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Vanity Fair
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180 of 183 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon February 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Many consider William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) a minor novelist who wrote in a time when George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope ruled the roost of British literature. Out of all of his works, "Vanity Fair" is the most recognizable in literary circles, although Stanley Kubrick immortalized Thackeray's "Barry Lyndon" in a film of the same name. "Vanity Fair" appeared in serial form in 1847-48, a process of publishing used to great success by Charles Dickens. The introduction to this Everyman's Library edition, written by Catherine Peters, says that the title of the book came from John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," an immensely popular work in circulation at the time.
"Vanity Fair" centers on the exploits of two British women, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, beginning roughly at the time of the Battle of Waterloo and ending at some time in the 1830's. The two women are polar opposites: Becky is a conniving, domineering, sometimes insensate woman who constantly attempts to secure a position in high society. Amelia is a rather plain, simple girl who trusts people too often and ends up getting her heart stomped on repeatedly. The two women are ostensibly friends, spending their youth together at a finishing school and occasionally running into each other throughout their lives. Thackeray often likes to place the two in opposition to one another: when Amelia falls into a crisis, Becky is moving in the highest circles of society. When Amelia comes into luck, Becky's fortunes plummet. This see-sawing action helps move the novel through a series of intricately detailed scenes showing off Thackeray's sense of humor, his caustic critiques of English society, and his insightful commentary into the human condition.
Arrayed around these two figures is a veritable constellation of major and minor characters, all with their own foibles that Thackeray exposes in minute detail. There is Joseph Sedley, Amelia's obese and selfish brother who nearly marries Becky in the beginning of the book. George Osborne appears through part of the book as Amelia's fiancée and eventual husband, a vain man with an eye for the ladies and a spendthrift attitude. George's friend William Dobbin also figures prominently in the story. Dobbin is an admirable man, marred by his inability to come to terms with the feelings he has for Amelia. Other characters appear and disappear rapidly, too many to outline here. It is sufficient to say that Thackeray does not worry about overburdening the reader with too many cast members, and with nearly 900 pages in the book, he definitely has the time to adequately describe numerous scenes and people.
I do not know much about literary tags, but I will say that Thackeray must certainly fall into the category of a realist writer. His goal with "Vanity Fair" was to write a story that went against the romantic hero/heroine novels of his day. The subtitle to this book, "A Novel Without a Hero," clearly outlines the author's intentions to oppose unrealistic, feel good literature that failed to properly reflect genuine life. In this respect, Thackeray succeeds admirably by creating characters that exhibit both good and bad traits during their lives. For example, Becky steals and schemes her way through life but performs an amazingly beautiful service for Amelia at the end of the book. Does this make Becky a heroine? Hardly, as Becky does not change her ways after this event. Thackeray constantly sets us up to see a heroic act, only to dash our hopes a few pages later.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel is Thackeray's acidulous wit. Everyone comes in for a drubbing here, from the aristocracy to the common man. Names often reflect the author's scorn: nobles carry such embarrassing monikers as Lord Binkie, Lady Bareacres, and Lord Steyne. Sharp is an effective name for Becky, exposing her character and incisive wit. "Vanity Fair" is full of backstabbing, lying, adultery, stealing, pride and general rowdiness, and no one is above these base behaviors.
A slight problem with the story concerns the numerous narrative digressions that wax philosophic about relationships, women and their roles in society, and bad behavior. These insertions do become taxing at times even though they often help move the story along. Thackeray wants to make sure you know what he is trying to accomplish; he wants you to see yourself and your friends and family in these character sketches.
A bigger problem for me concerned this particular edition of the story. There were no footnotes or endnotes in the Everyman's Library version to help explain the jargon or place names of Thackeray's England. While the author's use of language never approaches the level of Walter Scott's Scottish vernacular, to cite an extreme example, it is still a problem at times. I recommend picking up the Penguin Classics version of "Vanity Fair," since Penguin editions usually employ explanatory notes.
"Vanity Fair" is a long yet worthwhile read. The book is hardly unreadable, an unfair label often attached to this agreeable story. If you enjoy reading 18th century English literature, you must read "Vanity Fair."
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97 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book is not for everyone (as the next two reviews clearly demonstrate). I first read Vanity Fair in junior high, and at the time I probably would have agreed with the comments of the next two reviews: Vanity Fair seemed slow and plodding, confusing and contradictory. When I recently reread Vanity Fair, I could scarcely believe that this brilliant, ironic, hilarious, and incisive romp was the same book as the dull tome I had remembered. In retrospect I realized why my perspective had changed: in junior high I had read the book superficially and found the plot and characters lacking enough excitement to hold my interest; now I realized that the most captivating action was taking place outside the plot in the interaction between the reader and the most important person in the novel: the narrator. I, like many readers, completely missed this deeper level of meaning the first time around. Thus, to recommend this novel to the unsophiscated, inexperienced reader (such as I had been) would be futile. It takes a keen sense of irony and certain degree of insight into the workings of life and literature to recognize the narrator's vital role and to appreciate this novel in its fullest sense. This book is not an easy read: it forces the reader to confront many difficult moral questions and provides no easy answers. But for those who can handle ambiguity and can detect subtle, yet "laugh out loud" funny humor Vanity Fair is not only a necessary read, but an enjoyable one.
(Note: Buy this edition of Vanity Fair. The illustrations which Thackery drew for this novel greatly enhance the text, and the Norton edition reproduces all of them. In addition, the criticisms which are included make for a thought-provoking read and may help clarify your opinion of the novel).
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146 of 157 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
I first read this novel twenty-five years ago, and while I found it funny and excellent entertainment at that time, I didn't realize that it is also a very great book. Now I do.

