I recently read David Copperfield. It was more enjoyable than I had expected, easier to read than I had expected. It’s a long novel, but it doesn’t seem long because the narrative moves along at a brisk pace, and holds your interest. Only the last chapters drag a bit; Chesterton said that the early chapters were written from the heart, and reflect the author’s own experience, but the last chapters are invented, artificial.1
[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading David Copperfield, you may want to skip the rest of this e-zine.]
One of the themes of David Copperfield is “the mind of the heart,” the wisdom of the unconscious, non-rational wisdom, intuitive wisdom. We find this wisdom in a Copperfield character named Mr. Dick, who is a “holy fool,” an innocent lunatic. Mr. Dick enjoys flying kites and playing with children. Mr. Dick can be compared to other Dickens characters who represent “the mind of the heart,” such as Sleary (in Hard Times), Guppy (in Bleak House), Glubb (in Dombey and Son), and Fezziwig (in Christmas Carol). These characters contrast with rational, calculating, heart-less characters like Gradgrind (in Hard Times) and Scrooge (in Christmas Carol).
Mr. Dick visits David’s school:
|He soon became known to every boy in the school; and though he never took an active part in any game but kite-flying, was as deeply interested in all our sports as anyone among us. How often have I seen him, intent upon a match at marbles or pegtop, looking on with a face of unutterable interest, and hardly breathing at the critical times!|
In Copperfield, Dickens not only shows us “the mind of the heart,” he states this theme explicitly. When Doctor Strong and his wife Annie are at an impasse in their marriage, and no one seems able to break the impasse, Mr. Dick saves the day. He has “a subtlety of perception... which leaves the highest intellect behind,” a “mind of the heart.” Mr. Dick has no ego, he just wants to help his friends:
|“A poor fellow with a craze, sir,” said Mr. Dick, “a simpleton, a weak-minded person — present company, you know!” striking himself again, “may do what wonderful people may not do. I’ll bring them together, boy. I’ll try. They’ll not blame me. They’ll not object to me. They’ll not mind what I do, if it’s wrong. I’m only Mr. Dick. And who minds Dick? Dick’s nobody!”2|
At another important moment in the story, when Betsey is wondering whether to bring David into her household, Dick again plays a key role.
|“Mr. Dick,” said my aunt, “what shall I do with this child?” Mr. Dick considered, hesitated, brightened, and rejoined, “Have him measured for a suit of clothes directly.”|
Once we realize that the holy fool is a recurring character in Dickens’ works, the question arises, Where did Dickens get this character? From his own experience and observation? From his reading of novelists like Fielding? I suspect that he got it from fairy tales; the Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson spoke of, “those echoes from the fairy tales which constantly recur in Dickens.”3 Sixteen years ago, I discussed the Jungian Marie-Louise von Franz:
|Von Franz’s specialty is fairy tales, and she believes that one of the stock characters of fairy tales represents integrity. She speaks of, “the famous fairy tale motif of the Dummling, the simpleton, who appears in an infinite number of fairy tales. For instance, a king has three sons and the youngest is a fool whom everybody laughs at; but it is always this fool who becomes the hero in the story.... This kind of simple-minded, candid integrity is a great mystery and is already the secret of an individuated personality. The gift of guileless integrity is a divine spark in the human being. In analysis, I would say that it is the decisive factor as to whether an analysis goes right or wrong.”|
Mr. Dick is a good example of a dummling, and the dummling is a recurring character in Dickens’ works. The dummling has naivete, integrity, and enthusiasm; he has non-rational wisdom, the mind of the heart.
Mr. Dick’s keen interest in a game of marbles contrasts with calculating characters like Gradgrind, who see no purpose in play. It also contrasts with another Dickens character-type: the cool, ironic, sophisticated character who’s bored with everything, indifferent to everything. In Copperfield, the cool character is Jack Maldon.
|“Have you breakfasted this morning, Mr. Jack?” said the Doctor. “I hardly ever take breakfast, sir,” he replied, with his head thrown back in an easy-chair. “I find it bores me.”|
Maldon is as bored with current events as he is with breakfast:
|“Is there any news today?” inquired the Doctor. “Nothing at all, sir,” replied Mr. Maldon. “There’s an account about the people being hungry and discontented down in the North, but they are always being hungry and discontented somewhere.... There’s a long statement in the papers, sir, about a murder,” observed Mr. Maldon. “But somebody is always being murdered, and I didn’t read it.” A display of indifference to all the actions and passions of mankind was not supposed to be such a distinguished quality at that time, I think, as I have observed it to be considered since. I have known it very fashionable indeed.|
When I discussed Dickens’ Hard Times, I noticed this same attitude of cool sophistication in a character named James Harthouse.
