The Effects of Serving a Life Sentence in the Friend Zone

My title is a bit misleading/incomplete in that it implies that I will only discuss the effects of Amelia’s behavior on Dobbin’s emotions. Rather, I intend to point out several of Amelia’s faults in general, ones which, whether evident to Dobbin or not, helps readers (okay, me) to let go of the notion that Dobbin ought to forever stay as greatly in awe of Amelia as he ever was in the beginning.

I felt let down the first time I realized (many years ago when I read this novel) that Dobbin’s love for Amelia had cooled – not when he tells her that she wasn’t worth his love, but later, when Thackeray deems it more important to talk of Dobbin’s affection for little Janey and the History of the Punjaub book rather than make any more mention of his undying love for Amelia. Having read the book again at a different age, I now believe that this makes perfect sense. Both Amelia and Dobbin are shown to be people of gentle and moderate temperament, and devoid of malice; Thackeray’s narrator sometimes refers to Amelia as “our heroine” (108, 109, 462) and although this novel is meant to be “without a hero,” there is much agreement amongst scholars and readers that Dobbin comes closest to fitting the bill. It is fitting for the two of them to be together, and perhaps we expect a romantic end to the novel, given that Dobbin is finally getting something for which he has waited eighteen years. Why then, the drop of lemon juice right at the end to curdle the milk?

To answer this, let us start by examining the ways in which Amelia puts us off. First, Amelia is blind to Becky’s manipulations. She lets Becky have the chance to influence many important things in her life, including the feelings of her husband and her brother. She doesn’t catch onto the fact that George was desirous to have an affair with Becky, and she doesn’t do much to prevent Jos from being crazy about Becky either. Dobbin is onto Becky from day one, and years of being made to see Amelia’s stupidity cannot help to strengthen his respect for her.

The only aspect of life in which Amelia is worth anything is in her role as a mother, and even in that, she is very impractical. She dresses up Georgy in fine clothes when they don’t even have enough to eat. Amelia, harshly speaking, fails to some degree in all of her roles: as a wife (because she is boring and clueless), a sister (because she does not do enough to protect her brother), and a mother (because she is unwise with money, and not much of a disciplinarian). She even fails as a friend to Dobbin before becoming his wife, constantly taking advantage of his kindness despite knowing that he is in love with her and therefore being led on. Thackeray’s depiction of Amelia as a “tender little parasite” (724) is right. Throughout the novel, Amelia is always dependent on others, starting from her parents and going all the way through a long line of people to whom she clings for support: George, Mrs. O’Dowd, Dobbin and even her own son. With regard to Dobbin in particular, she is quite selfish and cruel: “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 infrequently levied in love” (800).

After eighteen years of this treatment, Dobbin’s disappointment is necessary whether or not that makes the novel less romantic; he cannot be expected to consistently feel the same for a woman who has time and again proven unworthy of his love, and unworthy of any other admiration. Dobbin is heroic, helpful, discreet, discerning and many other things (perhaps his biggest fault is to be in love with an imbecile like Amelia), and therefore his disenchantment with Amelia, not just when he says he will leave, but even after his marriage to her, is quite natural. Amelia is, as Becky says, for too long “a silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature” and that takes too much of a toll to be forgotten just because Dobbin gets his prize in the end. There is something embittering in having to wait too many years for something that continually loses its luster, through faults of its own, during the wait.

By the end of the novel, Dobbin seems to be freed from the shackles of an obsession much the same way that Amelia is freed from her undue attachment to George. What makes Dobbin’s transformation more admirable is the fact that he comes to the realization himself that Amelia isn’t worthy – he does not have to be shown some example of questionable conduct the way George’s infidelity has to be shoved under Amelia’s nose (literally) to get her to see his true colors. In addition to that, Dobbin is superior to Amelia in my eyes in that he articulates his indignation at being treated poorly, whereas Amelia still has nothing bad to say about George after finding out that the latter had planned to elope with Becky.

Hence, I am glad that Dobbin’s love for Amelia cools. I would not want him to treat her badly, and Thackeray does reassure us that Dobbin continues to be kind to her and gratify her wants, but the evaporation of that worship that was there at the beginning needed to happen, and I am rather satisfied that it did.

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