Miss Pinkerton's Academy in Chiswick Mall in London is where young ladies with ambitions of making a good marriage are sent by their socially aspiring middleclass parents. Two young ladies, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca (Becky) Sharpe are on their way home after completing their term at Miss Pinkerton's. Amelia is from a well to do family, while Becky is a scheming orphan who has latched on to her amiable friend in the hopes of climbing the social ladder. In Amelia's comfortable Russell Square home, Becky goes to work immediately. Her target is Amelia's clumsy, boastful, wealthy civil servant brother, Joseph, who is home on furlough from India. She also meets the dashing Captain George Osborne, Amelia's childhood sweetheart.
Things don't go according to plan and Becky soon moves to a country mansion, Queen's Crawley, where she takes up a job as a governess to the children of the wealthy widower Sir Pitt Crawley. She manages to entrap the naïve younger son of the house, Rawdon Crawley. Meanwhile, Amelia and George marry. However, George is not all he seems and turns out to be a coward in war and an unscrupulous liar. He is also weary of his marriage and begins to pay undue attentions to Becky, whom he meets in Brighton where she is staying with her husband. The rest of the story follows the lives of the two classmates and their travails.
The title of Vanity Fair is taken from John Bunyan's famous 17th century work, Pilgrim's Progress. In Bunyan's allegorical tale of Christian's journey, Vanity Fair is the name of an endless carnival in the town of Vanity, and represents worldly vices and sinful attachments. Thackeray was writing in the Golden Age of Satire when greats like Dryden, Pope, Swift, Addison, Steele and Fielding were regaling readers with their caustic, acerbic wit. Vanity Fair explores the ideas of transient, materialistic desires and their harmful effects on people. His biting satirical portrait of the selfish and street smart Becky and her overwhelming desire for wealth and social success is one of the masterpieces in English literature.