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Amelia's relationships with George and with Dobbin illustrate the French axiom that in love relationships there are "the one who loves and the other who condescends to be so treated" (page 142). Though those relationships differ in that she loves George and allows Dobbin to love her, she is the same in both–selfish, passive, dependent, and self-deluded in her image of George.

Amelia is fully aware that Dobbin loves her and deliberately lets him love her, dance attendance on her, and exert himself to please her.

Such an attachment from so true and loyal a gentleman could make no woman angry... Not that she [Miranda in The Tempest] would encourage him [Caliban] in the least–the poor uncouth monster–of course not. No more would Emmy by any means encourage her admirer, the Major. She would give him that friendly regard, which so much excellence and fidelity merited; she would treat him with perfect cordiality and frankness until he made his proposals, and then it would be time enough for her to speak and to put an end to hopes which never could be realized. (pages 704-5)
In other words, she will take, take, take until he asks for something in return from her; then she will reject him. She gives no consideration to the pain he might be feeling or the possibility that she is preventing him from marrying and having children. The situation satisfies her; after deciding when to reject him, "She slept, therefore, very soundly that evening... and was more than ordinarily happy" (page 705). Is it fair to draw a parallel with Becky's sleeping soundly after Rawdon provides for her financially and marches off to battle? Is Dobbin similarly providing for Amelia emotionally and is she too being callous?

Self-deluded, Amelia delights in the piano she assumes George sent her (when did he ever show thoughtful consideration for her?). When she discovers Dobbin sent it, she loses all interest in it, with no thought for Dobbin's feelings. When Dobbin's response to her apology displeases her, she attacks him as cruel and defends the saintliness of George; not for a moment does she reconsider her view of George. She even blames Dobbin for her having given up Georgy, not her own incapacity to earn money nor her father's foolish speculations:

Had you come a few months sooner perhaps you might have spared me that–that dreadful parting. Oh, it nearly killed me, William–but you didn't come, though I wished and prayed for you to come, and they took him too away from me. (pages 710-11)
No one, of course, "took him" away from her; she agreed to give him up to the Osborne wealth. And why should Dobbin be expected to take care of her financial crisis? Dobbin's desperate protest at his devotion being unrequited is quelled; he promises not to change and asks only to see her often. Amelia narcissistically encourages him, "Yes, often"; the narrator comments, "And so William was at liberty to look and long–as the poor boy at school who has no money may sigh after the contents of the tart-woman's tray" (page 711).


Thackeray repeatedly describes Amelia as "loving" and "tender." Her love for Georgy causes her to study to help him with his education; it enables him to develop the kindness, generosity, and sensitivity to recognize Dobbin's virtues and to be influenced by him. Unfortunately, because of her weakness and false view of George, she over-indulges him and is subservient to him, thereby fostering his egotism. She lovingly cares for her mother in her last illness and sits by her death bed, even though her mother has become egotistic, difficult, and resentful and they are never reconciled. She dutifully, humbly, and considerately cares for her father in his decline, listens to his stories with a pretense of interest, and sits by his deathbed too–all without a complaint or a hesitation. Her father comes to appreciate her love and is redeemed by it from the selfishness which poverty engendered and fostered in him.

Love, for Thackeray, has a redemptive power. In a letter to his mother, he wrote of Amelia, "But she has at present a quality above most people whizz; LOVE–by wh she shall be saved. Save me save me too O my God and Father, cleanse my heart and teach me my duty."

How does Amelia's ability to love affect our assessment of her? Why does Thackeray also give her negative traits, e.g., her selfishness and weakness? Does her love make her the heroine, or do her negative traits disqualify her from being a heroine? Or is Thackeray making a statement about the simplistic presentation of the conventional heroine and the complexity or mixed nature of women and of love in real life?

Does the ability to appreciate and admire the gentle, loving, simple Amelia serve as a yardstick with which to measure men? In Brussels, Amelia wins the admiration and "unsophisticated hearts" of all the "honest, young fellows of the –th" (page 310), and the simple, unworldly, inept Reverend Binny falls in love with her. "Honest" is used so often to characterize Dobbin that it almost becomes part of his name. Becky, on the other hand, consistently appeals to the sophisticated, the socially ambitious, the self-seeking, and the morally corrupt. Honest Dobbin does not like her and is impervious to her charms.

To extend the idea of Amelia as a yardstick by which to measure men: The narrator suggests that Amelia's main appeal is her weakness, "I think it was her weakness which was her principal charm–a kind of sweet submission and softness, which seems to appeal to each man she met for her sympathy and protection" (page 459).

  • Is Thackeray, via the narrator, making a comment on the conventional male-female relationship? The comparison of men to tyrants or Turks and women to slaves or martyrs runs through the novel. Also Amelia is "so utterly gentle and humble as to be made by nature for a victim" (page 708).

  • Or, does Thackeray himself hold a conventional view of the male-female relationship and find feminine weakness attractive? Thackeray feared that his daughter Anny might turn out to be "a man of genius; I would far sooner have had her an amiable & affectionate woman–But little Minny will be that, please God!"


On their European tour, Dobbin devotes himself to Amelia and her son, who loves and admires Dobbin. She feels that Dobbin's claims upon her are growing and is unwilling to acknowledge them, let alone reward his devotion. She uses Becky to assert her independence. Initially, her warmth with Becky seems to arise from sympathy for being separated from a son. This motive does not explain why, when she embraces Becky, she also flings at Dobbin "the most unjust and scornful glance." Thackeray hints at an unacknowledged motive: "But she had private reasons of her own, and was bent on being angry with him" (page 794).

