I have read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield for the first time. I am sorry that I waited so long. This novel, despite its flaws, is enjoyable, meaningful, artistic is one of the most famous books ever written and has had a great cultural impact.
This is a chronicle of the fictional David Copperfield’s life. It follows him from his earliest infancy through adulthood. It is the story of self-awakening, education, abuse, emotional turmoil, friendship, love and a lot more.
Born after the death of his father, David is left with a mother who loves him, but is terribly weak and who allows her new husband Edward Murdstoneand and Murdstone’s sister Jane, to abuse him. Eventually his mother also dies, and David endures years of physical and emotional abuse and neglect until he escapes to the safety and protection of his eccentric, but benevolent aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Though the years David encounters various interesting and colorful characters ranging from the saintly to the downright evil. He experiences love, difficulty in love, as well as tragedy and death. At the heart of this book is the central love story focusing upon the decades long relationship between David and his childhood friend, Agnes Wickfield.
So much can be said about this work, and volumes have been written about it. As I often do, I will focus upon just one small part of this story.
Dickens is sometimes criticized as being one dimensional and superficial. In the past I have had similar impressions. Though I see more to his writing, I also believe that these views are not completely unfounded. Though his characters are marvelously fun and amusing, some can be described as simplistic caricatures.
With Dickens however, there is more then meets the eye. In the psychology of his characters, his plot, his themes, and his prose, there seems to be underlying manifestations of complicated things. I want to devote a few words to what seems to be something sinister integrated into Dickens’s reality.
There is something dark lurking behind many corners of the Universe built by Dickens in this work. Of course the book is filled with pernicious characters who do all sorts of terrible things. As a result good people suffer. But it gets a little more complex. It seems that Dickens might be saying that such evil is built into reality. I think that this is exemplified by certain descriptive passages.
Take the below description of a very run down London neighborhood,
“The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which— having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather— they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year's handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout;”
The first thing that strikes me about the above passage is its rhetorical power. Dickens was a great describer of people and things. His greatness was not in realism; instead he was at his best when describing highly exaggerated, almost dreamlike depictions of reality. These descriptions ranged from joyful, to sad. But when these depictions were dark, as they are in the above passage, they resemble nightmares.
Here we have prose that exudes death and despair. Dickens presents us with a human made wasteland scattered with the monsters of industrialization. This is an amazing representation of Industrial Revolution nihilism. I think it is important, that the one vestige of human connection, houses, were never completed and are now abandoned. Even the printed material concerns itself with death. The slime and growth being compared to green hair is a horrifying touch.
As there is in reality there some mystery to evil, some horrors are apparent and some are not, as some of the objects have partially sunk into the ground, obscuring their nature.
Is the allusion to the prison symbolic of how life can be a prison for some people? Certainly many of Dickens’s characters find themselves trapped in terrible situations.
The rumor of a mass grave originating from the plague years only adds to the gloominess and the reminder of the inevitability of death.
The above is clearly a critique of industrialization that is worthy commentary in its own right. But I think that this and similar scenes in this novel are trying to illustrate something dark that is woven into the Universe.
There are other hints regarding this darkness. For instance, Mr. Dicks, an eccentric but oddly wise character, is haunted in his daily life by thoughts of King Charles I, whose historical murder seems symbolic of something very wrong in the Universe. There are many other instances in this novel where this darkness is explored in all sorts of ways. I think that Dickens goes a little beyond a simple good verses evil comparison. Instead this perniciousness seems to be embedded into the Universe in a way that is not completely able to separate from good.
There seems to be an antidote to this darkness. Dickens was fascinated by, and advocated for human kindness and empathy. When his characters display these positive traits, it seems to be an effective counterpoint to the darkness. At one point Martha Endell, a young women who has fallen into disrepute, declines an offer of money in exchange for providing assistance to David’s friend Emily, who has fallen into terrible straits. Though in need of this help Martha declines it.
