“Vanity Fair” is perhaps Thackeray’s most famous novel. The story is framed as a puppet play, narrated by an unreliable narrator, that presents the story of Becky Sharp and Emmy Sedley and the people in their lives as they struggle through the Napoleonic Wars. The story itself, like many other Thackeray novels, is a satire of the lives of the Victorian English of a certain class. Thackeray packed the novel with allusions, many of which were difficult even for his contemporary readers; part of the heavy revision work later he did on “Vanity Fair” later in his life was revising it to make the allusions more accessible to his evolving audience.
As part of his satirical bent, Thackeray made a point to make each character flawed, so that there are no “heroes” in the book—hence the subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero”. Thackeray’s goal was not only to entertain, but to instruct; to that end, he wanted the reader to look within themselves after finishing the unhappy conclusion, in which there’s no hint as to how society might be able to improve on the evils shadowed in the events of novel.