David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

I liked David Copperfield quite a lot, and I’m frankly surprised that I did.

Surprised, because I had previously read five Dickens books, and I never much got into any of them. I felt like I gave Dickens a more than fair chance because he’s supposed to be one of the great novelists of all time, but I didn’t get the appeal. I didn’t hate his stuff by a long shot, but they were the kind of novels where I found my mind wandering a lot, and I had to force myself to finish them. I experienced his books as OK at best. They didn’t prove memorable at all to me; shortly after finishing them I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about the stories or the characters, because they just didn’t stick with me.

David Copperfield, though, was a completely different experience. It’s a very long book, and there were a few places here and there where it dragged a bit for me, but for the most part I was engrossed in this book, and the whole time I was reading it I was struck by just how well done it is. The characters are slightly exaggerated I suppose to make them all the more vivid, but mostly they are remarkably realistic.

There’s so much in this book that just seems psychologically and socially dead on. The emotions characters feel in certain situations, the way they respond to each other—I was repeatedly struck by how insightful it all was.

As I say, as hard as I tried to like the previous Dickens books I had read, they just weren’t memorable to me. But David Copperfield certainly was.

So did I change, and somehow become better able to appreciate Dickens, or is David Copperfield really head and shoulders above his other books that I had read?

I have trouble believing it’s the latter. I mean, it’s not like Dickens is regarded as having written one masterpiece and critics are disappointed that his other stuff is pretty mediocre. No, while I assume some of his books are modestly more highly regarded than others, he is considered a master of the novel across the board. If I didn’t get much out of five other books of his, I have to think that indicates something lacking in me rather than him.

It has been a long time since I read any of those other five Dickens books, so it could just be that I’ve matured as a reader, or grown as a person in general, and so can better appreciate quality writing now. On the other hand, it’s not like my previous experiences with Dickens came as a kid required to read his books in middle school or high school for some class; they were all books I freely chose to read in my 20s and 30s. I wouldn’t think I’m more than modestly more sophisticated about such things now than I was then, but who knows?

David Copperfield is written in the first person, in the form of an autobiography, wherein Copperfield describes his life from his birth until I would guess somewhere in his 30s, though I don’t think it’s specified exactly how old he is at the close of the book.

I wondered the whole time if this was Dickens writing about himself. It somehow had that feel to me; maybe the reason he could be so insightful in describing how certain things feel is that he had experienced them himself. That seemed even more likely to me when as an adult Copperfield becomes a writer, and eventually achieves significant success.

I had read almost nothing about this book in advance, but then after I finished it I looked up the Wikipedia entry, and right there in the first paragraph we find, “Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life, and it is often considered as his veiled autobiography.” So there you go.

I won’t summarize the whole novel, but instead will pick out various things that happened to stick with me as particularly striking or well done.

David’s biological father (also named David Copperfield) dies while his mother Clara is pregnant with David the Younger. So for a time he is raised by a single parent, and not surprisingly he and his mother are especially attached to each other.

Clara remarries while David is still very young, changing the dynamics of the household dramatically. Prior to the marriage, David has known only love, emotional support, and gentleness. Some would say—including his new stepfather Edward Murdstone—that this has made him unacceptably soft and spoiled, though as far as I’m concerned the household of those early years was a very good atmosphere for a child to be raised in. Indeed, it may well be that having a significant number of formative years like that is what enables David to remain for the most part a genuinely nice person of good moral character in spite of all that he later goes through.

But Murdstone’s prescription for David, as for everything in life, is cruelty, described euphemistically as “firmness” and “discipline” (nowadays it goes by the name “tough love”).

Clara is a very good-hearted, but simple, meek, unconfident, submissive type, and so proves unable to put up any meaningful defense as Murdstone (who soon moves his equally vicious, unpleasant, spinster sister Jane in with them) takes over her life and David’s. Her instinct is to continue being good to David, but she assumes that as a man—and a particularly confident and assertive one at that—Murdstone must be right. So she goes along with Murdstone’s oppression of her son, and even when she occasionally tries to soften it here and there with a kind gesture toward David it is with the self-consciousness that she is doing wrong but can’t help herself because of her weakness.

Not surprisingly, the Murdstones—brother and sister—are convinced that their self-righteous cruelty is sanctioned by religion.

David is self-evidently a good kid, but that doesn’t stop his step-father from escalating his “firmness.” Eventually he sends him away to a boarding school run by a disciplinarian acquaintance of his, and later puts him to work in his factory. If he has his way, he will stamp out of the boy any hint of joy, spirit, individuality, rebelliousness, or independent thought, and make of him someone who would never think to question or deviate from societal norms while slaving away for decades as a maximally obedient drudge.