'I could not do what I have promised, for money,' she replied. 'I could not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be to take away your trust, to take away the object that you have given me, to take away the only certain thing that saves me from the river.”
The above reference to the river seems to have double meaning as Martha has alluded to suicide and death in the water. It also seems to have a metaphorical meaning, as the part of the Thames that runs though industrial London also seems to represent the maleficent force in he Universe.
This darkness inherent in creation is presented in a complex way and appears throughout the novel in the characters, plot, as well as other descriptive passages. I find that the above passages to be very aesthetically effective descriptions of this wicked influence. The book is filled with interesting explorations on this subject. This is just one of many reasons that David Copperfield deserves its reputation as an all time classic.
I like how you've homed in on a specific aspect of this novel. I tend to shy away from reviewing the classics as it can be hard to find something new and interesting to say, but you've found a good angle here. That quote is very visceral.
Hi Jacque - What you allude to is indeed an issue that I do struggle with when writing about famous and classic books. As as see blogging, to some extent, as just talking about books over the internet, I figured that sometimes, it works to just find something to talk about.
I like what you said about Dickens's depiction of characters, i.e. not being realistic and the criticism of them being caricatures. For me the characters being caricatures has never been a problem as they aren't one-dimensional or simplistic. They may be caricatures but simplistic they ain't.
I keep meaning to read Bleak House. Which one would you want to read next?
It sounds as if you truly enjoyed this classic work. I have only read parts of David Copperfield. I'm thinking I need to read the whole book before too long. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph!
Hi Jonathan - That is the interesting thing about Dickens. His characters seem flawed are not realistic but they are also not stereotypes.
This one and Bleak House are so close. Bleak House was more complex but I found this more enjoyable. I guess David Copperfield by a nose. However, you cannot go wrong with either.
Thanks for your kind words Suko.
i did enjoy this book. If you read it soon I would live to read your thoughts on it.
I know that in some quarters what I'm about to say is sacrilege, but I cannot stand this writer. I think partly this is due to my secondary school being named after the author & the fact I was raised in the town where Bleak house resides, meant that his history & works were forced upon me from many angles & I have not recovered from this. My wife was born about 30 miles away & loves this writer.
Great commentary on one of my favorite novels. Your focus on a specific aspect of the novel is fascinating although it suggests a darker view of the novel than I have ever taken. I relish the many comic moments, like David's attempt to "form" Dora's mind by reading Shakespeare to her without much success.
While this is my personal favorite among Dickens' novels (for many reasons) it is not his best which would come with later works like Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.
This is a big and complex book and there is defiantly much light thrown on to the better aspects of the Universe too.
I liked this a little better then Our Mutual Friend or Great Expectations. Perhaps because there was more of Dickens doing all the distinctive "Dickens like " things in this one.
Hi Gary - Your comment made me laugh.
I can see how having Dickens shoved down ones throat might make one adverse to Dickens.
I have actually run into a lot of people who do not like Dickens, partially because of the odd nature of his characters and plots.
Earlier this year, somewhere in the midst of loving Barchester Towers, I said I would never read another Dickens novel until I'd read everything Trollope had written. Now I've backed away from that stance and am questioning whether the two should even be so closely compared. David Copperfield will be my next Dickens, though I'm not sure when that will be.
Hi JoAnn- I think that Trollope wrote 47 novels so that might take awhile!
Though I have spent some time pointing out the differences there are also many similarities. I do think that Trollope and Jane Austen are a better comparison. I find the two very similar. As much as I loved this book I like both Austen and Trollope better then Dickens.
If you read this I would love to read your thoughts on it.
(Oh, typos!! Not happy with that.....so down the comment goes! Lol.)
I believe I read part of this novel years ago, and never finished it. The sheer size must have daunted me, I do want to go back and read it properly, as this is one of Dickesns's most popular novels, from what I've heard.