Mr. Dick represents the wisdom of the unconscious, the wisdom of the Self (to use a Jungian term). But there’s also a shallower impulse of the body, of the ego; it can be argued that a major theme of Copperfield is “the undisciplined heart.” The undisciplined heart can lead one into a bad marriage — Copperfield has several bad marriages — and a bad marriage can ruin one’s life, and even lead to one’s death.
One bad marriage is Clara Copperfield’s marriage to Edward Murdstone. Clara was widowed by the early death of her husband, David’s father. What leads her into the fatal blunder of choosing Murdstone? Betsey Trotwood, David’s aunt, can’t understand it: “Whatever possessed that poor unfortunate Baby, that she must go and be married again... I can’t conceive.” Mr. Dick puts forward what is probably the correct explanation: “Perhaps she did it for pleasure.”
Clara’s undisciplined heart has led her into a fatal mistake. Once Murdstone has her firmly tied in the bonds of matrimony, he brings his sister Jane into the household, and together they tyrannize over Clara and David. Clara bends to the Murdstones, Clara can’t “live under coldness or unkindness.” One critic says that, with her undisciplined heart, Clara “cannot bear either responsibility or discomfort.”4 Clara becomes ill and dies. Betsey later excoriates Murdstone for killing Clara: “You must begin to train her, must you? begin to break her, like a poor caged bird, and wear her deluded life away, in teaching her to sing YOUR notes?”
Many English novelists explore the dark side of marriage. When I discussed D. H. Lawrence, I wrote,
|For Lawrence, love is often “a very terrible thing,” because Lawrence understands the death of love, death by love, and death for love. Lawrence understands the dark side of love, the dark side of marriage. Perhaps this understanding came not from his own experience but from his mother’s experience.5|
Clara’s death is death by love — “a relationship that drives one party to death.” David’s own relationship with Dora might be called the death of love, “a gradual loss of respect/love.” David falls head-over-heels for Dora, but both of them are too young to understand what they’re getting into, too young to understand that marriage is more than physical pleasure.6
David’s heart is undisciplined, like Clara’s, he’s attracted by beauty, he doesn’t realize that Dora isn’t the right life-partner for him. David doesn’t understand what Lawrence’s mother learned by painful experience: “Nothing is as bad as a marriage that’s a hopeless failure. Mine was bad enough, God knows, and ought to teach you something; but it might have been worse by a long chalk.”7
Betsey suspects that David is making a mistake, and tries to warn him, but he’s too far gone in amorous passion. As Needham puts it, Betsey asks “leading questions about Dora — ‘Not silly?’ ‘Not light-headed?’” Betsey utters an ominous verdict on David’s infatuation: “Blind, blind, blind.” What David should look for in a spouse, Betsey says, is “Deep, downright, faithful earnestness.”8
David’s marriage to Dora doesn’t bring him the happiness he dreamed of; the marriage goes downhill, and nothing can get it back on track. David’s marriage to Dora probably reflects Dickens’ own marriage to Kate Hogarth. Kate was the mother of Dickens’ ten children. Dickens and Kate separated when Dickens was 45. This separation prompted a public statement from Dickens, in which he spoke of, “Some domestic trouble of mine, of long standing....” The phrase “long standing” implies that these domestic troubles existed when Dickens was writing Copperfield.9
Did these domestic troubles prompt Dickens to wish his wife dead, and is this wish behind the death of Dora? Discussing Dora’s death, Edgar Johnson says it may have been a “wish fulfillment.” The breakdown of David’s marriage “hints all the unspoken feelings that lurked below the surface of [Dickens’] relationship to Kate.”10 One wonders what Kate felt as she read David Copperfield.
