions of its time. At the same time, satire is a conservative genre, in the most basic sense of that word: it seeks to conserve and preserve the cultural traditions of the past in the face of modern erosion. Thackeray's disparaging eye ranges over rampant materialism, snobbery, and the brutal internal logic of the social hierarchy. The rigid social distinctions of a bygone era are being muddied by the influence of wealth and the desire of the newly moneyed for upward social mobility.
Becky's act of freeing Amelia from George's memory and letting her marry Dobbin is completely kind and selfless. That Becky is capable of such things means that she is correct about simply needing an income to be a "good woman."
In the novel, almost none of the characters who act badly or do wrong are punished or get any kind of comeuppance. This makes the novel a very dark satire indeed, as it gives us a picture of a world with no morality, either private or public (legal).
Vanity Fair does not have much to say about intellectual achievement. Instead its main demonstration of intelligence lies in its characters' ability to plan, scheme, and maneuver strategically around others as they jockey for the best social and financial position possible. In keeping with the cultural stereotypes of his time, Thackeray gives women the edge over men here. Although we frequently see male characters engaged in recreational games of chance, it's the female characters who wager for the high stakes, deploying an innate, almost animalistic cleverness.
There is a way in which Becky and the narrator compete with each other. The narrator jokes, makes puns, and says clever and cutting things about the characters and actions he describes. The only character who is able to do all those things is Becky, and this makes the novel a kind of battle of wits.
Some strategizers and schemers in the novel are compared to gamblers (Mrs. Bute, for instance), while others are like military commanders (for example, Glorvina O'Dowd). But both types tend to fail and succeed at random. The novel is thus suggesting that even the best-planned military campaigns are like throwing a die and hoping for a good result.
If the world is a fair where vanities are sold, and if external appearance and manners are valued more highly than good character and ethical conduct, then it makes sense that those who can put on the best show in public end up winners. Vanity Fair is fixated on performance and the way in which we all act out roles for the benefit of those around us. The only difference is that most of Thackeray's characters do this kind of acting subconsciously (and thus, not particularly well), while his main protagonist, Becky, is a self-aware master of the stage.
Characters in this novel can be separated into three types: those who are purely authentic, both in public and private; those who have an authentic face or personality that only shows in private; and those who are so deeply caught up in performing their socially appropriate roles that they no longer have an authentic self at all. The novel shows us problems with each kind of existence.
Activity and performance go together in Vanity Fair. From the narrator on down, anyone engaged in putting on some kind of show for an audience is by definition working at making something happen. By the same token, characters who refrain from any kind of acting are passive and inert, waiting for life to happen to them. Although on its face the novel seems to endorse this kind of inactivity, in reality it is the – perhaps malevolently – active life that it values.
It makes perfect sense that if everyone is jockeying for position at the top of the heap, the achievements of neighbors, friends, and even family members will occasion jealousy. No holds are barred in Vanity Fair and no relationships are too sacred to be spared brutally honest treatment. Sons are sexually jealous of fathers, sisters and brothers are financially jealous of each other, and people form deep friendships only to immediately dissolve them when their relative ranks shift slightly.
In the novel's world, jealousy is the most normal emotion one human being can have toward another, since without it the intricate social network would collapse. Even other feelings are usually clouded by or somehow bumping against jealousy. Those who lack the capacity for jealousy are not full participants in life.
Often characters are placed in situations where they must choose to either display or repress their feelings of jealousy and other emotions. The ability to see these situations as choices, and to make the strategically appropriate one, is a necessary quality for getting ahead in the social hierarchy.
In Vanity Fair, there are masters of one language, masters of many languages, and those whose lack of education puts them perilously close to illiteracy. Individuals who are able to find many different modes and styles of communicating, and can make themselves understood by as wide a variety of social, political, and economic ranks as possible will have an edge. Again, Thackeray's main protagonist shines in her ability to express herself in an almost unlimited number of ways.
It is important for a character not simply to be able to communicate in different styles, but to be able to interpret the looks, gestures, allusions, and jokes of others in the correct fashion. By stressing this skill, the novel allies itself with its readers, who are its interpreters.
The novel tries out different ways to use letters. There are letters of revelation (like Miss Pinkerton's bio of Becky for Mrs. Bute), letters of characterization (for example, Sir Pitt's note to Becky about meeting him), letters used to con their recipients (such as the letters from "Rawdon" that Becky sends to Miss Crawley), and letters used as narration for the novel (see Becky's long letter to Amelia about Queen's Crawley). So important is written communication that the resolution of the plot hinges on a note from George to Becky. Ultimately the novel favors writing over performing in its ranking of artistic or creative pursuits.