Monday, October 11, 2010

I had seen it somewhere. But I could not remember where. - in David Copperfield, Dickens tames his prose

Charles Dickens, in 1848, was facing a problem.  He had become the most skillful writer of English alive, with a range of rhetorical devices rivaled only by Chaucer and Shakespeare.  He was using his skill to write like this:

Night, like a giant, fills the church, from pavement to roof, and holds dominion through the silent hours.  (from the end of the startling Chapter 31 of Dombey and Son (1848), a long wedding scene)

The power that forced itself upon its iron way -- its own -- defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.  (Chapter 20, a man on a rail journey)

When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts.  When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors.  When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments…  When they fantastically mocked the shapes of household objects, making the nurse an ogress, the rocking-horse a monster, the wondering child, half-scared and half-amused, a stranger to itself,- the very tongs upon the hearth, a straddling giant with his arms a-kimbo, evidently smelling the blood on Englishmen, and wanting to grind people’s bones to make his bread.  (Chapter 1 of The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848))

How many of my readers made it through that last one?  It’s from the beginning of a Christmas story, chipped off of a series of seven paragraphs consisting of nothing but sentences beginning “When.”  And which follow a five paragraph stretch where every line begins “Who”!

Now, I think every line I quoted here is magnificent on its own, and similarly fine in context.  Dickens stories were often read aloud – imagine the opportunities for the ham reader.  (Whispering) “Night” (pause) “like a giant” (pause – volume increasing) “fills the church…” (then you have to get back to a whisper for) “the silent hours.”

Still, Dickens had reached a dead end, and he knew it.  Many of his most rhetorically complex passages only barely serve the story of which they are nominally a part.  The Haunted Man, is, at times, barely comprehensible.  Dombey and Son is never that bad, but is still extraordinarily thick in places.

I had not read David Copperfield (1849-50) when I wondered if its switch to the first person was partly an attempt by Dickens to tame his own prose.  It was!

As I passed the steps of the portico, I encountered, at the corner, a woman’s face.  It looked in mine, passed across the narrow lane, and disappeared.  I knew it.  I had seen it somewhere.  But I could not remember where. (David Copperfield, Chapter 40)

Those little sentences produce a rhetorical effect of their own, one of suddenness and action.  No reader will bog down here.  From a preceding paragraph:

It had been a bitter day, and a cutting north-east wind had blown for some time.  The wind had gone down with the light, and so the snow had come on.  It was a heavy, settled fall, I recollect, in great flakes; and it lay thick.  The noise of wheels and tread of people were as hushed as if the streets had been strewn that depth with feathers.

Now the rhetorical path is from simple to complex, though not too complex.  One syllable words, mostly (with a revealing three syllable exception), short sentences, and a single first-rate simile as a capstone.

I can find some brilliantly complex passages and scenes in David Copperfield (the storm scene!) but I’ll bet you seven dollars that David Copperfield is written at a significantly lower graded reading level than Dombey and Son.  David Copperfield (who is also Charles Dickens) writes more simply than Charles Dickens.  I hope it is not too much of a dig at Dombey and Son or even the wonderfully bizarre Haunted Man if I say: good.  Problem solved.


  1. Very interesting. I don't think I've ever looked at prose this way. I just wish more writers knew when enough was enough. The thought of an entire book reading like that last selection ("When the twilight. . .") makes my head spin.

    Right now I'm just picturing William Shatner doing a hammy "interpretive" reading of Dickens!

  2. Interesting observation that David Copperfield writes at a lower grade level than does Charles Dickens. I first read DC as a fairly young teenager, and liked it enough to reread it several times. I know I couldn't have tackled Dombey at that age.

    Also, Dickens never did the Woman in White approach to fiction (i.e., writing a series of journals, diaries, letters in first-person by various characters) as his friend Wilkie Collins did, but I wonder if he felt the pull of that kind of narrative when he wrote DC.

    As usual, a most interesting post.

  3. I read all Dickens Christmas novellas two years ago and yeah, The Haunted Man was pretty bad, I thought. I look forward to raeding more Dickens, even if some is painful reading...

  4. Should I defend The Haunted Man? It's not all that overwrought. A substantial chunk of the center describes the Tetterbys, especially five year old Johnny Tetterby, caretaker of Baby Moloch. This part is wonderful, hilarious, peak stuff.

    The main reason to read that short book, aside from the Tetterbys, is to see Dickens at his most abstract, which is not exactly a good reason to read it, is it?

    Jane, I'll mention the Collins thing tomorrow. Exactly relevant. He actually moves towards the Collins collage, just a step or two, since he includes the letters of other characters. More of that would have made sense in Copperfield, would have solved some new problems.

    Reading books aloud lets us all be William Shatner, at least for a little while.

  5. So interesting! Thanks for sharing this. I find the evolution and process of the writer (Dickens or otherwise) fascinating. So far, I've only read Dickens' Christmas books, and Oliver Twist. I like The Haunted Man the least, but I wouldn't say I dislike it. I actually like the paragraph you cite above. My trouble was keeping track of all the characters throughout, and what in the world was happening. I think this is partly because I was reading it aloud with my mom for the holidays. We both laughed hysterically at the section with the Tetterbys and Johnny. That part reads excellently. I had the impression, while reading, that Dickens constructed the scenes with Redlaw so densely to contrast with the joyful scene at the Tetterbys -- to make us feel Redlaw's despair.

  6. That sounds right, yes - that Dickens wants us to wallow in despair with Redlaw, and to be joyful with the Tetterbys. The thickness of the prose sucks the attentive reader into the mood of the scene.

    The problem, as I think you found, is that the density damaged the comprehensibility of the story. The Haunted Man really is hard to follow.