I omitted a central first person question from my list yesterday: Why is the narrator writing anything at all? Neither Charles Dickens nor David Copperfield answer this one in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Copperfield insists that the history is private, “intended for no eyes but mine” (Ch. XLII), but surely he, if anyone, is aware of his own history. Why bother to write it out to the length, in the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, of 877 pages?
Copperfield never says, so it becomes a matter of interpretation. One thing he is doing, I think, is testing his memories. Against what, it is hard to say. Perhaps Copperfield wants to know if the retrospective written account can match the memory, or capture it. He sometimes comments on the vagaries of his memory. A story in Chapter XVI, for example, is introduced with this qualifier:
(I have no idea, and never had, on what authority, but I have believed it for so many years that I feel quite certain it is true)
Copperfield has an “imperfect memory for dates” (Ch. XLVI). He supposes that many of his “well-remembered facts” are products of his imagination (Ch. XI), while others, like his mother’s funeral, he “could not recollect better” “[i]f the funeral had been yesterday” (Ch. IX).
One will find some logical problems in Copperfield’s theory of knowledge, but the psychology is acute, especially his suggestion that parts of his story may very well be fiction, even he is not sure which parts those are. If it’s fiction, it’s his own fiction.
Copperfield returns to the mechanisms of his memory so often that a sheen of Marcel Proust is sometimes visible. See the adult David looking out a window in his childhood home:
The feeling with which I used to watch the tramps, as they came into the town on those wet evenings, at dusk, and limped past, with their bundles drooping over their shoulders at the end of sticks, came freshly back to me; fraught, as then, with the smell of the damp earth, and wet leaves and briar, and the sensation of the very airs that blew upon me in my own toilsome journey. (Ch. LX)
The whiff of Proust is in that air, with the smell of earth and leaves. Standing at the window (a real action) evokes a more or less conscious memory, the visual image of the tramps, which reminds Copperfield of his own journey as a tramp (ending, more or less, at this window), accompanied, involuntarily, by some associated (non-visual) memories.*
Wonderfully complex, and that's before, twenty four pages later, after a crucial plot development, David returns to the same window, “when the moon was shining:
Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own. (Ch. LXII)
One can imagine the camera floating down to the road, where we see that the boy is the actor who played Copperfield as a child. This is about as un-Proustian an evocation of the past as I can imagine, but the way Copperfield artfully joins his current happiness with the ragged boy in his past is a fine example of what Charles Dickens could do.
* One passage could almost have been written by Proust:
There was that jumble in my thoughts and recollections, that I had lost the clear arrangement of time and distance. Thus, if I had gone out into the town, I should not have been surprised, I think, to encounter someone who I knew must be then in London. So to speak, there was in these respects a curious inattention in my mind. (Ch. LV)
Substitute Paris or Combray for London. That conditional construction, that vague someone from London. Proust’s narrator anatomizes himself in the same way.