Study Guide

William Dobbin in Vanity Fair

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William Dobbin

Ungainly, unattractive, and lisping, Dobbin is surprisingly the novel's only real gentleman. His heroic deeds as a soldier earn him steady promotion through the ranks, while his long and unrequited love for Amelia make us collectively pity his pathetic life. Eventually she does agree to marry him, though by that point it hardly seems worth it anymore.

Masculinity, Constancy, and Staying the Course

So if George's gentlemanliness is all external decoration, and Rawdon's gentlemanliness is (at least in the beginning) all a matter of the right genetics, then where does that leave Dobbin? He's pretty handicapped from the get-go. Not only is he kind of ugly, he also has a lisp and is horribly clumsy and physically awkward. Shmoop pictures him as one of those tall, lanky people who don't quite know where their arms and legs are at any given time. Not only that – check out that name! A "Dobbin" is a "slow, plodding workhorse" – about as unglamorous and boring an animal as Thackeray could imagine. None of the other main characters have names that are such obvious giveaways about an underlying characteristic (OK, except for Becky "Sharp"). Why do you think Dobbin is saddled with this farm lingo for a name? (Get it? Saddled? Like a horse? Shmoop loves a good pun.)

Still, for a workaday, manually laboring animal, Dobbin ends up the clear winner of the gentlemanliness contest. His best qualities are neither skin-deep nor solely biological. Instead, he is kind, loving, and selfless. He's a brave soldier but doesn't brag about it. He treats women and children nicely...and so on and so forth. And then there's the whole Amelia situation. Eighteen years of unrequited love? That's pretty hardcore. Especially when it's not even like he's loving her from afar – the whole time he's just standing waist-deep in the friend zone.

Of course, his horse-like qualities never go away. Dobbin is quite boring and has no sense of humor. And it's just like Thackeray to want to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to show us that a true gentleman needs to cultivate internal virtues, while at the same time poking a little fun at the earnestness of a true gentleman. And maybe even go a little farther than simply poking fun. After all, Dobbin's big prize is Amelia, who is universally acknowledged (even eventually by Dobbin himself!) to not be worth the hassle. So what do you think – does Thackeray want us to admire and desire to be like Dobbin? Or is he saying, here is a perfect gentleman and here is his perfect lady – who on earth would want to be these people?

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