Readers who've found the novel too long are, I suspect, not regular readers of Victorian novels, which were traditionally published in newspapers, bit by bit. They're always long--that's their distinction from modern novels. More than most however, Vanity Fair opens with a bang, and from the first page on through more than 800, I found it hard to put down.

Through the cast of characters we see for ourselves the pervasive greed and hypocrisy of the 19th century British Empire. Jos Sedley, the Ex-collecter of Bogley Walla, the unfortunate Rawdon Crawley, George Osborne and the immoral, resourceful Becky Sharpe are some of the most vivid characters in English writing. The narrator's voice is perfect--though hardly appealing. It's not sentimental. The "objectivity" of a journalist's timidly expressed irony feeds into the reader's need to feel smug -- so that when shocking moments come (and they sure do) we are stunned. The narrator's voice here is much more inventive than one realizes immediately. In this and many other ways Thackeray's story-telling isn't typical of Victorian novelists--Eliot or Dickens for example. In the works of those authors we always know just what moral position the narrator has. (I should mention that I also finished re-reading Middlemarch before re-reading Vanity Fair.) Comparing the grand stateliness of George Eliot with Thackeray's voice made me see just what a tricky work of art Vanity Fair is. But Thackeray, too, makes his story come to life. The description of the Battle of Waterloo is one of the most brilliant things I've ever read. It's hard to believe that he wasn't there.

In the edition I read I found that C.L.R. James, the left-wing Trinidadian author and historian--an author I admire and enjoy reading, began reading Vanity Fair at the age of eight, and re-read it regularly throughout his long life. He claims to have learned more about the minds of white colonial empire-builders from this original and epic work than any history he read. Interesting...
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62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
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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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
At Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, two girls are leaving the security of the school for the marital opportunities of the world; one is all heart and no head, the other all head and no heart. Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley are girls from two very different backgrounds; Amelia has been raised in wealth and privilege, whilst Becky is an orphan whose late parents were a painter and an opera singer. Their prospects for the future are looking very different indeed, but Becky in particular is determined to make a way for herself in the world, to claw her way up the social ladder, to integrate herself fully into Vanity Fair and establish a place for herself in the world...no matter what the cost.

So what is "Vanity Fair"? The title originated in John Bunyan's allegorical "Pilgrim's Progress", which describes the Christian's journey to the Celestial City, passing though the dangers and temptations that await them in life, represented by several metaphorical destinations. Vanity Fair is one such place, filled with "whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not" - a list of commodities where the lives of men and women are ranked alongside gold and jewels.

