Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011 (cbriii) #10 "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens

"Whether I should turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

It was these words, the opening sentence of David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens, and quoted in The Cider House Rules that first piqued my interest in this novel. I’m not a particular fan of Dickens, but I like to catch up on the Classics once in awhile. Even though the couple of Dickens’ books that I read as a child are not particularly memorable, I didn’t have any negative connotations, either. So, when fire academy started and I knew I wouldn’t have much time to read, I bought David Copperfield in order to avoid the annoyance of borrowing library books and then having to return them unread or half-read. And over six months later, I finally finished the novel.

I did not know anything about the life or story of David Copperfield before picking up the book—except my mind kept associating it with magic because of the other David Copperfield. Although it was not true in my case, I will assume that because David Copperfield is a classic, with movies and such all over the place, that anyone reading this review is familiar with the story. Thus, I am planning on discussing the entire thing, with numerous spoilers throughout.

David Copperfield’s story begins with his birth. His father is already dead, and his mother dies when he is still a child. Left in the guardianship of the gruesomely horrible Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Murdstone’s sister, David ends up at a factory in London before finding his Aunt, who gives him another chance at life. Interestingly, some of Copperfield’s story closely resembles what happened to Dickens during his life. Throughout the novel, Copperfield changes from a self-conscious, powerless and clueless youth to an assured and well-respected writer. The many characters surrounding him during his life, play out their own stories beside him, some of them more memorably than Copperfield himself. David marries his first love, Dora, the beautiful and sweet but impossibly na├»ve and foolish girl that appears to have never matured past the age of twelve. He becomes a successful writer and in the end marries his soul mate (after Dora conveniently dies of something conveniently unnamed).

I’m rather torn when it comes to this one, so let me start with the good. On the one hand, it is an established classic, loved by millions, and even Dickens’ favorite. There are parts of this book that I very much enjoyed and every once in awhile a turn of phrase or insight into someone’s character had me admiring it more than I expected. I also enjoyed some of the characters: although David Copperfield seemed to act condescendingly towards him at times, Traddles was one of my favorite characters—sweet and unselfish, with a strong backbone for knowing and doing what was right. The bad characters were also deliciously depicted, including: the Murdstones, Schoolmaster Creakle, and Uriah Heep.

I found that the beginning and very end of the book were the best parts. Dickens was at his best in making me feel sorry for the poor, lost kid without a mother trying to live all alone in London. The pure evil of the Murdstones and the injustice of their actions towards the innocent, young David stirred my emotions. I found his situation compelling until he was settled down and in a somewhat safer position.

I did have a number of issues with this book, however. There were a number of unbelievable coincidences that kept the plot moving. At times, it was preachy, melodramatic, and wordy. The plot often drifted along with an awful lot of honorable speeches but very little to keep me interested. When you think of this book being published a chapter at a time in a serial publication, its layout makes more sense. It often felt more like a rambling, episodic television series than a movie with a concrete beginning, middle, and end.

And the women! I think that’s what bothered me most about the book. Although there might be a couple of semi-real women in the book, most of the important ones were written as soulless caricatures. I realize this book was written long ago, and I try to remember the context as I read. But I just kept thinking about Jane Austen and how she wrote about the same time (a little earlier) and how much better her women characters were, how much better their stories were, and how much more I enjoyed reading her books.

I had the biggest problem with the characterization of Little Emily, Dora, and Agnes. Agnes is the perfect angel: intelligent, selfless, loving, and devoted. She is very good at hiding her own feelings, never makes a mistake, and is always perfect. Although Agnes was running a school before her marriage to Copperfield, apparently one of her favorite pastimes is sitting up late and watching him work. How rewarding! I only hope she was able to at least knit or talk to him as he worked because I cannot imagine anything more boring.

Dora, Copperfield’s first wife (“child-wife” as they call her), is a beautiful, giggly, frivolous thing incapable of ever changing no matter her circumstances. Her inability to grow in any way and Copperfield’s continued ignorance that they are wholly incompatible was incredibly frustrating. As soon as Copperfield married Dora, I knew she was destined to die young and very quickly. There was no way they would end up as a lasting couple, and Copperfield was way too honorable to get a divorce. Hence the very convenient and unnamed something that killed her, although I’m kind of offended that Dickens solved Copperfield’s poor marital choice with an easy death. It would have been much more interesting if Copperfield had to face the fact that he’d married the wrong woman and dealt with it.

And then there was “Little Emily,” a childhood crush of David’s, Emily is (ostensibly) intelligent, poor, and beautiful, but that’s really all we ever know about her. She is engaged to Ham, a cousin she grew up with, but I think she agreed to the marriage more from lack of options than anything. When Steerforth comes along and steals her away to Europe, it’s as if the world is about to end. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what bothered me most about this section, but I think it’s the combination of the assumed helplessness of Emily along with the shame. Copperfield so nobly feels very sorry for her, and especially for her poor uncle, and tries to help, but he never speaks to her again.

For hundreds of pages before Emily’s ruin, Copperfield not-so-subtly foreshadows Emily’s demise with melodramatic words such as: “There has been a time since…when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been.” The mystery of what would occur kept me reading for awhile, but when Emily finally runs off with Steerforth, I was disappointed. It could have been really dramatic, but the way Dickens wrote it made it feel like everyone was overreacting and being annoyingly pious. Again, different era, but when I compare it to a similar situation in Pride and Prejudice, Austen comes out on top: I was shocked when Lydia ran away and fully understood the ramifications for the family. In this book, Emily’s entire family loves her and will not kick her out. All this weeping and the complete lack of Emily’s perspective—by the time she’s found she’s barely even a character any more—just turned me off.

This is going on way too long for me to go into any more detail, but I also wanted to mention that Dr. Strong and his wife’s relationship also creeped me out.

But in the end, Copperfield finally realizes his soul mate has been in his life all along, and I have to admit the poetry and ardency of his feelings won me over. Sure, a real woman could never be like Agnes, but David’s reliance on her felt real. It’s interesting that Copperfield begins the book with talk of the hero of his life, but throughout the book his focus is always on friends and family. All of his successes in business and writing are mentioned but glossed over as seemingly unimportant. Dickens couldn’t write a satisfying woman character, but he did seem to be a romantic at heart. David Copperfield did not succeed in life until he discovered he loved Agnes and married her.

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