Vanity Exposed in Vanity Fair
The title Thackeray chose for his novel Vanity Fair is taken from The Pilgrim´s Progress by John Bunyan. In Bunyan´s book, one of the places Christian passes through on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City is Vanity Fair, where it is possible to buy all sorts of vanities. A very sad thing happens there: the allegorical person Faithful is killed by the people. In the novel Vanity Fair Thackeray writes about the title he has chosen: "But my kind reader will please to remember that this history has 'Vanity Fair' for a title, and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions" (98). The choice of title is appopriate, because in his novel Thackeray deals with people who put wealth, property, and a station in life before everything else - including honesty and love.
In the last lines of the novel Thackeray uses the Latin words Vanitas Vanitatum taken from Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:
1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
1:3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
The subtitle too is significant for this novel. Much of literature, from ancient times to the present, has dealt with heroes, men (and sometimes women) praiseworthy for what they have done for one or more people near them, or for the benefit of a whole nation. Thackeray is one of the first "realistic" writers, who does not idealize things. His characters are not heroes and they mostly have selfish motives for their actions. This novel is definitely not edifying reading, but I assume Thackeray is more satirical than cynical. The title may also refer to a heroine (Amelia), rather than a hero.
One of the main characters in this novel is Rebecca (Becky) Sharp. She is well aware of the sort of person she is: "I´m no angel" (11). As soon as she is out of school she starts scheming to find a husband above her station, since her ambition is to advance in society. Having failed to win the hand of Joseph Sedley, she marries Rawdon Crawley, thinking he will inherit a lot of money from his aunt. Instead they both fall out of favour, and Becky has to use her wits. Throughout the novel she is the one who charms people, and who is held in high esteem by the upper class in which she yearns to "belong". The word vanity suits Becky well; she seems to care for no one, not even her friends, and she neglects her own son. A very hard judgement is passed on her by Lady Jane: "She has deceived her husband, as she has deceived everybody; her soul is black with vanity, worldliness, and all sorts of crime" (752). When Rawdon leaves her it becomes harder for her to retain her reputation. When she notices that people avoid her she works hard to be regarded as respectable. She is not used to a life where she is not surrounded by admirers, and she is bored. She makes Joseph Sedley listen to...