Summary, Chapters 1 - 6
The book begins at Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on the day of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley's departure. The reference letter prepared by Miss Pinkerton about Amelia commends her character and talents and recommends her highly for a position at the lexicographer's. This is due in part because she has a rich and influential father and in part because Amelia is such a kind young woman. The note includes a short aside about Becky, who will accompany Amelia but who is to quickly move on to the family who expects her for employment.
As the preparations come to a close, and Amelia tells everyone goodbye, Becky emerges inconspicuously. No one notices her step into the carriage, but tears and goodbyes abound for Amelia. When Miss Jemima tries to slip Becky a dictionary - the school's traditional parting gift to its students - as the carriage takes off, Becky flings it out the window, to Miss Jemima's surprise.
After Rebecca rants about Chiswick, the narrator launches into Rebecca's history. Rebecca's French mother, of whom she does not often speak, is dead. Her father was a starving artist and for a time taught drawing at Miss Pinkerton's school. He was a heavy drinker and was known to have beaten Rebecca and her mother. Despite this, Rebecca loved her father and missed him at Chiswick.
Rebecca picked up a saucy wit and an audacious, liberal nature from her impoverished situation and the countless conversations she had as a youth with her father's friends. Therefore, Chiswick was an environment that smothered her. Having nothing else with which to occupy herself, she excelled in her studies, and even managed to earn an invitation from Miss Pinkerton to teach a music course in addition to the French that she was already regularly teaching.
She had a rather negative relationship with the headmistress, who at first misjudged Rebecca as meek. During Rebecca's time at Chiswick, Minerva Pinkerton did everything she could to try to best her pupil. Rebecca and Miss Pinkerton had common interests: they both hated that Rebecca was at Chiswick and wanted her to leave. Miss Pinkerton finally got rid of Rebecca by recommending her for the position of governess for Sir Pitt Crawley's family.
While at Chiswick, Rebecca eventually attached herself to Amelia, who was the only girl at the school her treated her kindly. Amelia invited Rebecca to come stay at her home for ten days before going off to begin her governess duties. When the ladies arrive at the house, Rebecca meets Joseph Sedley, who is extremely shy and thus ineptly handles her advances. Rebecca whispers loudly to Amelia that she thinks Joseph is handsome, because she has already decided that she wants to marry him.
Joseph is a collector for the East India Company's Civil Service. At the dinner table, Rebecca pretends to be familiar with Indian food but is soon overwhelmed by the intense spices. Later, Joseph and his father reflect on Rebecca, and Mr. Sedley insists that she is interested in Joseph. This information makes Joseph uncomfortable, so he leaves the house and stays away for two days.
Meanwhile, Rebecca continues to endear herself to Amelia's family, and the young people plan a trip to Vauxhall. While Mr. Sedley thinks Rebecca would be a good match for Joseph, especially since she might be able to curb his conceit, Mrs. Sedley is less happy about the fact that Rebecca has designs on her son.
One evening, while Mr. and Mrs. Sedley are away, the children decide to remain at the house rather than go to Vauxhall. George and Amelia retreat from the drawing-room, and so Joseph and Rebecca have the opportunity to talk privately. Rebecca, with her apparent interest in Joseph and his exploits in India, inspires a boisterous effusiveness in him, and he nearly proposes but is interrupted by dinner being served. The next morning, Joseph comes to the house much earlier than he normally would to see Rebecca and finds himself helping her make the green silk purse that she has been working on.
The narrator then explores a period in the past of George Osborne, Amelia's childhood friend and love interest. He attended Dr. Swishtail's notable school, where he became friends with William Dobbin after the older boy defended him against the school bully, Cuff. From that day forward, Dobbin became the leader of the school, where he thrived academically. He held George accountable for his improved circumstances and therefore permanently devoted himself to little George.
Back in the present, George tells everyone that he has invited Dobbin, who he respects as one of the best officers in the Regiment of Foot, to come to Vauxhall with them. When Dobbin arrives the next day, he happens upon Amelia singing, and immediately falls in love with her.