There’s a little bit of corporal punishment, but the abuse is primarily emotional. The depiction of David’s life under the domination of Murdstone really hit me at a gut level at least as hard as if it had indeed been a depiction of frequent and severe physical beatings. There were nights after reading some of that early material that I lay in bed at night unable to stop thinking about how intensely I hate that kind of evil, especially directed at a child.

I myself in some ways had a difficult childhood with a father who created a very unhealthy household atmosphere. Every once in a while I come upon an account of a miserable childhood that feels like “Ah, here’s someone who gets it.” I don’t mean I see my own past in the description as far as the specifics, but more that it captures painfully well the essence of what it is to be a child trapped for years in a situation dominated by a petty, emotionally abusive, domineering male authority figure.

This Boy’s Life—both the movie and book versions—affected me that way, and David Copperfield affected me that way.

This portion of the book also functions as a devastating implied social commentary.

For one thing there’s the aforementioned way in which conventional religion can bolster the sadism of people like Murdstone and his sister.

Conventional religion and just conventional values in general. Under cover of the prevailing social mores, monsters like the Murdstones are not only able to gratify their cruelest impulses, but to further their self-interest in a crude economic sense. Clara, while not super rich, clearly has at least some wealth, which then becomes—due to the sexism of the laws and customs of the time—Murdstone’s when they marry. Then after the brother and sister have gotten rid of David and gradually destroyed Clara, they go on to similarly victimize another young woman. (This later marriage is mentioned only in passing, but it’s clearly implied that it’s the same kind of situation.)

And a significant part of what’s objectionable about the social reality depicted in this section of the book is indeed the sexism. I mean, think of it. What chance does someone in Clara’s position have? Unusually intelligent, unusually strong-willed women could resist to some extent, but for a “regular person” like Clara it was pretty much inevitable that they would have their lives dominated by males—their father, their husband, their clergyman, their employer if they worked outside the home, the nearly all-male government, etc. Had David’s father lived, maybe that would have enabled her to have a decent life—and of course David to have a vastly better childhood—but once he died she couldn’t resist the pressure to turn their lives over to another male, and—not surprisingly given the way society had shaped her—she made an atrocious choice.

One thing I enjoyed about the book is that many of the characters are just really good, nice people. Clara and David himself, for instance, are kind-hearted, but there are also multiple “noble poor” working class people who are highly likable “salt of the earth” types like that. A couple of prime examples are the live-in housekeeper/nanny/nurse Peggotty (also named Clara) and her fisherman brother Daniel.

Yet none of these characters feels—to me anyway—unrealistically simplistic. After all, you come across people in real life who are just genuinely decent like that and can be counted on to treat the people in their lives well.

Plus it’s not like the world of the novel is one in which people, or specifically people toward the bottom socioeconomically, are uniformly good-natured. People who grow up deprived in one way or another are routinely perverted by it, and David Copperfield doesn’t deny or ignore this.

Most notably there is the supremely creepy Uriah Heep, who plays a major role in David’s life as he enters adulthood.

Heep has been trained by his nearly as creepy mother to overcome his underprivileged background by being—or at least pretending to be—as humble and obsequious as possible. There’s seemingly no limit to the extent to which he will allow himself to be bullied, mistreated, exploited, taken for granted, etc.—and indeed respond to it with gratitude—if it will enable him to survive and somehow move up in the world.

Yet the humiliation that he so willingly and constantly accepts so as to put people off their guard as to his machinations destroys any moral character he might otherwise have developed. He is an envious, bitter, miserable little creature (Dickens wonderfully conveys his sliminess in depicting him as writhing about in eellike fashion as he abases himself) who is completely amoral in his treatment of others because his hatred of them is as strong as his self-loathing. In his way, he’s a more horrible person than Scrooge at his worst.

I also appreciate the eccentrics of the book. Like the exceedingly nice characters, one might initially be inclined to dismiss them as unrealistic—in this case, as just there for comic relief—but I really don’t think that’s justified.

Because, again, you come across people in real life who are eccentric, entertaining goofballs like that, people who “march to the beat of their own drummer.” These characters feel real to me in that sense. I don’t think realism is being compromised in order to inject some humor into the book.

I’ve encountered people who were as comically odd in their own way as Mr. Micawber from this novel.

Not to mention, it typically turns out that those of the oddball characters that we happen to spend enough time with in the book to get to know better have more substance, more complexity, and often more admirable values than you would have thought at first glance.