We can use the phrase “death of love” for the gradual withering of love under the pressure of day-to-day life, the gradual exposure of differences, or the creation of differences by the growth/change of one person. We can use the phrase “death by love” for a relationship that turns sour, and drives one person to an early death (as Lawrence put it, love sometimes degenerates into “a fearful, bloody battle that ended only with the death of one”). We can use the phrase “death for love” when someone dies so that others can be together. In David Copperfield, Ham is sacrificed so Steerforth and Emily can be together. When Steerforth and Emily elope, Ham becomes depressed, hopeless, careless of his own safety. Ham dies for love, he’s a casualty of the Steerforth-Emily relationship.11
Steerforth and Emily both have undisciplined hearts. Steerforth is attracted to Emily because she’s young and pretty, Emily hopes to become a lady, and raise her social rank.12
David is finally enlightened by Annie Strong, who says, “There can be no disparity in marriage, like unsuitability of mind and purpose.” Annie avoided a liaison with Jack Maldon. Annie is happy in her marriage to Doctor Strong, who’s considerably older than she is. Annie says, “If I were thankful to my husband for no more, instead of for so much, I should be thankful to him for having saved me from the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart.” David realizes that he gave way to “the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart.”
Needham says that the model for David Copperfield is Fielding’s Tom Jones. She writes,
|At the time when Dickens’ mind was “running like a high sea” on plans for Copperfield, his sixth son was born (January 16, 1849), and Dickens wrote John Forster that he had changed the child’s name from the intended “Oliver Goldsmith” to “Henry Fielding,” as “a kind of homage to the style of work he was now bent on beginning.”|
Fielding advises his young readers to learn prudence because virtue alone isn’t sufficient, “no man can be good enough to enable him to neglect the rules of prudence.” But Needham says that Dickens goes further than Fielding, Dickens has a deeper conception of personal growth. Perhaps the soul itself grew in the century between Tom Jones and David Copperfield; self-knowledge evolves, psychology evolves, just as technology evolves. Needham writes,
|Dickens’ theme of the undisciplined heart encompasses [Fielding’s theme] and goes further; natural goodness plus prudence may win affectionate respect, but one must learn a higher wisdom of the heart if he would achieve inner strength and peace.... It must be self-reliant and possess constancy and fortitude in order to be strengthened, not conquered or merely softened, by adversity and sorrow.... This is the discipline which David and every good man must achieve.|
Needham says that, in his early years, David has “passive fortitude” but not “active courage. Delicate as a child, he was soon hurt bodily or mentally.” Needham says that David is “naturally timid” and “exhibits courage only when driven by desperation.” This is doubtless a portrait of Dickens himself.
Needham says that David’s “modesty often sinks into lack of self-confidence, his judgment into self-distrust.” David speaks of, “A distrust of myself, which has often beset me in life on small occasions, when it would have been better away.” Needham bids us to “Recall how often [David’s] lack of self-assertion makes him an easy victim to the tyranny of waiters, coachmen, and landladies.”13
David resembles not only Dickens, but the intellectual in general. In an earlier issue, I discussed the “weak ego” of the intellectual — the timidity, the self-doubt, the lack of authority. Perhaps Dickens overcame some of these flaws as he grew older.
Betsey sees David’s flaws and tries to fix them:
|Aunt Betsey fears his lack of firmness [Needham writes]. She urges him to be “A fine firm fellow, with a will of your own.... with strength of character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by anybody, or by anything.”|
Betsey herself didn’t always have this firmness. Needham points out that Betsey is the novel’s first example of an “undisciplined heart.” Betsey was led by her “undisciplined heart” into a bad marriage. She became embittered, “closed to the world.” But she grows during the novel. Needham writes,
|Care and responsibility for the orphaned child [i.e., for David] opens her heart first to love for David, then for mankind; thus she achieves the disciplined heart and proves it by extending the charitable love to Dora that she had denied to Mrs. Copperfield.14|
Mr. Wickfield, instead of loving mankind, focuses on one person, his daughter. His weaknesses make him vulnerable to Uriah Heep’s wiles.
|Enslaved by alcohol [Needham writes], entrapped by Heep, Mr. Wickfield is shocked into the realization that he, rather than Uriah, is ultimately responsible for the ruin.... “Weak indulgence has ruined me [Wickfield says]. Indulgence in remembrance, and indulgence in forgetfulness. My natural grief for my child’s mother turned to disease; my natural love for my child turned to disease.... I thought it possible that I could truly love one creature in the world, and not love the rest... that I could truly mourn for one creature gone out of the world, and not have some part in the grief of all who mourned.”|
Needham says that David’s immaturity is apparent in his reactions to other characters. David is much impressed with Steerforth, who proves to be deeply flawed. Meanwhile, David laughs at Traddles, who proves to have a solid character.
