I’m confused. I thought for a while (partly because of a certain critical introduction I read) that Dobbin was the closest thing to a hero that Vanity Fair could conjure up, and I genuinely believed that there was going to be a happily-ever-after ending with Amelia and him getting married. But that’s not exactly what happened. Dobbin seemed to be incapable of forgiving Amelia for her perceived shallowness, and though they did get married, he was never able to look at her quite the same. At first he was the epitome of faithful, sacrificial love, caring for Amelia and serving her in every way he could even though he expected nothing in return. Even while Amelia was in love with George’s memory, Dobbin faithfully loved her and cared for her. But when the truth came out about George’s unfaithfulness, and Amelia was able to see clearly Dobbin’s love, he was already too impatient and uncaring to treat Amelia the same as he always had. Is Thackeray inferring that agape love is only possible as a sort of martyr complex, when the admirer knows he is unable to actually be with her, and furthermore that once he actually can be with her, the fun is over? Is unforgiveness really that powerful, that it can taint such selfless love? Thackeray seems to think so! Of course, the saddest possibility is that Thackeray believes that sacrificial love is so powerfully blinding to the admirer that he is unable to see flaws in the beloved…that’s a very frightening possibility, but with this novel I wouldn’t put it past him.
From a work’s subtitle, you are usually safe to assume you can derive a solid meaning. But in Vanity Fair, this is not the case. The novel’s subtitle, “A Novel without a Hero” implies that there isn’t a hero. However, Thackeray consistently proposes characters as heroes by the way that he portrays them. Even in the beginning, the best example of this, the narrator clearly says that “[Amelia] is not a heroine,” but then goes on to describe her person, her character, and infer that she is the protagonist. This continues to happen throughout the book. Is it true that a protagonist is a protagonist by name only, or could it really be, as Thackeray seems to think, that a hero or heroine is one simply because of their actions? Perhaps Thackeray’s intent is to write a novel without a set hero, or without a presupposed hero. That way, every reader must decide for themselves who their hero is. Or, on the other hand, perhaps this subtitle infers that though there are protagonists in the book, no one is without flaw and therefore worthy of the title “hero” or “heroine”. Whichever the case, Thackeray does a great job of keeping the reader in doubt as to who the narrator really likes or dislikes.
One of the issues seen in “Vanity Fair” is the problem of poverty in England in the Victorian Period. Thackeray obviously focuses much of his novel’s critique on the superficiality and blindness that money, or “mammon,” bring about in an urban society. This issue is contrasted with (and seen as a cause of) the condition of the destitute of England: those unfortunate souls who most assuredly have found an end in taverns, alleyways, orphan-houses, and other disgustingly bleak black-holes that are not a small amount similar to the prevailing view of hell at that time. In Thackeray’s catalogue of a society that knowingly or unknowingly casts the poor to the wayside, he most frequently uses specific examples: painting pictures (quite literally, if you look at the illustrations) of vagabonds and a few microscopic details of their way of life which serve to illustrate their condition more effectively than if he were to describe in overarching detail the general situation at the time. Similarly, Mayhew uses minute, detailed, and specific examples of children he has personally seen and interacted with in order to present their condition to the public in writing. Mayhew describes the language of a group of poor boys, delineates one boy’s daily routine, presents their physical condition, and writes about one specific interaction he had with a boy. Mayhew refuses to view the situation from the sky, but instead climbs into the rubble and shouts out what he sees from a perspective only a victim could accurately describe. However, the difference between Mayhew and Thackeray is the contrast or lack of contrast to wealthy society. Sure, Mayhew mentions rich folks who are living a socially active life and run into the impoverished subjects of his writing, but he does not at all focus on them, and because he refuses to contrast the two vastly different ways of life, his perspective on poverty is more scientific and explanatory than it is critical. Thackeray, on the other hand, uses biting sarcasm and criticism towards the wealthy class to make his point. Any mention of poverty Thackeray makes is starkly contrasted with the society he is already writing about. If I were to compare each work to a modern documentary, Mayhew’s would be like a national geographic documentary on a strange species of monkey in a remote African jungle: informative, inquisitive, scientific, and impartial; while Thackeray’s would be closer the typical cinematic documentary: biased, sweeping, detailed, and heavy-handed. I’m not sure how Mayhew wrote in a way that feels so cold and calloused about such a heavy and heart-wrenching subject. Only Thackeray seems to have a heart and an opinion about the matter.