Thursday 28 July 2011

One of the best gentlemen Becky ever saw: more on Dobbin as Vanity Fair's unlikely hero

All spoilers, my friends
In my previous post on Vanity Fair, I discussed how in spite of Thackeray's claim that his novel boasted no hero, there was a clear candidate indeed: William Dobbin. Near the novel's conclusion, Thackeray finally comes out with it, and claims the humble Dobbin as our hero:
Which of us can point out many such in his circle—men whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who can look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and the small? We all know a hundred whose coats are very well made, and a score who have excellent manners, and one or two happy beings who are what they call in the inner circles, and have shot into the very centre and bull's-eye of the fashion; but of gentlemen how many? Let us take a little scrap of paper and each make out his list.

My friend the Major I write, without any doubt, in mine. He had very long legs, a yellow face, and a slight lisp, which at first was rather ridiculous. But his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble. He certainly had very large hands and feet, which the two George Osbornes used to caricature and laugh at; and their jeers and laughter perhaps led poor little Emmy astray as to his worth. (pp. 621-22)
In a world in which almost everyone is at best half an inch deep (Amelia, say) and at worst actively dangerous (Becky!, Good lord, woman!), Dobbin is ridiculous not because he is physically awkward, or less pleasing to the eye than one could hope, or because he doesn't care for the social niceties when they aren't anchored in something more solid than appearances; it's not even that he is good per se, although that's certainly important. Rather, Dobbin is the hero because he is focused, stolid, unashamed of who he is and what he wants. He is strong and devoted—yet, he is also foolishly smitten:
This woman had a way of tyrannizing over Major Dobbin (for the weakest of all people will domineer over somebody), and she ordered him about, and patted him, and made him fetch and carry just as if he was a great Newfoundland dog. He liked, so to speak, to jump into the water if she said "High, Dobbin!" and to trot behind her with her reticule in his mouth. This history has been written to very little purpose if the reader has not perceived that the Major was a spooney. (p. 663)
But being a “spooney”—that is, “foolish or silly, especially in love”—as Dobbins clearly is with regards to the selfish Amelia, is actually part and parcel of his heroism. He doesn't put on airs of any sort; he feels no particular shame in being her spaniel, for what others might think of his apparent lack of self respect or dignity has nothing to do with his love for her. Dobbin's love for this stupid woman entirely transcends the concerns of the other puppets in Vanity Fair.

Yet, much to my surprise, after so many years of hopeless devotion, William ends things. He finally sees how shallow and stupid Amelia is when she uses his entirely just insistence that the fallen Becky not stay with them as an excuse to send him packing:
" insulted [George's] memory. You did yesterday. You know you did. And I will never forgive you. Never!" said Amelia. She shot out each little sentence in a tremor of anger and emotion.

"You don't mean that, Amelia?" William said sadly. "You don't mean that these words, uttered in a hurried moment, are to weigh against a whole life's devotion? I think that George's memory has not been injured by the way in which I have dealt with it, and if we are come to bandying reproaches, I at least merit none from his widow and the mother of his son. Reflect, afterwards when—when you are at leisure, and your conscience will withdraw this accusation. It does even now." Amelia held down her head.

"It is not that speech of yesterday," he continued, "which moves you. That is but the pretext, Amelia, or I have loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain. Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love. I will bargain no more: I withdraw. I find no fault with you. You are very good-natured, and have done your best, but you couldn't—you couldn't reach up to the height of the attachment which I bore you, and which a loftier soul than yours might have been proud to share. Good-bye, Amelia! I have watched your struggle. Let it end. We are both weary of it."

Amelia stood scared and silent as William thus suddenly broke the chain by which she held him and declared his independence and superiority. (pp. 669-70)
We have known all along, of course, that while Amelia is not bad and, in fact, generally tends towards kindness, she is weak and self-absorbed and such character defects can—and in her relations with William has—make her cruel. That it takes the unflattering juxtaposition of a petulant Amelia with a drunken, corrupt, and still scheming Becky to make Dobbin see the truth, might lead one to blame him for being rather weak and blind himself.

And this wouldn't be wrong, except the true manliness with which he gives up the fight and takes full responsibility for his error in judgement makes it seem somehow noble. He believed the best of her, but doesn't blame Amelia for not living up to her own potential. He rightly sees that she has struggled with her devotion to a man long dead who did not appreciate her versus her burgeoning feelings for the living Dobbin and doesn't diminish the significance of that struggle. In a word, he maintains the utmost respect for her while insisting upon a healthy dose for himself—and ends things.