“The boy cannot perceive Steerforth’s faults nor Traddles’ merits,” Needham writes. “David’s erroneous valuation of his two friends, so long held, is the first example of his heart’s ‘mistaken impulses.’” David introduces Steerforth to the Yarmouth household — Daniel Peggotty, Ham, Emily, etc. — and thereby David brings “grave trouble to others — sorrow for which David feels partly responsible.” When Traddles helps to overthrow Uriah, David finally appreciates his merit: “This was the first occasion on which I really did justice to the clear head, and plain, patient, practical good sense of my old schoolfellow.”
David’s romantic passion for Dora contrasts with Traddles’ patient love for Sophy. Traddles and Sophy have a long engagement, their motto is “Wait and hope.” David
|cannot comprehend their unselfish consideration for Sophy’s preposterous family; [David’s] impatient ardor rejects their motto, “Wait and hope.” Only when the finally disciplined David returns from Europe does he appreciate how rich in happiness such a marriage as theirs will prove.|
Dickens not only shows us moral failings, he traces them to their roots in childhood. Steerforth understands his own moral failings, and ascribes them to the lack of father-influence. He says, “I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years! I wish with all my soul I had been better guided! I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!”
As for the diabolical Uriah Heep, he isn’t the product of a loving household. Uriah says, “Father and me was both brought up at a foundation school for boys; and mother, she was likewise brought up at a public, sort of charitable, establishment.” Dickens understood that evil isn’t the product of spontaneous generation, evil has a cause, a history.
Uriah Heep is eventually defeated by Micawber and Traddles, as the Murdstones were defeated by Betsey. Good overcomes evil. Is this shallow optimism? Gwendolyn Needham speaks of, “Dickens’ basic belief that ‘real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil and misfortune in the world.’” What Needham calls a “basic belief” does seem excessively optimistic — a lot of innocent people suffer, and die young, in this world.
But what Needham calls a “basic belief” is actually only a hope. Agnes says, “I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.” Needham has removed two important words from the start of the quotation: “I hope.” What Needham calls a “basic belief” is actually only a hope.
Dickens isn’t naively optimistic; he sees darkness and light, suffering and joy. He tries to emphasize the positive, he tries to call the glass half-full rather than half-empty. Whatever life is, he seems to say, let’s make the best of it, and if we write a novel, let’s try to raise the reader’s spirits. Needham says that the “prevailing tone” of Copperfield is “a melodic blend of bright humor, tender sorrow, and firm hope.”
Dickens depicts moral failings, he depicts the causes of these failings, and he depicts the overcoming of these failings. David learns from experience, learns from his mistakes, and learns to discipline his heart. He becomes older and wiser during a long, lonely trip to Europe. During this trip, he falls into despair: “Listlessness to everything but brooding sorrow was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart.” Slowly he climbs back to health and joy, helped by natural beauty, a letter from Agnes, his literary work, etc.
When he returns from Europe, David thinks that Agnes is out of reach. David
|determines to convert what might have been between him and Agnes into a means “of making me more self-denying, more resolved, more conscious of myself, and my defects and errors.” After three years’ absence, David is ready to return home, confident that he “could think of the past now, gravely, but not bitterly, and could contemplate the future in a brave spirit.” He has learned that real love has no “alloy of self,” that sorrow should strengthen, and — his final step toward emotional maturity — that one must himself develop the firmness, fortitude, and courage to guide his life in the right path.15|
When David finally bonds with Agnes, Dickens expresses David’s maturity with images that a reader of Jung will recognize: the center, the circle, the stone: “Clasped in my embrace, I held the source of every worthy aspiration I had ever had; the center of myself, the circle of my life, my own, my wife; my love of whom was founded on a rock!”
David Copperfield is about personal growth, about attaining maturity and wisdom through suffering. It stays close to reality, close to the author’s life, close to its theme, hence Copperfield doesn’t contain Dickens’ wildest flights of fancy; John Forster said, “The masterpieces of Dickens’ humor are not in [Copperfield].” But Copperfield is Dickens’ most popular work — most popular with the public, with critics, and with Dickens himself. It contains a ripe wisdom, an affirmation of life in the face of suffering.