Everyone waits in heightened anticipation for Joseph to propose to Rebecca. Meanwhile, his father continues to grow disdainful of him, thinking that because his son is obese, loud, "effeminate" and vain, he doesn't really care who he ends up marrying.
The five young people go off to Vauxhall. Dobbin is promptly forgotten when Amelia pairs off with George and Rebecca with Joseph. During their solitary walk, Rebecca and Joseph both feel that they have reached an important and climactic moment, but Joseph does not propose. The two couples then sit down to dinner and Joseph proceeds to get ridiculously drunk. George recruits Dobbin to take care of him and get him home.
The next morning, as Joseph is recovering from his encounter with the rack punch, George berates him for his behavior, denying that he was a "lion" and recounting that there was silly violence, singing, and an inability to stand involved. Joseph, utterly embarrassed, decides to flee to Scotland, leaving a note for Amelia and Rebecca apologizing for his abominable behavior. Rebecca, convinced that George is at fault for her dashed hopes, departs from the Sedleys'.
Analysis, Chapters 1 - 6
There is a lot of foreshadowing in these first three chapters. Here, we get a taste of what Amelia and Becky are like and how the author uses each as a foil for the other. Becky is sassy and manipulative; she tosses out Miss Jemima's gift and then laughs when Amelia rebukes her. She can also employ a sweet and charming nature when she wants something, which is evident in her treatment of Jos.
Thackeray also provides a full characterization of Amelia. He uses her reputation at school to indicate to his readers that this is a likable, simple girl. There is also a bit of foreshadowing in the fact that Amelia is the only one in the school who is willing to be friends with Becky. This prepares the reader for her continued blindness when it comes to Becky's conspicuous faults.
Thackeray does create sympathy for Becky by talking about her past. She does not come from wealthy nobility and is therefore on her own to make a name for herself in the world. Thackeray makes it clear that Becky's past is a major factor in shaping the woman she becomes, even though her past is something she would much rather forget.
Thackeray uses exposition liberally in these first three chapters as a way of introducing his characters. Instead of relying on dialogue to reveal information, he spends many paragraphs away from the actual story to explain their backgrounds. The author continues this throughout the book, often spending entire chapters on exposition. The author will also interrupt his story to alert the reader to certain opinions and observations, a method that fits very neatly with the novel's judgmental mood.
What Thackeray does with his characters can definitely be called metonymy, because each one is in his or her own way an embodiment of Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair is a place of selfishness and manipulation, obsession with appearances, materialism, and general ambition for all things considered ephemeral by the author. From the very beginning all of the characters are obsessed with their own images and place in society; each in his own way scrambles for a place in Vanity Fair, while the narrator ridicules them for it.
The narrator again takes a break from the storyline to describe how George and Dobbin became friends. This history is interesting because the reader finds out that at one point, Dobbin was the one that everyone admired, and that the only reason he allows George to walk all over him is that he considers him responsible for his success. Here, the author foreshadows Dobbin's obsessive sense of commitment, which will manifest itself in his relationship with Amelia.
Rebecca continues to try to charm Jos, and it is clear that she is distancing herself more and more from her humble beginnings. She charms everyone in the household, and she does so without anyone really picking up on her scheming. Becky will continue to develop these skills as the story progresses.
The narrator employs dramatic irony while he observes Becky's courting of Jos. He explains that Becky spent much of her time thinking about ways to reel in Jos Sedley and spent the rest of her time fantasizing about the life that she would have once they get married. Jos, on the other hand, never thinks of Becky in this way, always has petty things on his mind, and only finds that he is embarrassed when Becky is too forward.
The title of Chapter 4 is "The Green Silk Purse." This is a telling title. Becky is knitting this purse, and on the night when she finally sits alone with Jos, the climax of his conversation with her ends up being a question about this purse. The purse itself is a symbol of the society in Vanity Fair. It is flashy and insignificant, yet it is a preoccupation of both Jos and Becky.
Becky says that the purse is for anyone who might want a purse, which means that it is up for grabs for any of the characters. The green of the purse might very well represent Becky's greed and indicates also the deception in her response. This is just another one of her tools for trapping the Sedley family, and clearly, entrapping a Sedley doesn't take much.