I'm so interested in this book, I even have 2 or 3 editions of
Now I have to buckle down and read it, so that I can compare notes with you!
Thanks for the typically awesome review!! : )
Hi Maria - It is a big book. I have been reading a lot of those lately.
I think that you will love this novel. I am having trouble deciding if I like this or Bleak house better.
I bet you have some nice editions of this book.
I've only read half of the book. But, I kind of felt like there was scary music playing in the background. I was always waiting for the next bad thing to happen. I really like your commentary. I must read more Dickens!! My daughter loves him.
Hi Heidi - It is so interesting that you say that. I bad the same feeling for much of the book. One bad thing seems to happen after another, and the bad things were really bad.
My illustration of some of the dark things that I think Dickens i=s dredging up seem to add to this.
With all that it doers get better in the last third. Despite his ability to be gloomy, Dickens does see some light in the Universe and it eventually exhibits itself here.
I haven't read this book in many years but I remember enjoying it very much. I like how Dickens uses a well-used strategy of many authors -especially of that day, not so much today- of first bringing the protagonist through dark valleys before taking them into the light. That's how I saw David Copperfield's plight. First he is horribly abused by his step father then shown love by his Aunt. She becomes his protector and defender. There is something satisfying in reading that.
I agree with you that there is definitely evil in the world. But I also know there is light and that it is stronger as is shown in Dickens' story as well as many others. Take care!
Hi Sharon - Indeed, one senses that David needed to go through the years of abuse and darkness in order to get to the light. One does have a sense of him emerging when he finally arrives at his aunt's. I remember feeling such a great sense of relief at that point in the narrative. I think that Dickens intended it that way.
Thanks for the great comment!
I've been planning to read another Dickens some time soon, and already had one picked out (Our Mutual Friend), but thanks to your commentary here may revisit David Copperfield. It was a seminal book for me, as it was the first "real" novel I read when I was a kid. I'd be interested to reread it now as an adult.
I agree that Dickens's world is mostly dark, shot through with rays of light and goodness. There's no doubt in my mind that most of what he wrote was autobiographical and cathartic. The world into which he was born and lived was hard, dark, grimy and dangerous, but he worked his way into the light and really helped to change that world with his words.
I absolutely loved the scene you quoted with Martha refusing payment for helping to find Emily--I think it's one of the bit little scenes in the book.
Interesting review--there is so much to think about and write about with regards to DC, but you honed in on one of the best facets of his work, his depiction of the world in which he lived.
I haven't read this myself (yet). Currently I am reading fiction for a change, a fun change!
As a poet, I love the deeply complex, living imagery he painted with the highlighted passage. It's incredibly rich, earthly, smelling of decay and lost dreams. I was especially taken with this one piece:
"they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves"
Thanks, Brian, for this review - maybe it's time I read this classic myself!
Hi Scott -
I read Our Mutual Friend about a year ago. It was really good. I do like this one better however.
Either way you cannot really go wrong.
Hi Jane - He did see the good. When characters did act virtuously he through so much emotion and sentimentality into it. It seemed to mean a lot to him as the scene with Martha illustrates.
I agree that his work did help the world improve. Hr not only shed light on injustice and suffering, but I think that he gave us new ways to think about such ills as well as their remedies. Everyone instantly understands if a person is referred to as a "Scrooge"
Hi Kate - Thanks for stopping by.
Dickens prose was indeed so poetical at times. He sill lapse into these descriptions at times, and they are a wonder to read.
If you read this one I would love to know what you think.
Brian, if I read it, I'll do my best to connect with you about it :)
What a great analysis. His characters did seem like caricatures to me when I read my first Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, especially the wicked villainous Daniel Quilp. As I read more of his books, I noticed the exaggeration serves a purpose. I love your views on Dickens' darkness and in contrast, empathy and that passage describing industrialization. I will add this interesting book to my wishlist. :)
Thanks for the good word Priya.