I said above that the moral lapses of Steerforth and Uriah Heep were caused by their upbringing. Did Dickens’ sufferings in the shoe-polish factory leave their mark on his own character? Was there a dark side to Dickens’ sunny personality?
Forster says that Dickens was “often uneasy, shrinking, and over-sensitive” in society. Dickens learned to force himself; Forster speaks of, “bearing down and overmastering the feeling.” Dickens was sometimes too willful, and pushed himself too hard; Forster speaks of “self-imposed burdens greater than might be borne by any one with safety.” Even his exercise was excessive, as when he took walks of more than 15 miles at night. Perhaps Dickens’ intensity contributed to his early death (he died at 58). Schopenhauer said, “The greatest mental abilities are found only with a vehement and passionate will.”16 Dickens had such a will. Strong will, weak ego.
His intensity was apparent in his domestic habits. Every morning, he toured his house, and “if a chair was out of its place,” his daughter later wrote, “or a blind not quite straight, or a crumb left on the floor, woe betide the offender.... Even in his hours of relaxation, he was still... always busy.”17
Forster says there was something “hard and aggressive” in Dickens at times, a “tone of fierceness,” “a stern and even cold isolation of self-reliance side-by-side with a susceptivity almost feminine and the most eager craving for sympathy.”18 But Dickens’ dark side was only apparent on rare occasions, perhaps only when he was around 50.
When Dickens was 50, he asked Forster to remember what he’d been through, remember that the “never-to-be-forgotten misery of that old time bred a certain shrinking sensitiveness in a certain ill-clad ill-fed child.” He tells Forster that this “shrinking sensitiveness” has returned “in the never-to-be-forgotten misery of this later time.” Perhaps the “misery” that Dickens is referring to is the breakdown of his marriage, which brought with it scandals, quarrels, etc.
Dickens is often a subtle psychologist. Dickens describes Micawber’s state of mind when he’s ensnared by Uriah. Micawber tries to make punch, his specialty, but he’s distracted. When something is troubling us, we can’t focus on everyday tasks, we make mistakes. David speaks of,
|The strange proceedings in which I saw [Micawber] engaged; whereof his putting the lemon-peel into the kettle, the sugar into the snuffer-tray, the spirit into the empty jug, and confidently attempting to pour boiling water out of a candlestick, were among the most remarkable. I saw that a crisis was at hand.|
Dickens says that when Emily was living in Italy, she spoke Italian, but she reverted to English when she was sick: “Em’ly was took bad with fever, and, what is very strange to me is — maybe ’tis not so strange to scholars — the language of that country went out of her head, and she could only speak her own.” This is what happened to Joseph Conrad:
|Conrad’s wife Jessie wrote that, during Conrad’s malaria attack on their honeymoon in France in 1896, he “raved... speaking only in his native tongue and betraying no knowledge of who I might be. For hours I remained by his side watching the feverish glitter of his eyes... and listening to the meaningless phrases and lengthy speeches, not a word of which I could understand.|
Conrad describes a similar situation in his short story “Amy Foster.”
|1.||See Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. Elsewhere Chesterton said, “the early pages of the book are in particular astonishingly vivid.”(Charles Dickens, 1906) back|
|2.||The crisis in Doctor Strong’s marriage to Annie is caused by Uriah, who drops hints that Annie is unfaithful. One might compare Doctor Strong to Othello, Uriah to Iago, and Annie to Desdemona. back|
|3.||Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Vol. 2, Ch. 6, p. 698
Chesterton may have perceived the importance of the dummling in Dickens’ works. “The key of the great characters of Dickens,” Chesterton wrote, “is that they are all great fools. There is the same difference between a great fool and a small fool as there is between a great poet and a small poet. The great fool is a being who is above wisdom rather than below it.”
The novelist and critic George Gissing says that Mr. Dick “served a very practical purpose, that of recommending rational treatment of the insane.” I don’t deny this, but I think Mr. Dick also shows “the mind of the heart.” back
|4.||See “The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield,” by Gwendolyn Needham (Nineteenth-Century Fiction, September, 1954, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 81-107, jstor.org/stable/3044322). If I were to recommend one essay on Copperfield, it would be Needham’s. back|
|5.||Hardy also depicts the dark side of marriage. In an earlier issue, I said that Hardy’s Jude the Obscure depicts two men “who appear to die from flawed relationships with women.” Wikipedia says of Jude the Obscure, “From the original pairing of Arabella and Jude to their eventual reunion, Hardy depicts marriage as an oppressive social necessity, propelling the characters into a downward spiral of unhappiness.”
