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The nineteenth century saw a rise in the readers of fiction. To cater to this need, authors, especially Dickens, conceived the idea of a serialized publication of a novel. Hence parts novels were published weekly or monthly comprising of a group of chapters called a volume and generally two illustrations. Vanity Fair was published in three volumes. In this mode of publication, the narrator forms a close bond with his readers. A readerís response affects editorial policies.
Pen and ink sketches of English life was to be the initial name of Vanity Fair, then Thackeray recalled Bunyanís Pilgrimís Progress in which the protagonist, Christian, has to avoid the temptations of a place called Vanity Fair. Considering it to be the most suited title for the novel, Thackeray changed it to Vanity Fair, but Thackerayís approach is entirely secular Evangelistic.
Thackeray is regarded as one of the first British Realists. His style and affinity for realism is compared to that of the French Realists, Flaubert and Balzac. Thackeray remarks-"The art of novel is to convey as strongly as possible the sentiment of reality..." He wishes to present a semblance of reality in all its variety. Thus, many of the characters and names of places are taken from real life.
Dobbinís character is based on Thackeray himself. Ameliaís character is an amalgam of the personalities of his wife and Mrs. Brookfield, the wife of his unfaithful friend, whom Thackeray falls in love with. The stories about India are derived from old family reminiscences, Jos Sedley is the caricature of one of his cousins; Miss Crawley from his grandmother, the character of Dobbin is also drawn from his step father in silently loving a woman and marrying her when she was a young widow with a small son. Miss Pinkertonís academy resembles the site of a school he attended in childhood, Pumpernickel is essentially Weimar where he had stayed after college, and Dr. Swishtailís school was the one, which he had actually attended.
Thackerayís realism gives him scope for satire. His is not a purposeless verisimilitude. And behind the realist and satirist lurks a great moralist. Like Alexander Pope, Thackeray wishes to reconcile and improve society not by serious moralizing, but by light humor. He wishes to "leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story," so that his readers are compelled to think and analyze themselves in the light of self- reflexivity.
Thackeray also satirizes the unreal Romantic and Gothic modes of writing with similar intelligence. Vanity Fair elicited very strong reactions - either readers loved it or hated it. There were no intermediate responses. Charlotte Brönte was impressed while some of his contemporaries were not. Some people considered him a great moralist, while others called him godless because his moral vision is obscure in the novel.
Nevertheless, the novel still holds a place in the readerís hearts, who have filmed this novel and even made a television serial of it, to keep alive this masterpiece of W.M. Thackeray.