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Book Review

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

William Makepeace Thackeray lifted the title for this lengthy novel from John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Thackeray’s sarcastic narrator injects humor and foreboding comments as he mocks societal propriety during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The novel centers around two young women, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca (Becky) Sharp, who have just completed school together. Amelia comes from a wealthy family, while Becky was raised by alcoholic artist-types. While naïve Amelia has never lacked anything, Becky has already discovered she must charm and manipulate others to survive.

Becky attaches herself to Amelia, and Amelia invites the classmate to stay in the Sedley home. Becky pursues Amelia’s vain, obese older brother Joseph (Jos), and almost receives the desired marriage proposal. When Jos’ drunkenness and cowardice thwart the relationship, Becky must leave the Sedley home and take a position as a governess for the prominent Crawley family.

Becky does little governing and a great deal of schmoozing at the Queen’s Crawley estate. When baronet Sir Pitt’s wife dies some time later, he asks Becky to marry him. She is devastated to have to pass up the wealth and prestige that would accompany such a union, but she confesses she has secretly wed Sir Pitt’s son, Rawdon. Becky has meticulously endeared herself to Sir Pitt’s spinster sister during her time at Queen’s Crawley. But when Miss Crawley learns about Rawdon’s indecorous marriage, she disowns the man who stood to inherit most of her fortune. Becky and Rawdon move away, living on money from Rawdon’s gambling and Becky’s schemes.

Amelia becomes engaged to George Osborne, a rising military leader from a well-to-do family. George’s longtime sidekick, William Dobbin, loves Amelia, but would never dare compete with his suave friend for her affections. As Napoleon moves and financial instability ravages Europe, the Sedley fortune diminishes. George’s father commands him to break off the engagement with a girl who is no longer worthy of him. George begins ignoring Amelia, who broods over her dashed romantic dreams. Dobbin, always watching over Amelia, tells George about the girl’s utter devastation. George decides to marry her despite his father’s orders, envisioning himself a hero. George’s father disinherits him, and Amelia can tell even a few weeks into the marriage that George is bored with her.

When a French invasion is imminent, Becky and Amelia follow their soldier husbands to Brussels. Jos comes, too. When he hears rumors of enemy troops headed their way, he pays Becky a hefty sum for her horses so he can flee. Rawden soon rejoins his wife, but George dies in battle. Amelia, devastated and pregnant, goes back to her parents’ home and survives with the financial support of the baby’s godfather, Dobbin.

Miss Crawley dies, leaving a great deal of money to Rawdon’s father, Sir Pitt. When Sir Pitt dies, Rawdon’s younger brother, Pitt, inherits the bulk of the money and the estate. Pitt marries a sweet, gentle woman named Lady Jane, and Becky beguiles them both. Meanwhile, she ignores and mistreats her young son, Rawdon Jr.

The boy’s father develops a fondness for him and spends a lot of time with him. Whenever Rawdon suggests Becky should be more attentive to the boy, she becomes angry and cruel. As Becky advances in society, Lady Jane notices her mistreatment of her son and flirtations with Pitt.

Amelia’s parents sink deeper into debt. George’s sister sees her nephew one day on the street and is struck by his likeness to his father. Before long, Mr. Osborne takes an interest in his grandson and ultimately offers to take him in. Amelia knows the Osbornes have the wealth and power to give her son every opportunity. Still, she eschews the suggestion until there is no way she can afford to support him herself. The spoiled youngster eagerly goes to live with his grandfather, knowing he will receive everything he desires.

Becky begins consorting with an aristocrat named Lord Steyne. One night after a party, Rawdon is arrested and taken to debtors’ prison. He sends a note to Becky, who replies that she doesn’t have the money to bail him out. After Lady Jane posts bail, Rawdon goes home to find Becky and Lord Steyne alone. She is flirting and singing for him, wearing expensive jewels while they drink wine.

Rawdon also discovers that Becky has been hiding money from him for years. Rawdon punches Steyne and plans to challenge him to a duel. The powerful Steyne arranges for Rawdon to receive a prestigious military appointment so Rawdon will leave town quietly. Rawdon goes, leaving his son with the boy’s beloved aunt, Lady Jane.

Amelia’s parents and George’s father all die. George’s father leaves his grandson wealthy and has even made provision for his once-shunned daughter-in-law. Dobbin comes to visit after many years away, still in love with Amelia. She tells him she must remain faithful to her dead husband.

Dobbin, Amelia, her son and Jos take a holiday to Germany. There, they run into Becky, who now survives by gambling. She lives with other bohemians. She convinces Jos and Amelia she’s been unfairly accused and her beloved son has been stolen from her. Dobbin can’t believe Amelia is falling for Becky’s act again. He tells Amelia he’s wasted too much of his life loving her without reciprocation, and he leaves town.

When Becky learns about Dobbin’s departure, she shows Amelia a letter she received from George just before he went to war. In the note, George asks Becky to run away with him. Amelia realizes George was not the saint she believed him to be and feels free to let herself love Dobbin. She writes to him, and he comes back immediately to marry her. They later have a daughter. After Rawdon dies, his son inherits the Crawley estate. Jos continues to travel with Becky and dies under mysterious circumstances.

Christian Beliefs

Many characters attend church, and some families gather for times of prayer and Scripture reading. Lady Jane prays for Rawdon. When Amelia is about to send her son to live with his grandfather, she makes him read the story of Samuel in the Bible.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Parents and older relatives, such as George’s father and Rawdon’s aunt, disown or disinherit children whose marriages don’t add social or financial value to the family. Becky mistreats, hits and ignores her son, only showing him kindness when she is trying to manipulate others. Dobbin cares for Amelia and her son financially and emotionally for many years despite her failure to return his feelings.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. The words a--, d--n also appear.


Becky manipulates and flirts with numerous men throughout the story, many of whom are married. While she spends time alone with different men, the text stops short of confirming whether she has had sex with any of them. Extramarital flirtations abound.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Society: Social standing makes or breaks a family, and individuals not born into it manipulate, swindle, deceive and cajole to achieve it. Greed and ambition infiltrate every interaction. When characters die, the division of their assets is the chief concern.

Treatment of women: Prejudices toward women emerge. Wives are sometimes beaten, belittled or ignored by their husbands.

Racial prejudice: One servant is usually referred to as black Sambo, and one father repeatedly demonstrates relief that his child isn’t marrying someone with dark skin.

Vices: Drunkenness and gambling.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


William Makepeace Thackeray






Record Label



Wordsworth Editions, a trademark of Wordsworth Editions Limited; the edition reviewed was published in 2001


On Video

Year Published





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