The story is presented by summarized narrative, bits of drama, interpolated essays, without much recourse to the minds of the characters. If there is any doubt as to how the reader should judge an individual, the author steps in and makes appropriate comment. For example, when the Sedleys lose their money, the chief critic and enemy is old Osborne, whom Sedley has started in business. Thackeray comments on the psychology of old Osborne's attitude:
When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be . . . a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain — otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.
Here is an example of dramatic presentation. Amelia visits Becky to find out if she can help her. Becky has hidden her brandy bottle in the bed, and is putting forth every effort to engage Amelia's sympathy by way of little Rawdon:
"My agonies," Becky continued, "were terrible (I hope she won't sit down on the bottle) when they took him away from me I thought I should die; but I fortunately had a brain fever, during which my doctor gave me up, and — and I recovered, and — and — here I am, poor and friendless."
"How old is he?" Emmy asked.
"Eleven," said Becky.
"Eleven!" cried the other. "Why, he was born the same year with George who is — "
"I know, I know," Becky cried out, who had in fact quite forgotten all about little Rawdon's age. "Grief has made me forget so many things, dearest Amelia. I am very much changed: half wild some times. He was eleven when they took him away from me. Bless his sweet face, I have never seen it again."
"Was he fair or dark?" went on that absurd little Emmy. "Show me his hair."
Becky almost laughed at her simplicity . . .
Usually Thackeray just describes what happens. George and Becky are talking about how Becky can get next to Briggs, Miss Crawley's maid, and thereby see Miss Crawley and regain her favor for Rawdon. Becky says she will find out when Briggs goes to bathe; she will dive in under Briggs' awning and "insist on a reconciliation".
The idea amuses George, who bursts out laughing, whereat Rawdon shouts at them to ask what the joke is. Thackeray does not say Amelia is jealous, he shows the reader what she does: "Amelia was making a fool of herself in an absurd hysterical manner, and retired to her own room to whimper in private."
Instead of showing, sometimes the author tells what the situation is. Of Sir Pitt's second wife, he says, "Her heart was dead long before her body. She had sold it to become Sir Pitt Crawley's wife. Mothers and daughters are making the same bargain every day in Vanity Fair."
Although Thackeray claims to write about real people, at the close of the book, he says, "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." Thackeray does write about real people; Amelia is drawn from Mrs. Thackeray. However, in the writing of a story, there is a transformation and adaptation which justifies also the figure of the manipulation of puppets.
The author calls his characters ironic or patronizing names such as "Our poor Emmy," or "Our darling Rebecca." The modern reader may think his writings full of clichés. One must remember, however, that Thackeray makes fun of just such patronizing expressions, and one cannot be sure that he uses such expressions seriously.
Thackeray likes certain words such as "killing." Sometimes his punctuation seems old-fashioned, like his use of the colon instead of a period in sentences like: "William knew her feelings: had he not passed his whole life in divining them?"
Sentence structure ranges from a few words to a whole paragraph. The variety tends to make the story readable, slows the pace or quickens it; variation may come in the form of a question or direct address. Essay or narration alternates with dialogue and dramatic action.
Because the story was written as a serial, Thackeray didn't have the whole manuscript in hand for completion and correction. As a result the story rambles; essays have been inserted as padding; there is a certain amount of confusion in regard to names, places, and time. For example, Mrs. Bute Crawley is sometimes Martha, sometimes Barbara. Georgy sees Dobbin in London at a time when he is in Madras.
The reader has a complete picture of Joseph's visit with his father and Amelia, his reassurance as to their welfare. Then Amelia gets a letter from Jos saying he will be delayed — he hasn't yet left Southampton.
Whatever his faults in producing a sprawling, sometimes inaccurate manuscript, Thackeray has never missed a chance to point out the futility, the snobbery of Vanity Fair.