Monday, January 19, 2015

Classic #1

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

I highly recommend this classic coming of age novel. The title character, himself a writer, narrates his life, from his birth until the achievement of his personal and professional maturity, as if he were writing memoirs with no intention to publish. Thus, the tone is introspective, rueful, nostalgic without being misty. As for the abundance, Dickens will be a writer who prefers to use two full pages to describe and report something that another writer would do in only a paragraph. But I found this copiousness to be perfect for a vacation-like read. In early January, courses have not yet stated so I can just settle into reading a lavish rich book of an evening and let all David’s adventures and misadventures go by.

To my mind, the profusion of detail contributes to making characters come alive. Dickens introduces readers to a large number of characters, some of these very eccentric, that are wonderfully drawn. Even the bit players – waiters, shopkeepers, carters and other caricatures – give off an almost pulsating life and fun.

Some post-modern readers may deplore Copperfield and his friends as unbelievable paragons of virtue, incapable of negative thoughts and liable to tears at any moment. See the too perfect Agnes. See the noble Dr. Strong. As for villains, they are cruel and wicked, without any redeeming features. See the monstrous Murdstone brother and sister not to mention Uriah Heep.

But I don’t think the characters are so uncomplicated.

First, the cad James Steerforth is endowed with great charisma and intelligence, able to move in the highest and lowest social spheres with the same will and desire that he brings to committing a despicable and inexcusable action, such as ruining a rebellious girl. He has self-knowledge too – he knows he’s not a bad person, but that he’s a guy that just does bad things. Really bad things, admittedly, but he’s not a monster, despite how the Peggotys and Ham eventually see him.

Second, Dora Spenlow acts like a pouty, empty-headed child. In an extremely funny scene, David urges her to take more responsibility to run the household, like “firm” Mr. Murdstone urged David’s childish mother. But she freaks out at such dreadful responsibility. She begs David to regard her as his child-wife, which to my mind shows she is well-aware of her deficiencies. She’s also canny enough to guess that David regrets that he ever married her.

Third, Mr. Dick is intellectually disabled, always scratching his head feebly or threatening to stand on one leg when stressed. He possesses, however, amazing emotional intelligence. By chapter 45 we can readily believe his own self-knowledge when he suggests to David that he is probably in a better position than anyone else to clear up the misunderstanding in the Strongs' troubled marriage:

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! Whoo!" He blew a slight, contemptuous breath, as if he blew himself away.

Best, Aunt Betsy Trotwood has both self-knowledge and plain sense. When David and she talk about the fallen woman:

'Poor Emily!' said I.

'Oh, don't talk to me about poor,' returned my aunt. 'She should have thought of that, before she caused so much misery! Give me a kiss, Trot. I am sorry for your early experience.'

David naively asks her for help in reforming Dora. She nixes his entreaty with:

'Trot,' returned my aunt, with some emotion, 'no! Don't ask me such a thing.'

Her tone was so very earnest that I raised my eyes in surprise.

'I look back on my life, child,' said my aunt, 'and I think of some who are in their graves, with whom I might have been on kinder terms. If I judged harshly of other people's mistakes in marriage, it may have been because I had bitter reason to judge harshly of my own. Let that pass. I have been a grumpy, frumpy, wayward sort of a woman, a good many years. I am still, and I always shall be. But you and I have done one another some good, Trot,—at all events, you have done me good, my dear; and division must not come between us, at this time of day.'

Aunt B. knows be be loved confers benefits. But loving somebody too helps.

She’s also a stoic. When brought to the subject of her property which has been embezzled by Uriah Heep: 'Well, sir,' sighed my aunt. 'All I have got to say about it is, that if it's gone, I can bear it; and if it's not gone, I shall be glad to get it back.’ As fellow stoic Peggoty said earlier in the novel, when David criticized Yarmouth, we have to take things as we find them.

I daresay more astute readers will get more out of David Copperfield than my austere and stoical take. But I guess that’s the point to big whacking novel like this one.

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