Kipling also depicts the dark side of marriage. The protagonist of The Light That Failed, Dick, tells Maisie, “We’ve both nice little wills of our own, and one or other of us has to be broken.” “It is not Maisie who is destroyed,” one critic writes. “Very early, by her unremitting preoccupation with her work, by the invincible coldness of her character, she succeeds in reducing Dick to a condition in which the erstwhile confident young braggart turns on her silently the ‘look of a beaten hound waiting for the word to crawl to his mistress’s feet.’ The degradation is total: deprived of all initiative in the relationship, Dick is allotted the feminine and subservient role.” Kipling’s understanding of the dark side of marriage couldn’t save him from getting into a marriage in which he himself was “deprived of all initiative.”
Tolstoy admired Dickens, especially Copperfield. He opens War and Peace with an unhappy marriage, a marriage that resembles the marriage of David and Dora. Tolstoy’s Prince Andrew treats his wife, Lisa, with “a cold and insulting politeness.” His father senses his unhappiness, and says, “One can’t un-marry.” Prince Andrew escapes his marital problems by going off to war. When he returns, Lisa dies in childbirth. Her expression seems to say, “What have you done to me?” Prince Andrew feels “guilty of a sin he could neither remedy nor forget.”(See Dickens the Novelist, by F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Ch. 2, pp. 39-41)
In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Hemingway depicts a troubled marriage that ends with the wife killing the husband. When I discussed Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I wrote, “‘Kilimanjaro’ contains many cutting remarks about Harry’s wife (Hemingway’s wife?): she’s a ‘rich bitch,’ Harry doesn’t really love her.... How did Hemingway’s wife feel about this story?”
The death of David’s mother makes David an orphan. There are numerous orphans in Copperfield, and in other Dickens novels; Edgar Johnson speaks of, “that long sequence of rejected children, fatherless or motherless... who move through almost all Dickens’ stories.”(Vol. 2, Ch. 6, p. 684) Does this reflect Dickens’ own feelings of abandonment when he was sent to the shoe-polish factory? back
|6.||Perhaps one reason for the popularity of Copperfield is that Dickens portrays young love through David and Dora. George Gissing writes, “Little Em’ly has, after all, but a subordinate part in David Copperfield. The leading lady is Dora. Dora is wooed, Dora is wed — the wooing and wedding of a butterfly. Yet it is Dickens’ prettiest bit of love.”
David realizes that all husbands discover that marriage is different from their romantic dream. But he also thinks there’s something special in his case, a special incompatibility between himself and Dora. He speaks of, “these two irreconcilable conclusions: the one, that what I felt was general and unavoidable; the other, that it was particular to me, and might have been different.... It would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner; and that this might have been, I knew.” back
|7.||Needham says that the undisciplined heart is selfish, not really loving. When Dora’s father dies, David doesn’t sympathize with Dora and the deceased; rather, he’s annoyed that Death has displaced him in Dora’s thoughts. Needham writes, “David’s confession of a ‘lurking jealousy of Death’ which pushes him out of Dora’s thoughts shows the instinctive selfishness of undisciplined love.” back|
|8.||This deep earnestness is what David himself has: “Whatever I have tried to do in life,” David says, “I have tried with all my heart to do well... whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely... in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.” David is earnest, committed, diligent; he could take as his motto the sea chanty that Dickens quotes: “A long pull, and a strong pull, and a pull altogether, my hearties, hurrah!” back|
|9.||Dickens’ public statement shows what a tumultuous time this was for him. “I most solemnly declare...” Dickens writes, “that all the lately whispered rumors touching the trouble... are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as willfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth.”
When David reflects on his marriage to Dora, he realizes that their incompatibility showed itself in many small ways: “I think of every little trifle between me and Dora, and feel the truth, that trifles make the sum of life.” back
|10.||Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Vol. 2, Ch. 6, p. 689
A letter from Dickens to John Forster may reveal Dickens’ attitude toward Kate. “Kate wants to know,” Dickens writes, “whether you have any books to send her, so please to shoot here any literary rubbish on hand.” Doesn’t this resemble David’s attitude toward Dora?
