Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Personal Favorite

David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield 
by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”   ― Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This was the first time Dickens made extended use of the first person and he was effective, particularly expressing both the innocence of youth and wonder of the young David while subtly signifying the older David's narrative voice as he looked back on the events. I was impressed with the relationships David develops in his youth, especially his friendship with Steerforth who is portrayed as a charismatic character with a portent of darkness in his demeanor. As a reader I am not as trusting as the narrator. We are also introduced to the Micawbers, with Mr. Micawber's famous dictum on the nature of happiness and misery:  
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”   Mr. Micawber is merely one of the many memorable characters in David's story - what fun he is!

What is the identity of David Copperfield? David, through the first two dozen chapters of the novel, is called by various names: David by his family; Daisy by Steerforth; Trotwood by his Aunt Betsey; Davey by Mr. McCawber; the list goes on and will be continued and expanded. What is interesting is that David assumes these names as his own. He does this not only in the company of the person who names him but, in the case of Trotwood, in the school he attends as well. The question of David's identity is one theme of this novel that I believe deserves further exploration and attention. For the moment I wonder at the connection, if any, with all of these names and the opening paragraph of the book where David meditates about whether he will be the hero of his own life. As for the question - who is the hero of the novel? - that is another major issue. I should also note the importance of the sea and nature, for example when Steerforth was staying in Yarmouth at the Pegotty’s we see him in meditation by the fire, where he expresses his wish that he “had had a judicious father”. . . “to better guide him”. It is moments like this that also provide a deepening of our understanding of Steerforth’s character.

Continuing on his journey, David completes his schooling and with the financial backing of his Aunt Betsey becomes an apprentice "proctor" (a sort of agent). When David was 10 or 11 years old he seemed old for his years, but he has kept much of his child-like innocence and naivete as he enters his late teens and now seems young for his age. His maturation will have to wait for much more experience and a deepening of his thought much later in the novel. He is able to avoid being taken advantage of by his friend Micawber, but he does not avoid Cupid's arrow and he falls in love with Dora Spenlow. This event with other complications provides growing suspense for the reader. In addition, Dickens continues to provide for David's intermittent commentary from the perspective of his older self. This provides the reader with curious suggestions of the action that will ensue in the rest of the novel.

I find Dicken's notion of marriage somewhat strange. David continues to dote on Dora after his marriage and a first year where they discover their inability to maintain there household. Dora , whose complete lack of common sense is irritating (at least to this reader), provokes David with her innumeracy. The situation does provide Dickens with an opportunity for a humorous set-piece when David tries to "form" Dora's mind by reading Shakespeare to her. Needless to say the project flounders on the rock that is located where her mind should be. In a book that is Dickens's best to date (greater novels loom on the horizon) it does disappoint in the use of coincidence and just a bit of melodrama in the saga of L'il Emily who returns to Mr. Peggoty with the help of mysterious Martha. That aside, David does seem to be maturing just in time to become a successful writer just like the author of his story.

As the novel closes David's story ends and his new journey, with Agnes by his side, begins. Dickens deftly brings the novel to a climax, as David narrates the resolution of each of the novels main characters' fates. But I was most impressed by Dickens's use of the theme of nature and how it signals the final true maturation of David. While nature and the sea have been recurring motifs throughout the novel (see above), in the final section we have nature brought home to David as he meditates on his life (following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth). We get the first intimation of this in Chapter LII:
"Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets . . . The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers ; and the towers themselves , overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth."(p. 747)

Then in Chapter LV, Tempest, natures brews a storm leading to the shipwreck and discovery of Steerforth's dead body. But it is three chapters later while David is travelling in Switzerland that he narrates:
"I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast."(p. 821)

I believe David's feeling here which is followed swiftly by a reassuring letter from Agnes, allows him to regain his artistic vigor leading him to write once again after a hiatus. It also signals his final maturation; and the reader delights in his return to England and the ultimate moment when he and Agnes share their long delayed testaments of love for each other.  Thus ends one of Dickens' most famous and my personal favorite of all his delightful novels.

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Brian Joseph said...

Excellent commentary on this one.

Over the last few years i have been slowly reading my way through Dickens's novels but I have actually never read this one. We were never assigned it in School. I will do so, hopefully soon.

For a writer who is so noted for his descriptions of urban scenes, Dickens had a such a striking and effective way of describing nature. He also tied these descriptions into his theme very neatly. Obviously true here, I have found it to be so in all the novels that I have read.

James said...

Brian, Thanks for your observations. In my senior year of high school we read Great Expectations, which in my estimation is Dickens' best along with Bleak House which I only discovered much later.
However, ever since my first reading of David Copperfield it has been my personal favorite. One of the great bildungsromans I grow fonder of it with every reading.

Rachel Bradford said...

it does disappoint in the use of coincidence and just a bit of melodrama

Personally, I think of the use of coincidence as a particularly Dickensonian trait. Don't most of his books use coincidence quite heavily? I also think most of his books tend to be a little melodramatic. That said, I still love Dickens because of the deep messages that he conveys and his amazing ability to write "round" caricatures. If it weren't for Dickens, I'd think that was an oxymoron!

James said...

Rachel, Thanks for your observations. I agree that Dickens often relies on coincidence and melodrama.
Those flaws are overshadowed by his great strengths which include those you mentioned as well as a tremendous humanity and strong stories in the best of his novels.