Could Dobby Be A Refugee from ‘Vanity Fair’?

Susan Bowyer, who rocked my world in late 2008 with her discovery that the House of Gaunt and the Dark Mark were direct borrowings from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, wrote to me earlier this month with another Vanity-Potter link:

John, do you think it’s possible that Dobby’s name comes from William Dobbin in Vanity Fair? He’s a faithful, heroic, slavishly devoted and selfless character. And we have already discussed the likelihood that Vanity Fair contributed other ideas (the Gaunt name and the ‘dark mark.’)

A fascinating possibility, which I’ll discuss below the jump.

I think the arguments for and against the connection are as follows:

(1) For: ‘Dobbin’ sounds an awful lot like Dobby.

(2) For: We have a Vanity Fair link in Gaunt and the Dark Mark, so we can assume the author is familiar with Thackeray’s classic. Dobby the House-elf, the long-suffering but pure of heart servant to the proud minor gentry family in decline, parallels in the role he plays the themes of Vanity Fair as well.

(3) For: William Dobbin, as Mrs. Bowyer points out, is “a faithful, heroic, slavishly devoted and selfless character.” Not much of a leap from Dobbin to Dobby there, right?

On the ‘Against’ side, though, we have:

(1) Against: Readers of Vanity Fair will object that, unlike Dobby, who dies sacrificially on Easter for his beloved Harry Potter, having returned to and transcended his servile and humiliating ‘home’ with the Malfoys, William Dobbin marries his Amelia in the end but his feelings for her are much changed. It’s a suggestive but not an exact match. Dobbin escapes his servility but has no Harry Potter or sacrificial death.

(2) Against: ‘Dobby’ is the UK name for the playground game we call ‘Tag’ in the US. That’s a much simpler and direct association that the reach to Vanity Fair, however important that novel is and well established the Vanity-Potter link may be. Naming your servant for a children’s game strikes me as something the Malfoys would find appropriately demeaning and diminutive.

An observation neither ‘for’ nor ‘against:’

  • Dobby’s name has a reduplication of letter’s at its center as does both ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter.’ This is an important mirroring feature that we see as often as not in character names, and, as I explain in Harry Potter Smart Talk and in my Ring Composition notes, this is not a throw-away affectation or tic of the author but a visual and aural pointer to a central, crucial meaning delivered in the story experience.

That’s not ‘for’ or ‘against,’ because the doubled ‘b’s may have caught Ms. Rowling’s eyes while reading Vanity Fair and she made the association with her heroic House-elf, or, equally likely and unlikely, the playground game’s name may have struck her as appropriate for the same reason.

Conclusion: I’m left leaning slightly towards the Thackeray connection as the origin for Dobby’s name because of the strength of the House of Gaunt connection between Fair and Potter and the aptness of the Dobby/Dobbin parallel  (i.e., their shared servility to their “betters” and ultimate escape and overcoming them). The ‘Tag-Dobby’ possibility does not preclude a Dobbin-Dobby connection; in being a diminutive it only gives its demeaning meaning, if you will, special resonance to UK readers.

While we are on the subject of House-elves, Mrs. Bowyer also sent me this find from Dorothy Sayer’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club:

“Which,” added an indignant voice from the door, “I thought as there was something behind all this talk of the Captain being missing. You didn’t expect him to be missing, I suppose, ma’am. Nor your gentlemen friend, neither, sneaking up in a taxi and you waiting at the door so’s Munns and me shouldn’t hear. But I’d have you know this is a respectable house, Lord Knows Who or whatever you call yourself – more likely one of these lowdown confidence fellers, I expect, if the truth was known.  With a monocle too, like that man we was reading about in News of the World. And in my kitchen, and drinking my Bovril too in the middle of the night, the impudence! Not to speak of the goings-in-and-out, banging the front door, and that was the police come here this morning, you think I didn’t know? Up to something, that’s what they’ve been, the pair of them, and the Captain as they say he is but that’s as may be. I daresay he had his reasons for clearing off, and the sooner you goes after him my fine madam, the better I’ll be pleased, I can tell.”

“That’s right,” said Mr. Munns, “- ow!”

Lord Peter had removed the intrusive hand from his collar with a sharp jerk which appeared to cause anguish out of all proportion with the force applied.

“I’m glad you’ve come along,” he said. “In fact, I was just about to give you a call. Have you anything to drink in the house, by the way?”

“Drink?” cried Mrs. Munns on a high note, “the impudence! And if I see you, Joe, giving drinks to thieves in the middle of the night in my kitchen, you’ll get a piece of my mind. Coming in here bold as brass, and the captain run away, and asking for a drink –“

Mrs. Boyer writes:

John, Merry Christmas!

I was reading Sayers’ “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” last night and ran across some very interesting speeches from a character, Mrs. Munns, who is a grudging, grumpy housekeeper/landlady, and her way of speaking brought Kreacher powerfully to mind. What do you think? “Bold as brass”, “respectable house”, “in my kitchen”, the uninterrupted stream of abuse in the third person, and all that?

The Dorothy Sayers-Rowling connection is very strong; the author of the Potter novels, as I discuss at some length in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, admires Sayers and is familiar enough with her work and her writing about writing that any Sayers reflection in the Potterverse has to be taken seriously.

Having said that, while I see how the confrontation in the doorway and the disrespectful talk towards intruders would make Kreacher-bells ring, I don’t think is a more than, as you wrote in your email subject line, a “long-shot.”

Thank you, Mrs. Bowyer, for these two House-elf possible sources from Rowling’s library of favorite authors. Merry Christmas to you and yours!


  1. Hello Mr. Granger!

    I’m sixteen years old and I’ve been visiting this website from time to time and I must say it’s very informative. I read your article above and I have another idea as to where Dobby’s name came from. My parents are Sri Lankan, and in Sri Lanka they use a lot of the same terminology as they do in the U.K. When my parents first saw Dobby, they said. “Oh, isn’t that funny? In Sri Lanka, we call someone who washes our clothes a dobby.” I don’t know if that’s why he’s named Dobby but it seemed pretty likely to me. Just thought I’d let you know 8)

  2. That sounds pretty likely to me, too! Great catch!

    John, hat off

  3. Thank you 🙂

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