She is used to trampling on and using Dobbin for her own gratification and wants to assert her independence from him, hence the glance: "But when an act of injustice is to be done, especially by weak people, it is best that it should be done quickly, and Emmy thought she was displaying a great deal of firmness and proper feeling and veneration for the late Captain Osborne in her present behaviour" (pages 794-5). Amelia here exemplifies Thackeray's generalization about the women's nature and their treatment of men: "It is those [men] who injure women who get the most kindness from them–they are born timid and tyrants and maltreat those who are humblest before them" (page 591).

That night, a sleepless Amelia is torn between her devotion to the handsome George, whose worthlessness she refuses to see, and the temptation to accept the generous, loyal Dobbin. The narrator makes clear that her decision to reject Dobbin is based partly on his appearance:

What are benefits, what is constancy, or merit? One curl of a girl's ringlet, one hair of a whisker, will turn the scale against them all in a minute. They did not weigh with Emmy more than with other women. She had tried them; wanted to make them pass; could not; and the pitiless little woman had found a pretext, and determined to be free. (page 797)
The truth is, Amelia finds Dobbin physically unattractive–and Thackeray makes clear, in the text and in the drawings, that Dobbin is clumsy and unattractive; she does not want to marry him, though she respects him and is grateful for his kindness.

The next day Amelia denies that Dobbin has any authority in her home and declares she will never forgive him for hinting at George's interest in Becky. Dobbin knows that this offense is merely a pretext and that she is not worthy of his love and leaves, presumably permanently.

Amelia is frightened and startled by Dobbin's breaking the chains of love; "the poor little woman" expects him to bow to her tyranny, as he always did in the past. Her motives are both common and appallingly selfish: "She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love" (page 800). Do her egotism and her wanting to take but not to give resemble George and his relationship with her?

Ironically, Becky, who is eavesdropping, calls Amelia's treatment of Dobbin shameless; if she had a husband with Dobbin's heart and brains, she thinks, she would not have cared that he had large feet.


Amelia is unhappy after Dobbin leaves. The change in her attitude toward and feelings about Dobbin affect her perception of George's portrait; "it no longer reproached her–perhaps she reproached it, now William was gone" (page 805), and a few pages later she does reproach herself for driving Dobbin away. She makes a decision and "wrote off a letter to a friend whom she had on the other side of the water" (page 813). Not until she confesses to Becky do we know that the "friend" is Dobbin.

After Becky shows her George's note, she cries, though she is not as upset as Becky expects. Thackeray presents several explanations of her tears, leaving the reader to decide. "Who shall analyse those tears and say whether they were sweet or bitter? Was she most grieved because the idol of her life was tumbled down and shivered at her feet, or indignant that her love had been so despised, or glad because the barrier was removed which modesty had placed between her and a new, a real affection?" (page 814). Does the phrase "most grieved" suggest that all the reasons are true, though not equal in importance? Is it significant that in the very next sentence Amelia admits to herself that she loves Dobbin, "‘There is nothing to forbid me now,' she thought. 'I may love him with all my heart now. Oh, I will, I will, if he will but let me and forgive me'" (pages 814-5)? Was there any reality-based reason why she could not have loved him sooner?

He returns; they marry–but they do not fade into a conventional happy ending. Amelia, the woman whom he thought of constantly and whose needs and desires concerned him for nearly twenty years, is no longer his beloved princess. If she asked him in the past to check on Jos's well-being, would Dobbin have hesitated in setting out for Brussels? Now he would rather stay home and write his history of the Punjaub. Amelia knows his feelings toward her have changed and sighs that he loves their daughter Janey more than her, a situation for which she bears full responsibility.

In what proves to be a false ending, Thackeray seems to be bidding farewell to his characters. To Amelia he exclaims, "Farewell, dear Amelia–Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!" (page 817). Does the passive, dependent Amelia live off of others, off of their strength and protection? Is she a parasite or has Thackeray made a mistake? Does Thackeray prepare for this view of her or does he just spring it on the reader? Consider her emotional collapse, which lasted months, after George's death or her inability to face the future, which is compared to the ocean; Emmy being "unfit to navigate it without a guide and protector" (page 284). Is Thackeray implying that women like her, who fit the conventional ideal, are parasites? Or is he suggesting that the conventional heroine is really a parasite? Is Thackeray soft on and sentimental about Amelia, as many readers believe, or is he realistic and honest about her virtues and her flaws? To phrase the idea about Amelia a little differently: is Thackeray holding Amelia up as the ideal woman for us to admire, or is he satirizing the ideal heroine and woman that Emma represents as parasitic, selfish, and cruel in her weakness?


Day 6 (W, Feb. 20)

Thackeray, Vanity Fair. pp. ix-170
Overview of Thackeray and Vanity Fair
The Narrator, the Reader, and Ambiguity
The Structure
Thackeray's Illustrations

Day 7 (M, Feb. 25) Vanity Fair. pp. 171-326
Attitude Toward Women
Day 8 (W, Feb. 27) Vanity Fair. pp. 326-488
Day 9 (M, March 4) Vanity Fair. pp. 489-662
Becky's Innocence
Becky's Presentation at Court (Video)
Day 10 (W, March 6) Vanity Fair. pp. 663-822
The Ending
Amelia: The Ending
Becky: The Ending
Dobbin: The Ending
The Gentleman and the Lady
First paper due


March 4, 2009