In a funny way, as is the case with the exaggerations, Dickens's weaknesses are his strengths.
Out the Dickens's novels that I have read. This one and Bleak House are my favorites so I highly recommend it.
Great review, Brian. Dickens can be really dark, I remember Hard Times, that was a depressing book to read. I have Our Mutual Friend but the size of it it's daunting. One of the good things about Hard Times was that it was short. I don't know if I could take bleakness for hundreds of pages. I'd rather have pure horror.
It's interesting to see what details captured your attention - the surroundings are just as important as the characters and they seem to blend rather well with the tone of the novel.
Another book belonging to my mam that now resides on our shelves ..... I SHALL get around to reading it one day. A great post as always. Thank you for once again opening my eyes to a books potential.
Brilliant comment on this one Brian and great to hear that you found it so interesting. This one is on my to be read list and I'm looking forward to it. Hope all's well.
Thanks for the good word Delia. Hopefully I have not misrepresented this book. I did choose to focus on a dark undercurrent here. The early chapters were dark as well. With that, there is a lot of optimism as well as virtuous characters in this work.
As I recall Hard Times had a bleaker plot throughout.
The darkness of some of the descriptions combined with some of the bleaker aspects of the plot and characters are what leads me to believe that Dickens was talking about something ingrained in the Universe.I do not think that Dickens was saying that this perniciousness was the dominant force in the Universe.
I think that you would really like this book.
Hi Lindsay! Things are good.
I think that you also would like this one. I know few folks who read it and did not.
My favorite part of a Dickens story is usually the eccentric characters, like the aunt here, but I also like how you highlight his dramatic flair and the complex depictions of darkness and the wastelands of the Industrial Revolution.
Though Dickens isn't a writer I'm really drawn to, I plan to read (maybe later this year) Dombey and Son (which from what I've read about it also has themes of child abuse and the disruption/destruction to communities from the Industrial Revolution, particularly the building of railroads).
Hi Hila - I agree that Dickens greatest strength lies in his characters. I choose to go this way in this post so much has already been written about them that I wanted to do something different. I should really do another entry on this book since this one was relatively narrow.
I have not read Dombey and Sons. L look forward to reading what you think of it.
Thanks for the heads-up about the spoilers, Brian. I didn't read your review because I prefer knowing as little as possible about a book I haven't read but plan to. I had no idea this was also a play. I'll make sure to check and get the book when I decide to read it.
Hi Delia - I suspect that your comment pertains to my post on the The Penelopiad. As there is a lot of verse and singing it kind of made sense to produce a theatrical version of the work.
Silly me, it was about The Penelopiad, I don't know how I got here. :)
I'd like to get to David Copperfield sometime. I really loved Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Dickens is a wonder, such wonderful characters.
Hi Susan - Thanks for stopping by. I thought Great Expectations was a great book. I have not read Oliver Twist but I want to.
Out of the Dickens novels that I have read, this and Bleak House are my favorites.
I think that His characters will be forever remembered.
I've read the first part of this as a teenager and loved it. I'm glad you shared some quotes. His descriptions are terrific. I'm not tempted to read Oliver Twist but this sounds like a book I would love.
I would say some of his characters are complex caricatures. He magnifies some traits - distorts the charcaters but they are never one-dimensional. Waht do you think?
This is another classic I have sitting on my shelves, along with Great Expectations. The passage you shared about the London neighborhood does have a nightmarish quality. I think London during the Industrial revolution was a fascinating time to read about.
Great commentary as usual.
Hi Caroline - I actually have not read Oliver Twist. This one and Bleak House are my favorite Dickens out of what I have read.
Dickens's characters are indeed a wonder to read about. I like your description, not realistic but also not simple.
London at that time was fascinating. I think that many would agree that Dickens's descriptions are the best.
I like that you used the word nightmare as I find Dickens's novels in general, to be dreamlike.
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