Consider David’s great-aunt Betsey, for instance, who appears in the novel briefly very early at the time of David’s birth after his father’s death. She is an eccentric, and if anything vaguely menacing, whirlwind. She seems to think little of her overwhelmed niece-in-law Clara, and she is so self-centered that she is personally affronted that Clara has not given birth to a daughter (to be named after her), and indicates her refusal to accept that reality by forever after referring to the hypothetical Betsey Copperfield as if she were a real person.

Yet, after a gap of many years, when she becomes a major figure in David’s life and in the book, it turns out she is a highly positive character who in her own way loves and does a lot of good for David and others. There are still the little eccentricities here and there, but they no longer seem so important in understanding what kind of person she is.

That’s merely one example of multiple major or minor characters that initially seem like caricatures included only for comic relief but who then “rise to the occasion” in some sense and show a more serious, substantive side.

Let’s also talk about the key relationship of David and James Steerforth.

The boarding school that young David is sent off to is a somewhat unpleasant place, but not a hellhole like, say, the orphanage of Oliver Twist. I mean, God knows I wouldn’t ever want to be incarcerated there, and it’s understandable that a sensitive child like David would have serious difficulties adjusting to it, but there are plenty of such institutions in real life and in fiction that are more nightmarish than this one.

The students seem to vary in socioeconomic level (I don’t think any are out-and-out poor; I think they all come from the kind of families that have servants rather than the kind of families that are servants), with those levels having some relevance to their status within the school. Most notably, Steerforth is apparently from as high or higher a class as any of the students (and is one of the oldest students) and is universally acknowledged as at the top of the totem pole.

Indeed, such is his status, or at least his family’s status, that even the staff makes certain concessions to him. He more or less outranks the teachers.

He is an intelligent, confident, dynamic, highly charismatic figure. There are certain incidents depicted that manifest a spoiled brat side—if not malice, at least an indifference to how his actions can harm others—but given that he’s only 15 or 16 or whatever when we meet him, his moral character and emotional maturity do not stand out as unusually bad. Imperfect, yes, absolutely, but I suppose his reign is more benevolent than not.

One of the things I really like about the book, by the way, is how even though Copperfield is seemingly telling this story as an adult looking back, the incidents and characters are depicted the way Copperfield would have perceived them at the time. So the Steerforth of the school years that we read about seems more like how the 11 or 12 year old (I don’t think his exact age is specified) Copperfield would have seen him than how the adult Copperfield would. I see this as just another example of how well-written this book is, as it allows the story to unfold more naturally and enjoyably than if the storyteller were constantly—intentionally or not—revealing more before its time.

Anyway, the schoolboy David’s reaction to Steerforth quickly develops into unabashed hero worship. Any attention from Steerforth, certainly any approval from Steerforth, lifts his spirits. He treasures any sign that there is a friendship between them, as unequal as that friendship is.

Then after a gap of many years they encounter each other as adults, and if anything become better friends than back in school, when an age difference like theirs is apt to be a bigger deal. Steerforth remains the dominant figure in the relationship—David still acts as though it’s flattering just to be allowed in his presence—but how they treat and appreciate each other is not quite as unequal as in the past.

When Steerforth ultimately seduces and runs off with a naïve girl named Emily who is a friend of David’s—ruining her reputation and hence in that day and age basically ruining her life—you can say he finally shows his true colors and reveals that he has been a cad all along, all the way back to those clues in his schoolboy days. But even then, David never fully turns on him. Certainly he understands the enormity of Steerforth’s betrayal—in part because he has strong feelings for the girl Steerforth seduced and her family—but he never seems to regard him as morally loathsome the way he does, say, Uriah Heep, and never concludes that their whole friendship was a sham and that Steerforth was just deceiving him all along. It’s like he can’t fully let go of the warmth approaching love that he felt for him as a friend.

Maybe in some sense I’m under the same spell, because I find my reaction to Steerforth’s misdeed similar to David’s. That is, I disapprove of it certainly, and I see it as an indication of a significantly flawed moral character, but in my gut I don’t feel as condemnatory toward him as I’m sure many people would argue is justified.

I think what Dickens is showing us with Steerforth is that just as the poor can be perverted by the pressures they operate under, someone with Steerforth’s background can be perverted in other ways by the factors that shape people of his class. He’s used to being catered to, he’s used to being looked up to by people like David, he’s used to always getting his way, he’s used to not suffering the kind of consequences for his wrongs that others less privileged would typically have to suffer. So as a result he has an addiction to adventure and instant gratification, he expects to get whatever he wants, he can at times treat the people in his life as disposable, etc.