Many years later, William Makepeace Thackeray borrowed the conceit for the novel he was publishing serially in "Punch" magazine, which was in fact the perfect title for the story he was creating. Set in Napoleonic England, Vanity Fair is the country, society and state of mind in which his characters dwell, wrapped up in affairs of greed, materialism, warfare, society and intrigue. Such is the world that innocent Amelia and conniving Becky are sent out into, both to walk their very different - but often interconnecting - paths. Amelia is betrothed to her childhood sweetheart and family friend George Osborne, a handsome but spoilt young man - not that she is aware of that, being utterly blinded by her love and devotion to her young soldier. She's too blind to even notice the adoration of the clumsy and nervous Captain Dobbin, traits which keep him from being a hero in her (and everyone else's) eyes.

On the other hand, Becky (after failing to secure a match with Amelia's brother Joseph Sedley) finds employment as a governess in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley, a lecherous and sinful old man whose estate has long since fallen into disrepair. However Becky is determined to make the most of it, especially when it comes to winning the favour of the rich Miss Crawley, the family's "maiden aunt" - which may furthermore throw her into the path of the rakish Rawdon Crawley.

Though the subtitle is "A Novel Without a Hero" (apt, since all of the male characters subvert the idea of what we would deem "heroic"), Amelia and Becky can perhaps be considered the novel's heroines, as it is their stories that make up the narrative drive of the book. Amelia certainly fits the bill of a beautiful, romantic, helpless little Victorian heroine, but even more so is the character of Becky, of whom Thackeray himself said: "I like Becky in that book. Sometimes I think I have myself some of her tastes." Utterly ruthless, heartless, witty, charming and determined, Becky is still as much of an enigma today as she was in Thackeray's day. Though by contemporary standards it is rather easy to admire Becky for her intelligence and survival tactics (as the recent "Vanity Fair" movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon certainly did), there is a definite darkness to her that makes you rather uneasy.

Take for example the early scene of Becky throwing back the gift of a dictionary in the faces of her school-mistresses Miss Pinkerton and Miss Jemima: an act of defiance and rejection. But though we like and admire her for thumbing her nose at the snotty Miss Pinkerton, we are equally aware that she has done the same to Miss Jemima, who has gone out of her way to ensure Becky receives the parting gift of a dictionary like the other girls. Such is Becky's dilemma, that she not only rejects scorn and snide remarks; but also acts of kindness and charity toward her - life for her has long since ceased to be anything but a competition. As it stands, we can neither completely sympathise with Amelia nor completely condemn Becky - both are women struggling to survive in a world where their welfare is completely reliant on men.

Also of interest is the narrator's voice within the text; presumably representing Thackeray himself rather than some omnipresent being, who treats and describes his characters as puppets that he's manipulating in the setting of Vanity Fair. As well as this, he is a character in his own right, who recounts meetings and discussions with the characters, documenting the notes and letters they send to each other, and incorporating historical events and figures (most obviously the Napoleonic War) into his text. Due also to the fact that he's often contradicting himself, the narration itself comes across as one of the more fascinating aspects of the novel, and to my knowledge has never been attempted to such a degree before or since in literature.

"Vanity Fair" is not for the faint-of-heart reader; it is long, complicated and sometimes tedious (I found the pace slowed down considerably after the Battle of Waterloo). However, there are rewards for those that stick with it - it is frequently hilarious, often fascinating, and leaves you with a distinct feeling of melancholy unease, especially if you yourself are living in Vanity Fair. Thackeray's characters you see, are doomed to live out their lives in that hollow and ultimately meaningless place - and their lives stand as a testiment and a warning as to going there yourself.

As the only novel of the time that gave Charles Dickens a run for his money, and penned by an author of whom Charlotte Bronte (author of "Jane Eyre") said: "stands alone in his sagacity, alone in his truth, alone in his feeling...Thackeray is a Titan," Vanity Fair remains one of the great pieces of Western literature. Start reading!
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
William Makepeace Thackeray was a wonderfully insightful and intelligent rabble-rouser. In this tale he converses with his reader in a gossipy tone and with spectacular wit. He also reveals to his readers truths of the era through his dissection of Victorian society from all angles; lowly peasant to regal heights. As a modern philosopher of his own society during the Victorian era, Thackeray is utterly charming.