Amelia, of course, sees the justice in this but is too frightened and wilting to admit it to herself. Becky, however—fallen, malicious, Becky—not only sees the justice in Dobbin's parting words, but also immediately understands the strength and depth of character his decision arises out of:
Whilst they had been talking, the door into Mrs. Osborne's room had opened ever so little; indeed, Becky had kept a hold of the handle and had turned it on the instant when Dobbin quitted it, and she heard every word of the conversation that had passed between these two. "What a noble heart that man has," she thought, "and how shamefully that woman plays with it!" She admired Dobbin; she bore him no rancour for the part he had taken against her. It was an open move in the game, and played fairly. "Ah!" she thought, "if I could have had such a husband as that—a man with a heart and brains too! I would not have minded his large feet"; and running into her room, she absolutely bethought herself of something, and wrote him a note, beseeching him to stop for a few days—not to think of going—and that she could serve him with A. (p. 670)
How is it that Becky of all people can see Dobbin's worth so clearly when no one else can? Because she, the little adventuress who has never scrupled to play on others' weaknesses to gain her own ends, who has lied, cheated, and perhaps murdered (!) in order to ensure her own survival is the only character in this book who is Dobbin's equal! Indeed, they have more in common than Dobbin would ever want to admit. With Amelia being Dobbin's only blind spot (and it has never been entirely blind), only these two characters have seen others clearly for what they are—the difference has, of course, been what they do with such information.

While Becky uses all her deep insights into what makes others tick to her personal and ruthless advantage, Dobbin has tried to prod those around him to be better than they are (except for Becky—for he's known her to be irredeemable from the start*). Both have been true to their aims in life, while others have floundered about either revelling in their complete lack of self-understanding or have waited for others to determine their courses in life. Becky, of course, has been happy to exploit both these sorts of character defect; Dobbin has generously (and in Amelia's case, to his own detriment) tried to help his friends to figure out their own shit (a vulgar turn of phrase, yes, but I really can't think of anything more apt).

Dobbin is our hero, but Becky has many of the same traits that make him a hero—and indeed, Thackeray allows her almost to inhabit the role of the novel's hero when she disabuses Amelia of her misplaced faith in her long-dead husband so that she may marry Dobbin without guilt:
"Listen to me, Amelia," said Becky, marching up and down the room before the other and surveying her with a sort of contemptuous kindness. "I want to talk to you. You must go away from here and from the impertinences of these men. I won't have you harassed by them: and they will insult you if you stay. I tell you they are rascals: men fit to send to the hulks. Never mind how I know them. I know everybody. Jos can't protect you; he is too weak and wants a protector himself. You are no more fit to live in the world than a baby in arms. You must marry, or you and your precious boy will go to ruin. You must have a husband, you fool; and one of the best gentlemen I ever saw has offered you a hundred times, and you have rejected him, you silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature!"

"I tried—I tried my best, indeed I did, Rebecca," said Amelia deprecatingly, "but I couldn't forget—"; and she finished the sentence by looking up at the portrait.

"Couldn't forget HIM!" cried out Becky, "that selfish humbug, that low-bred cockney dandy, that padded booby, who had neither wit, nor manners, nor heart, and was no more to be compared to your friend with the bamboo cane than you are to Queen Elizabeth. Why, the man was weary of you, and would have jilted you, but that Dobbin forced him to keep his word. He owned it to me. He never cared for you. He used to sneer about you to me, time after time, and made love to me the week after he married you."

"It's false! It's false! Rebecca," cried out Amelia, starting up.

"Look there, you fool," Becky said, still with provoking good humour, and taking a little paper out of her belt, she opened it and flung it into Emmy's lap. "You know his handwriting. He wrote that to me—wanted me to run away with him—gave it me under your nose, the day before he was shot—and served him right!" Becky repeated. (p. 680)

Is the fact that shortly after this painful revelation, Amelia admits that she's already written Dobbin asking him to return (p. 682) what prevents Becky from even briefly inhabiting the role of the novel's hero? No, I don't think so; indeed, Becky's lack of information on this front makes her surprising decision to enable a marriage good for her biggest enemy more striking in its generosity. Her motives are not clear, but I think we can justifiably see them as mixed, for she truly admires and understands what Dobbin is worth and she concedes the game to him by handing him what he most wants in the world.

On the other hand, this takes Amelia off her hands, which leaves her free to work on the weak and susceptible Jos Sedley—whose money she is able to get her hands on shortly after his premature death far from the loving home of his sister and new brother-in-law. That said, I don't believe getting rid of Amelia is necessary at all to this latter scheme, for the Sedleys are a pliable bunch and even if Amelia had understood what Becky had in store for her brother (unlikely), she would have been powerless to prevent it. No, I think Becky, throughout the novel, has shown herself to be generous to those whom she deems worthy of it—it's just that so few are worthy of it.

I'm hoping to write one more post on Vanity Fair, as well as a post on three Dorothy Sayers novels before I head down east for a little holiday next week. Keep your fingers crossed that our newly repaired home internet connection will allow me to do so!


J.G. said...

Yep, he's good but he's dull. The train wreck characters are so much more interesting (in a terrible, hypnotizing way).

Bookphilia said...

Well, it depends; Becky's energetic malice is hypnotizing, whereas (for example) Jos's cringing cowardice makes me want to look away....It's the chutzpah that does it, I think.