A lot of people who know me and my politics would probably assume that if anything I would be especially condemnatory toward the sins of the rich, and probably in certain respects I am. But at the same time I sometimes have a certain fascination for highly charismatic, “larger than life” figures. Maybe it’s that I see them as having so much more influence than others that it feels like the stakes are higher with them and I root especially hard for them to turn out to be good, so it’s a little harder to admit when they aren’t, or to give up on the possibility that they will change for the better.

Plus on the rare occasions Steerforth drops the “party hardy” persona and lets David have a glimpse of the real person behind the charismatic persona, there’s a sadness to him that makes him a bit more of a sympathetic character.

Another thought I have about Steerforth, or more specifically about the relationship between him and David, is that I’ll bet it’s a common interpretation of this book that what David is experiencing is a homosexual crush, whether he is consciously aware of it or not.

I don’t know that. I’m just guessing, because, as I mentioned, I didn’t read about this book before reading the book itself. But it just feels like something critics and people writing essays in graduate school and such would routinely say. And I find myself somewhat resistant to that interpretation.

To be clear, I’m not saying it isn’t possible that that’s the reason David responds to him the way he does. For all I know it’s an open secret that Dickens was gay, and at some point he came right out and said that Steerforth is based on some kid he had a crush on in boarding school. I have no idea. I’m just saying that to come to that interpretation based solely on what’s in the book reflects a tendency in some circles to see “homoeroticism” in any depiction of love, affection, warmth, bonding, etc. between two males, whereas I would contend that there are a myriad of ways in which someone could have strong positive feelings for someone of the same gender, some of which are sexual and many of which are not, and that it is a common error of literary commentators (or film critics, etc.) to jump to the conclusion that it’s always a gay thing.

Not that I never interpret things that way. Like in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp’s lasting fascination with his former schoolmate Pribislav Hippe very much struck me that way. But it’s a case-by-case thing, and I think David’s feelings for Steerforth have multiple plausible explanations, of which a homosexual crush is only one, and not even necessarily the most likely one.

Bottom line: You can like somebody, and even love somebody, without wanting to have sex with them.

But getting back to Steerforth’s destroying Emily’s life by running off with her and keeping her around until he gets tired of her, this in itself is an interesting illustration of how the consequences of our actions are largely a product of social reality, which in turn is whatever people have chosen to make it.

Emily did not behave in blameless fashion. She was dishonest in some of what she did, including the fact that she betrayed her fiancée by disappearing with Steerforth. But the punishment that everyone assumes and expects will be delivered upon her—she will never be respected again, she can never marry and have a normal life, once he dumps her she will have to resort to prostitution or begging or the like to survive (as recently happened to another girl from the same town) since she’ll be unfit for anything better—is wildly disproportionate to the crime.

Interestingly, just about everyone who knows her is forgiving and sympathetic toward her and doesn’t want her to suffer. Her family is very supportive. Her uncle travels throughout Europe looking for her and seeking to rescue her. Her fiancée is crushed by it all and is a simple fellow disinclined to say much about the situation, but what he does say indicates that he still loves her and doesn’t want her hurt. David and the other people in her life see her as a victim and strongly want her to be saved. We don’t hear much from other people in the town, but my impression is that she and her family are universally well liked, and people think of this all as a very unfortunate tragedy, not as some terrible, unforgivable crime she committed.

But remember, the only way this ruins her life is if people enforce these social norms against women having illicit sex. So in effect they’re saying, “It’s a damn shame and totally unjust the way she’ll have to suffer because of our attitudes and the way we’ll treat her.”

In the end she and the family have to flee to the other side of the world to have any hope of overcoming her shame, all because stupid people choose to live by the most judgmental, hurtful Victorian (literally: this takes place in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria) prejudices.

Obviously there’s a gender double standard, but it’s not total. When David visits Steerforth’s mother he finds that the attitude in that household is that Steerforth’s life prospects have taken a substantial hit, for which she blames the evil temptress Emily, whom she speaks of with nothing but vitriol. Certainly his life won’t be ruined to the extent Emily’s will, but apparently his chances for a suitable marriage and such will be significantly harmed by his dalliance with Emily. His mother takes it all very hard, seeing him as the true victim here (or at least the only one important enough classwise to matter), whether of his own folly or Emily’s cunning manipulation.

In reality I’m not too upset about the effects on Steerforth since, one, as the older, more experienced, more worldly party who has far more power in the relationship, he bears maybe 80%-90% of the responsibility for their running off together compared to her 10%-20%, and, two, he’ll suffer considerably less than her due to the aforementioned double standard. So if there’s any disproportion at all between his crime and his punishment, it is a tiny fraction as great as the disproportion and injustice of Emily’s.

