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Vanity Fair is subtitled: ‘A Novel Without A Hero.’ Thackeray is a thorough advocate of realism. He believes that in reality, there are only human and lesser human characters but no chivalric heroes. That is why there is not one single protagonist pin pointed. Nevertheless, the story of Vanity Fair revolves around the lives of two ladies, Rebecca and Amelia, how their lives converge, diverge and run parallel to each other. Rebecca has suffered humiliation at the hands of poverty and so becomes a selfishly bad woman, while Amelia is a selfishly good woman. Neither of the main characters are perfectly virtuous and untainted.
Thackeray has exposed the underbelly of society, its follies and foibles in his unparalleled work, Vanity Fair. The antagonist in his novel is not an individual, but Vanity. These vanities may be individual or collective vanities of a class or society or people.
Some vanity or another leads each character and this self- delusion leads him to his end. Amelia’s vanity comes in her way and she refuses to admit that George was being untrue to her. George Osborne is excessively vain about his good looks, so is Joseph Sedley who considers himself to be Adonis, but in reality is a fat, ridiculous man. Old Osborne’s stubbornness compels him to be vain and not forgive his son for a very long time. Whether it is outward vanity or inner, almost every character, like a puppet, is animated by his own vanity and it makes him do selfish things. Though there are some cruel and wicked people, but they are so because of their vanities. Therefore, vanity is the antagonist and not a person in Vanity Fair.
As the novel does not follow a linear pattern, it is difficult to mention just one climax. The novel accounts for the lives of two main characters and it moves alternately from one to the other. So, the climax occurs at two different points for the two different lives.
Amelia’s life seems shattered after the death of George Osborne in the battle of Waterloo. This episode occurring at the 32 nd chapter (almost middle of the novel) can be regarded as the climax of her story.
Rebecca’s life takes a sharp turn in chapters 54 and 55, when Rawdon discovers that she is being selfish and unfaithful to him. He leaves her forever and Becky’s life is never the same.
The novel does not surely end in tragedy, but it is not a wholehearted happy ending either. Thackeray says that he wants to leave everybody dissatisfied at the end. He stops at a certain point in the story and summarizes but does not contrive a fake but happy ending.
The outcome of the death of George is that Amelia spends her days in melancholy and poverty. Her father-in-law refuses to accept her, she has to give her son away to his grandfather, but after going through a lot of misery, her goodness brings happiness to her life as she marries Col. Dobbin.
As for Rebecca, she is out of favor from all quarters and so moves around in the continent like a vagabond for some years. Then she anchors on Jos Sedley and getting him out of the way, inherits half his property. Rebecca lives fairly well, doing charity for the rest of her life, which is more than a punishment for her.
In such a way, a relatively good character Amelia is happy (but with reservation for she is slightly envious of her daughter) but a selfish and wicked character too is not severely punished. Becky may not have love, but she is still surviving. This, according to Thackeray, is realism.