Vanity Fair must have been a phenomenon not unlike `Sex and the City' which debuted over a decade ago on HBO television. Vanity Fair, when it was released, was released in "monthly numbers" for over 1 1/2 years in periodical format. Readers were drawn to the lives of Becky and Amelia because of their scandalous behaviour and their readers had no quips about producing their hard-earned pounds to read of what would ultimately become of these two fascinating and rather naughty girls. Purposely suspenseful plots "hooked" the London public. Thackeray became a star amongst the literati supreme of London. By inserting himself, his thoughts and views of England, as well as the nature of man, war, poverty and these spruiks about the boastful aristocratic society into the work, he presents himself and his own opinions to the world through this wonderful book, Vanity Fair.

This novel is as important today as it was when it was released, especially for those who studying historical life as it was from day to day. We are given plain and simple viewpoints on the somewhat normal, the fashionable, the destitute and the poverty striken women of the era. Very interesting, always charming and just an all around splendid read--albeit a very long one.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2004
Format: Paperback
As Thackeray's Vanity Fair was my first serious foray into 19th century british literature, I found it a bit daunting at first. After I acquired a rhythm for his style of writing, I quickly lost myself in the story. Never before had I read a book where so much attention was paid to detail. Everything is described eloquently. The story itself is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. After finishing the book, I have forced many of my friends and family to sit down and read it. They too love it, and are recommending it to their friends.
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60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2004
Format: Paperback
I picked up Vanity Fair because it was in the bookcase and I had never read it. I quickly became obsessed with this book and was unable to put it down! I am ranking this as one of my all-time favorite books. The subtlety and brilliance Thackeray displays is beyond description. His depiction of 19th century Europe is both shockingly brutal and absolutely hilarious. But the thing that really impresses me is how this society, whose morals are based entirely on money, whose members spare no effort attempting to gain and display status, and where the less fortunate are shown no mercy is such a mirror to our society today. I guess some things never do change! I just saw the preview for the film which they have made and it is obviously not going to follow the story (how could it in a 2-hour movie?). So don't plan to skip the book and just "see the film" - you will miss the point entirely.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled "Vanity Fair", his masterful comic novel, "A Novel Without a Hero". But while this big, baggy eight-hundred page monstrosity of comic characters and situations may lack a hero, it has two of the most memorable characters in English literature: Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. The contrapuntal, shifting fortunes of these two women drive the narrative of this big book, painting, along the way, a brilliant satirical portrait of English and European society at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
We first meet Amelia and Becky in the opening pages of the novel, leaving Miss Pinkerton's School for the wider world of fortune, love and marriage. Amelia Sedley, the naive, sheltered daughter of a rich London merchant whose fortunes will dramatically change over the course of her life, "was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person." In contrast, Becky Sharp, the impoverished orphan of an artist and a French opera singer of dubious repute, was a calculating, amoral social climber. "Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable . . . but she had the dismal precocity of poverty."
From the opening pages, Thackeray captures the reader's interest in these two characters and carries the reader through marriages, births, deaths, poverty, misfortune, social climbing . . . even the Battle of Waterloo! While Amelia and Becky wind like a long, contrasting thread from the beginning to the end of this story, there are also plots and subplots, intrigues and authorial asides, and one character after another, all of this literary invention keeping the reader incessantly preoccupied and enthralled. Reading "Vanity Fair" is the furthest thing from "killing time" (as the dusty, misguided literary critic F. R. Leavis once said); it is, rather, the epitome of the nineteenth century English comic novel, a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I once read that "Vanity Fair" had been classified as one of the "most boring classics" by a group of English professors, who hopefully have all been fired, as they can NOT have had any appreciation for the incisive use of the English language, the witty skewering of Victorian society, the rollicking plot, or the unforgettable characters. Becky Sharpe isn't likeable -- but in the end, you have to admire her insatiability and efficiency. Amelia and Dobbin live out the stereotypical storybook romance -- but Thackeray dares to show how the story usually ends. This is one of the few books that had me consistently laughing aloud; virtually every page has a stinging comment or revealing moment that catches the attention. Although it's a "classic" (think leather-bound dusty volumes with edifying quotes from the latin), this is as vital, insightful, and "modern" a novel as you could hope to read. (And for the record, I think comparing Thackeray and Austen is like comparing Stephen King and Alice Walker -- they're writing at the same time, but the similarities end there!)
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