Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was published as a serial before being sold in book form; it was printed in 20 monthly parts between January 1847 and July 1848. As was standard practice, the last part was a "double number" containing parts 19 and 20.
- No. 1 (January 1847) Ch. 1–4
- No. 2 (February 1847) Ch. 5–7
- No. 3 (March 1847) Ch. 8–11
- No. 4 (April 1847) Ch. 12–14
- No. 5 (May 1847) Ch. 15–18
- No. 6 (June 1847) Ch. 19–22
- No. 7 (July 1847) Ch. 23–25
- No. 8 (August 1847) Ch. 26–29
- No. 9 (September 1847) Ch. 30–32
- No. 10 (October 1847) Ch. 33–35
- No. 11 (November 1847) Ch. 36–38
- No. 12 (December 1847) Ch. 39–42
- No. 13 (January 1848) Ch. 43–46
- No. 14 (February 1848) Ch. 47–50
- No. 15 (March 1848) Ch. 51–53
- No. 16 (April 1848) Ch. 54–56
- No. 17 (May 1848) Ch. 57–60
- No. 18 (June 1848) Ch. 61–63
- No. 19/20 (July 1848) Ch. 64–67
The parts resembled pamphlets, and contained the text of several chapters between outer pages of steel-plate engravings and advertising. Woodcut engravings, which could be set along with normal moveable type, appeared within the text. The same engraved illustration appeared on the canary-yellow cover of each monthly part; this colour became Thackeray's signature, as a light blue-green was Dickens', allowing passers-by to notice a new Thackeray number in a bookstall from a distance. Vanity Fair was the first work that Thackeray published under his own name, and was extremely well received at the time. The original monthly numbers and later bound version featured Thackeray's own illustrations, which at times provided plot hints or symbolically freighted images (a major character shown as a man-eating mermaid, for instance) to which the text does not explicitly refer. Most modern editions either do not reproduce all the illustrations, or reproduce them so badly that much detail is lost.
Thackeray meant the book to be not only entertaining but also instructive, an intention demonstrated through the book's narration and through Thackeray's private correspondence. The novel is considered a classic of English literature, though some critics claim that it has structural problems; Thackeray sometimes lost track of the huge scope of his work, mixing up characters' names and minor plot details. The number of allusions and references it contains can make it difficult for modern readers to follow.