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Author Topic: [108] David Copperfield--Charles Dickens  (Read 3252 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: October 16, 2010, 10:25:40 AM »

Dickens at Home
October 16, 2010

The Victorian novel diverted the "natural evolution" of the novel into a path that it might not have otherwise taken.  We find it still on that path in its more popular forms today.  When novels started coming out as serialized pieces for magazines, writers had to do certain things that the format almost dictated.  Serialization would occur over the course of one or two years, and so readers would need assistance in recollecting where they had last stopped reading.  Every two weeks, the magazine would print a new installment that needed to do several things: (1) be of a certain length (usually two chapters), (2) populate the story with unforgettable characters whom the readers would still remember even if they had not appeared in several installments, (3) carry the plot forward, and (4) end with something like a cliffhanger.  In much the way that, in television, the demands of advertisers to plug their products every ten minutes determined the structure of the television scripts, the needs of weekly serialization pushed the novel into a distinct shape.  In particular, the two-chapters-per-installment pace imparted a very predictable rhythm to the Victorian novel: odd-numbered chapters resolved previous tensions while even-numbered chapters built anew toward the next crisis and left the reader eager to find out what would happen next.  I came across these ideas this summer, in a very enjoyable book called, How to Read Novels Like a Professor.  Once these notions had infected my thinking, I found I couldn't ignore the artifice that permeates the works of that greatest of the great Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens.

David Copperfield starts off a little like Oliver Twist, in that we see the wretched life of a child trying to survive in a hostile world with little or no protection from sympathetic or even humane adults.  Whereas some amused, detached narrator tells Oliver's story, David recounts his own childhood with the occasional irony, indignation, embarrassment, nostalgia, or regret of a comfortably situated adult reflecting on the naivety of his own youth.  David's father had died before David's birth, and his dear, doting mother remarried a horrid man who soon packed off little David to a "school" where they would beat him--I mean educate him--properly.  Like Oliver, David lives an outwardly passive (though emotionally overwrought) life.  He hardly ever initiates anything, even as an adult, but concentrates on dealing with the behavior of others, avoiding punishment, following orders, and ingratiating himself to anyone who might protect him.

David endures a number of incidents, he suffers the typical embarrassments of a hormone-addled youth, and he picks up a number of friends along the way who pop up now and then in his later life.  David himself has little to endear him to the reader except his naive sincerity and his blind infatuation with the wrong woman.  The former trait makes him ever forgivable while the latter trait makes us want to shake some sense into him.  (Thank goodness he didn't take as long as Proust to figure it out.)*  But even these things couldn't hold my attention for long.  Fortunately the oddball supporting characters make up for Copperfield's deluded blandness in spades.  The slimy-palmed Uriah Heep worms his way in and out of David's life.  The daft Mr. Dick putters alongside David's formidable yet supportive spinster aunt, clapping his hands and blurting out oracular wisdom at precisely the right moments.  Mr. Micawber--whom I visualized as W.C. Fields even before knowing about the 1935 movie--stays just a few steps ahead of his creditors and crosses David's path whenever things get too serious.  These and a carnival of other figures, ballyhooing their own dreams, schemes, and neuroses, keep us from noticing how prosaic a life our callow David leads.  In the end, David gets exactly what he deserves: the hand of the angelic, altruistic, long-suffering, and self-effacing Agnes.

I haven't read a great deal of Dickens, but, from what I've read about him, I suppose David Copperfield must capture the essence of what the public demanded.  The socio-politico-economic commentary takes a back seat to the entertainment value of quirky humanity.  (Of course he forces us to confront the inhumane treatment of children endemic to England, but that has more to do with the heartlessness of British parents and teachers than with the industrial revolution.)  While we worry about the fates of individual characters, we don't think of them so much as types but as acquaintances.  Our caring about their lives has no implications for us as does, for instance, our caring about Bob Cratchit's family.  Perhaps I have missed some thinly veiled class message here, but David Copperfield strikes me as Dickens at his most personal and least "progressive."   This Dickens I could invite into my home without worrying about offending the other guests.

* See my reflections on Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, and, not a minute too soon, Time Regained.

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