Then there is the matter of the relationship between David and Dora.

David as a youth is at least as apt as most idealistic, romantic, young people to giddily fall for just about any pretty face that crosses his path. Multiple times in the book he develops a strong crush and declares himself in love with this girl or that. The situation that happens to work out to where he can actually marry the girl is his relationship with Dora.

This is another example of the effectiveness of Dickens’s storytelling technique of having David tell us things more or less the way he would have seen them at the time rather than the way he would see them looking back while writing the book. For as David meets, falls for, and ultimately marries Dora, she is presented very favorably certainly, but if you think about it we really don’t know much about her beyond the kind of superficial but undoubtedly appealing stuff that would have turned the head of a youth like David (she’s physically beautiful, she has an upbeat, positive personality, she exudes a conventionally feminine charm and poise, etc., etc.).

Once he, and we, get more of a sense of who she is, of what substance there is behind that captivating exterior, they’re already married.

For Dora, it turns out, is frankly a moron. There’s no evidence she’s anything other than good-hearted, so I won’t condemn her too strongly since that counts for a lot with me, but aside from that she’s one of the few characters in this book (not counting the out-and-out villains like the Murdstones and Heep) that I found unlikable.

That’s not a criticism of the author, by the way. I don’t mean she’s somehow a poorly written character; I mean she’s a decidedly unappealing character (who is written fine).

I’ve long contended that we make a mistake in “growing up” too much, that there is much that is childlike that would be worth retaining for our whole lives. But she’s not childlike in that kind of desirable, selective way. She’s just childlike in the sense of being hopelessly frivolous and immature, incapable of serious thought, with an attention span of about two seconds. And her annoying little dog that she incessantly dotes on is almost as insufferable as she is.

I suppose the one thing that doesn’t ring true to me about her—which really is one of the few things that doesn’t ring true in the whole book; that’s how good it is—is the extent to which she is self-aware what a nitwit she is and is able to articulate it. She expresses sadness for David’s being stuck with someone so far beneath him intellectually who can never be close to an equal partner for him, and she tells him more than once that the only way the marriage will be successful is if he expects no more from her than he would from a young child and if he then focuses on having the best relationship one can have with a child like that rather than with an adult.

Again there’s the sexism angle, the realization that given the way women were molded, and what was socially rewarded and punished about them, her particular set of good points and bad points is really not surprising. That’s not to say that every woman back then was like her, not by a long shot, but I’m sure these utterly frivolous women-children were not uncommon, at least among the upper classes.

There’s also the psychological angle that when you think about it, she’s sort of like his mother Clara. I didn’t find Clara quite as inane, and I perhaps was more sympathetic toward her due to her being a victim of the Murdstones, and so didn’t experience her as quite as unappealing on a gut level as Dora, but broadly speaking they’re the same sort of good-hearted, not very bright, superficially attractive, weak women.

Which is not to say that people always fall for those who most resemble their parent of the opposite sex, but I would guess that when from a very young age you’re super close and mutually dependent on a parent, like he was with Clara, it’s common.

Thinking about David Copperfield, there’s a lot more I want to talk about. I’ve barely mentioned the delightful Micawber, haven’t mentioned Micawber’s wife at all, haven’t mentioned the loving simpleton Mr. Dick (a man-child vastly more appealing than the woman-child Dora) or lesser characters like the dwarf Miss Mowcher or poor Mrs. Gummidge (both of whom are additional examples of characters that seem comic or insubstantial at first, but turn out to have a whole lot more to them once you get to know them), have barely touched on the social commentary about disciplinarian boarding schools, have not mentioned at all the social commentary about the criminal justice system, and on and on.

I have to stop somewhere. But what a rich and wonderful book this is, with such vivid characters. Going back to what I said at the start of this essay, I’ve rarely if ever had this experience with an author, where my reaction to one of his books was far, far more favorable than to multiple previous books of his that I read.

I mean, today I couldn’t tell you a single character from A Tale of Two Cities, or what the basic storyline is, whereas there are twenty or more characters from David Copperfield that stand out to me more like people I’ve met in real life than like fictional characters. Granted, that’s in part because I read A Tale of Two Cities and those other Dickens books decades ago, and I’m sure a modest amount would come back to me if I read summaries of them now, but I’m almost sure that if you had asked me even a week after I read those books, I would have retained 10%-20% at most of what has stuck with me from David Copperfield.

This is simply a terrific novel.

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