Thursday, October 14, 2010

Serious Dickens, serious Copperfield

Did I answer the question I asked yesterday?  Why did David Copperfield write David Copperfield? I have been writing as if I am more interested in why Charles Dickens wrote it, which is not quite true.  Copperfield is, by story’s end, prosperous, famous, artistically and spiritually fulfilled, well-fed, and happy.  I’m guessing about a few of those.

If I stay on the last page of the novel, I might guess that Copperfield is preparing for his own death.  “My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night… so may thy face be by me when I close my life” and so on.  Even if his demise, like that of Charles Dickens, is twenty years in the future, it is not too early for some spiritual stock-taking.  Or, if Copperfield is about the age of Dickens (39 at the end of the serial publication of David Copperfield), I might glibly label the book the product of a mid-life crisis.

Crisis seems to go much too far.  Copperfield describes real crises in his memoir, his own and others’ – deaths and hardship and moral failures.  His backward look seems morally serious to me.  He wants to makes his own failures visible to himself.  His year or so working as a manual laborer, for instance, Chapters 11 and 12.  They are a fascinating mix of solid detail and vagueness.  David can tell exactly how often he had to eat a slice of pudding for supper, and how much it cost, but he is not so sure how long he actually worked as a bottle washer.  Later, free from hard labor, the experience becomes unreal:

And, in a very little while, the Murdstone and Grinby life became so strange to me that I hardly believed in it, while my present life grew so familiar, that I seemed to have been leading it a long time. (Ch. 16)

I suppose there is some use in labeling David Copperfield an unreliable narrator, but not much.  He’s not inadvertently leaving clues to the truth scattered about, scraps that the reader understands better than he does.  No, he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got.

If I understand the facts correctly, no one, even in his own family, knew that Copperfield’s time as a child laborer was partly drawn from Dickens’ own life.  I find it difficult not read that section autobiographically.  It’s so firmly part of the Dickens Story.  But Dickens use of the episode is the inverse of Copperfield’s.  David looks at it directly, but in private; Dickens veils, but publicly.

Copperfield can be lacerating.  His fiancée’s father dies, and he reacts in a Proustian fashion – not the Proust concerned with memory, but Proust the dissector of obsessive jealousy, the Proust of The Captive and The Fugitive:

How I was, in a grudging way I have no words for, envious of her grief.  How it made me restless to think of her weeping to others, or being consoled by others.  How I had a grasping, avaricious wish to shut out everybody from her but myself, and to be all in all to her, at that unseasonable time of all times. (Ch. 38)

I wouldn’t want to write that about myself.  The culmination of the look back is the long proposal scene that ends the book.  I think Dickens is trying to turn a standard, trite novel ending into something with some real ethical weight behind it.  Serious people behaving seriously, proposing seriously, marrying seriously.  I think he succeeds, but it’s still dang dull.  Does anyone really get much out of solid, angelic Agnes?  Another problem for Dickens to solve, which he does, in Bleak House.  That book – boy, that one does everything right.


  1. Wow, that passage IS Proustian. And, as you say, not exactly an admirable sentiment.

    As Bleak House and Great Expectations (well, of course) were definitely high points of my Dickens reading, I suppose I should get around to Copperfield one of these days.

  2. Oh good lord, HOW Proustian that passage is. I'm working through The Prisoner right now, which is infested (in a good way!) with such sentiments, as you well know. Now I feel compelled to reread Copperfield. :)

  3. Oh good, it's not just me.

    David Copperfield is a little more typically Dickensian than Great Expectations, but, yes, easy to recommend to anyone sympathetic to GE. now, Bleak House, that one's at a higher level entirely.

    in a good way - I'm glad you think so. Me, I was relieved to be done with Albertine. That chunk is painful. Yes, in a good way, I guess. I was thinking about writing a post about the scene where we watch Albertine try on dresses.

    Did anyone notice the "How... How... How..." construction here, las seen on this blog in the Christmas novella The Haunted Man, laborious there, deft here? What's the difference?

  4. I don't think I'll ever read a first person story again without wondering why he/she was compelled to tell it :)

  5. I've really enjoyed your posts on "David Copperfield". I had to read it for my 11th grade English class, and I liked it so much I read it again a couple of years later. It would be interesting to read it a third time, these many years later, especially after having read "Bleak House" two years ago. They are indeed very different books.

  6. Jane, it's always a good question. Doesn't always have such an interesting answer.

    Robby, thanks. There's really so much variety in Dickens. His imagination was huge, just huge.

  7. I couldn't stand Agnes until I came across Nina Auerbach's idea of her as an angel-totem or a "magic object." She exists in a perpetually static state of discipline (always pointing upward, never very active, always modestly guiding and sacrificing), which seems so saintly it's inhuman, but Auerbach makes an argument for this inhumanity being superhuman rather than subhuman (I had been coming at her from the subhuman angle).

  8. Static and saintly, exactly. As soon as she was introduced, I had my suspicions, just because of her name, that Agnes was going to be a saint. Although, as you say, a saint who does not do much besides serve as an example.