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
“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