Thackeray has called this book a novel without a hero. Actually the only gentleman in the book is William Dobbin, but as Thackeray takes pains to point out, his feet are too big for him to qualify in Vanity Fair. His name indicates a plodder—a workhorse—a dog, even; his devotion to Amelia is dog-like. But, in the end, even Becky, the most ardent admirer of Vanity Fair, wishes she might have had a man like Dobbin, in spite of his big feet.
Dobbin first appears in defense of little George Osborne, whereat George is shamed that his defender is not of a higher social status. Dobbin appears thereafter as the guardian of George's and Amelia's interests. It is he who sees that they marry, that George is more or less kind to Amelia; and after George's death, it is Dobbin who reconciles old Osborne to Amelia, whereby both Amelia and Georgy have position and wealth.
This is George's opinion of Dobbin: "There's not a finer fellow in the service, nor a better officer, though he is not an Adonis." Again he is described as "a lanky-gawky fellow
tumbles over everybody."
Dobbin exerts a good influence over little George in that he gives him some values in place of those of Vanity Fair. When Georgy thinks it is vulgar to sit in the pit at the theater, Dobbin lets him sit where he likes but goes to the pit himself. Georgy soon follows. Dobbin is not only a favorite with Georgy but with all who know him.
Thackeray gives his definition of gentlemen and he means this to be a description of Dobbin: ". . . 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 . . ."
Dobbin's growth in character begins when he steps out of his habitual modesty and asserts himself. At the beginning when he is in school, shunned and scorned by others because of his awkwardness and because of his father's having furnished food to the establishment, he rises out of himself to defend George. He defeats the enemy, and thereby gains the respect of his fellow students and begins to show better scholarship.
The same kind of growth starts when he finally tells Amelia that she is not worthy of the kind of love he bears her. She begins to wake up, respect him, and has even sent for him before Becky disillusions her about George. Restrained, modest, loyal, and good, Dobbin merits the love of all.