Dickens was probably a difficult man to live with, especially in his headstrong youth. Edgar Johnson says, “Dickens did not realize what a strain his furious energies, his wild alternations of exhilaration and gloom, and his tyrannical insistence on precision all put upon his wife and family.”(Vol. 2, Ch. 6, p. 689) back
|11.||These three categories — death of love, death by love, and death for love — are somewhat artificial. Dora’s death could be placed in any of these categories, or in all three. back|
|12.||George Gissing and other critics have mocked Dickens for his use of coincidence. Gissing writes, “When Steerforth returns to England from his travels with Emily, his ship is of course wrecked on the sands of Yarmouth, and his dead body washed up at the feet of David Copperfield, who happened to have made a little journey to see his Yarmouth friends on that very day.” When I read about Steerforth’s death, however, I was impressed by how Dickens had brought the various strands of his plot together. Dickens is often called a mediocre craftsman, but the average reader probably doesn’t notice flaws of craftsmanship.
Gissing also criticizes Dickens for the awkwardness of his conclusion, where Dickens brings back all his characters, even characters whom we haven’t seen in hundreds of pages, like Mr. Mell, the usher at David’s school. All the characters seem to be thriving.
Gissing says that Dickens was “humbly born,” and he became the spokesman of the growing middle class. Gissing thinks that Dickens wanted to improve his social status: “[Dickens] wore himself to a premature end in striving to found his title of gentleman on something more substantial than glory.” Was Dickens too eager for a large fortune and a large property? back
|13.||David says, “I get so miserable and worried, and am so unsteady and irresolute in my power of assuring myself.”
Some readers might ask, “How can David be a portrait of Dickens? David lacks self-confidence, but Dickens had a high opinion of his work, as you pointed out in a recent issue.” I would respond with three arguments, any one of which might meet the challenge.
|14.||This movement from love of an individual to love of mankind reminds me of Thomas Wolfe. In an earlier issue, I wrote, “Friendships are important to Wolfe’s hero, but they don’t last forever. One by one, the protagonist’s relationships collapse, and his focus gradually shifts from individuals to mankind as a whole.”
Needham says that we find personal growth even in minor characters like Mrs. Gummidge. “The calamity befalling the Yarmouth household,” Needham writes, “also disciplines Mrs. Gummidge, hitherto selfishly engrossed in her own misfortunes. Aroused by others’ sorrow, that ‘lone lorn creetur’ ceases moaning about ‘everythink going contrairy,’ feels herself needed, and becomes a cheerful prop to Mr. Peggotty in his affliction.”
Another minor character, Mrs. Steerforth, exemplifies lack of personal growth. She’s selfish and proud, and fostered those vices in her son, hence Rosa castigates her for her son’s misdeeds. Needham says that Mrs. Steerforth is “embittered” by grief, and feels “no compassion for others.” back
|15.||David’s maturity resembles detachment, as I described it in an earlier issue. back|
|16.||The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, Ch. 19 back|
|17.||The following anecdote shows Dickens’ tension, his attempts to “overmaster” his feelings, and how he was sometimes overcome by his feelings. The anecdote comes from his son Henry Fielding Dickens. Henry says that it’s “typical of a strange reticence on [my father’s] part, an intense dislike of ‘letting himself go’ in private life or of using language which might be deemed strained or over-effusive.... In the year 1869... I was fortunate enough to gain one of the principal scholarships at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.... I knew that this success, slight as it was, would give him intense pleasure, so I went to meet him... to tell him of it. As he got out of the train I told him the news. He said, ‘Capital! capital!’ — nothing more. Disappointed to find that he received the news apparently so lightly, I took my seat beside him in the pony carriage he was driving. Nothing more happened until we had got half-way to Gad’s Hill, when he broke down completely. Turning towards me with tears in his eyes and giving me a warm grip of the hand, he said, ‘God bless you, my boy; God bless you!’ That pressure of the hand I can feel now as distinctly as I felt it then, and it will remain as strong and real until the day of my death.”
This anecdote comes from Henry’s book, Memories of My Father. Perhaps Dickens was overcome with emotion because he was so thrilled that his son was succeeding at Cambridge, and thereby rising into the upper class. back
|18.||There was probably a feminine streak in Dickens. In my essay on genius, I argued that genius, especially artistic genius, usually has a feminine streak. back|