During the scene in which Walter observes Count Fosco from above during the opera, he describes him in such a way that reveals both the artifice and the reality of the man’s public persona, going so far as to say that “the man’s voracious vanity devoured this implied tribute to his local and critical supremacy.” (Collins 569). This sentence is significant for its connections with consumption from both “voracious” and “devoured,” as well as the implied power structures from “tribute” and “supremacy.”
In this section of the text, Walter reveals that Count Fosco delights in his ability to walk about in public as the figure of the respectable gentleman, fooling everyone around him into believing that he is a considerate citizen, no more devious than anyone else. He feeds off of people’s impressions of him and the power they give him because of his vanity, even as he relies on the vanity’s of his victims to convince them of the mask he wears in general society. His is the mask of restraint and carefully calculated moves, always within the civil and socially acceptable as long as he is in the public eye. This mask is also a part of his vanity; he dresses in a distinguished manner, and never appears undignified, even when he is tittering at his little birds, thus preserving the illusion and demonstrating his tight control over his emotions, contrasting starkly with Sir Percival, who essentially dies because of his inability to separate desperation from his decisions.
The concept of giving tribute has colonial interpretations, reminiscent of indigenous peoples forced to give food, goods, and riches to their conquerors as a sign of submission and to allow them to amass their desired wealth. According to Walter’s descriptions of Count Fosco, the man believes that everyone around him is his inferior and therefore honors him by submitting to his influence. In fact, the only character who Count Fosco has not viewed as inferior is Marian. This power structure in which he holds complete supremacy over the other characters controls the entire plot of the novel, which rests on the loss of identity to those members of society (women) who are given no legal agency over their own lives and therefore do depend entirely on their male counterparts. Taking advantage of this unequal structure allows Count Fosco to feed his vanity by testing his own skills at pulling strings, gaining eventual control over nearly every event that occurs.