The story goes back to the relatives who hoped to benefit by Miss Crawley's death. Bute has been mourning because he has received five thousand pounds instead of the expected thirty thousand. Mrs. Bute has redoubled her efforts to make good marriages for her daughters.
There is a flashback to Pitt's and Lady Jane's visit to Sir Pitt. Sir Pitt has liked Lady Jane and has given her pearls but has refused to discuss the degeneration of the family estate with his son. Neither has he allowed them to stay with him. Miss Horrocks, the butler's daughter, reigns at Queen's Crawley and Pitt fears his father will marry her. One evening Miss Horrocks tries to play and sing; the kitchen maid whom she has promoted encourages her. Sir Pitt thinks her attempts to be a lady are very funny. He drinks too much and becomes seriously ill.
Within an hour Mrs. Bute and family enter the house, surprise Miss Horrocks ("Ribbons") trying to pilfer Sir Pitt's desks. Mrs. Bute chases Miss Horrocks out with a threat of jail. She also sends word to Pitt and takes over the household from whence the Horrocks have fled. Sir Pitt lingers for months but never regains lucidity. Young Pitt moves into Queen's Crawley and takes over.
After the death of the old baronet, the new Sir Pitt decides to send for Rawdon and Rebecca. Since Rawdon sees no possibility of money forthcoming from the visit, he is not eager to go. But Rebecca, delighted at the invitation, sees all the intricate possibilities of advancement in Vanity Fair. She pictures Rawdon in Parliament and herself presented in Court as a result of the influence of Lord Steyne and Sir Pitt.
Now comes a flashback on the fortunes of Briggs since the death of Aunt Crawley. After various experiences, Briggs has come to be Becky's "housedog." Before six months have passed, the Rawdon Crawleys have borrowed much of her life's savings on pretext of investment.
The author then describes Rawdon's and Becky's trip to Queen's Crawley where they are well received, and Becky exerts herself to make a good impression.
The reader is next taken back to the Osborne family. Mr. Osborne's bitterness has not improved his temper. After much bargaining over the marriage of Maria to Frederick Bullock, who has been holding out for more dowry, the match has been made. Old Osborne keeps the other daughter, Jane, as a slave at home.
Popular little Georgy visits many people. Inevitably becomes in contact with his maiden aunt, Jane, whom he charms. Later at her father's questioning, she bursts into tears and says little George is beautiful as an angel and just like his father. Old Osborne trembles but says nothing.
"A Cynical Chapter" brings the action up to Sir Pitt's final illness. Thackeray's cynicism expresses itself in such lines as these about Mrs. Bute:
[who could] have guessed from her frequent appearance in public how she pinched and starved at home . . . I know no sort of lying which is more frequent in Vanity Fair than this: and it may be remarked how people who practise it take credit to themselves for their hypocrisy, and fancy that they are exceedingly virtuous and praiseworthy, because they are able to deceive the world with regard to the extent of their means . . . Mrs. Bute certainly thought herself one of the most virtuous women in England. What will not a mother do for the benefit of her beloved ones?
Miss Horrocks has hoped to become Lady Crawley, but "fate intervened enviously, and prevented her from receiving the reward due to such immaculate love and virtue." Miss Horrocks begs mercy from Mrs. Bute, "but those who know a really good woman are aware that she is not in a hurry to forgive, and that the humiliation of an enemy is a triumph to her soul."
A cynical example of Vanity Fair shows in the kitchen maid whom Miss Horrocks has promoted. First she praises Miss Horrocks' pitiful attempt at music; then when Sir Pitt falls ill and Mrs. Bute takes over, the maid turns against Miss Horrocks.
When Becky is recognized as part of the family by the new Sir Pitt's invitation, she takes another step toward establishment in Vanity Fair. The description of Becky's reaction to Lady Jane's kindness makes the reader wonder if Rebecca is acting or is feeling something like sentiment. "The embrace somehow brought tears into the eyes of the little adventuress — which ornaments, as we know, she wore very seldom. The artless mark of kindness and confidence touched and pleased her."
When Becky remarks that she could be good for five thousand a year, the author points out that temptation may have something to do with goodness:
. . . who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations — and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so.
It does appear that the good fortune of the young Sir Pitt helps him to become kinder, more of a gentleman.
The erratic treatment of the dying Sir Pitt by nurse Hester gives rise to the ironic comment of the author:
What love, what fidelity, what constancy is there equal to that of a nurse with good wages? . . . we quarrel with them because, when their relations come to see them once a week, a little gin is smuggled in in their linen-basket. Ladies, what man's love is there that would stand a year's nursing of the object of his affection? Whereas a nurse will stand by you for ten pounds a quarter, and we think her too highly paid.
Thackeray's comment on the end of life in Vanity Fair is: "For this was all that was left after more than seventy years of cunning and struggling, and drinking, and scheming, and sin, and selfishness — a whimpering old idiot put in and out of bed and cleaned and fed like a baby."
Thackeray makes some pointed comments on governesses keeping their places, on death and funerals, and on the conscience of Vanity Fair. He points out that there are things Vanity Fair cannot buy.
Old Osborne's character hasn't changed. When he kicks Miss Wirt's trunks downstairs, tramples her hand luggage, and shakes his fist at her departing hackney-coach, he exhibits the same character he showed in Chapter 21, where the author says, "He called kicking a footman downstairs, a hint to the latter to leave his service."