Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Charles Dickens- David Copperfield

During undergrad, I had a Professor once say, “You either like Dickens, or you don’t.”  I definitely don’t think it is quite so cut and dry. I, for one, have a love-hate relationship with Charles Dickens and his works.

My aversion to Dickens began in High School, when we were assigned The Tale of Two Cities (1859). It was also during this time that we had to read The Christmas Carol (1843) at least three times—I’m not exaggerating in the least, and since then I have never been able to bring myself to re-read the work, nor watch any of the films. Here’s the thing with High School—I don’t think our teachers gave us the tools we needed to really appreciate the novels we were assigned; we focused on plot and completely overlooked analysis/background/historical information etc. As such, we often missed out on the significance of the work, and were left with just the story. And I don’t know about you, but for me, as a 15 year old teenager, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter didn’t resonate at all.

If you asked me if I liked any novels from High School I don’t think I could answer; I wasn’t able to enjoy reading any of them, and quite frankly, I’ve blocked the whole experience out of my mind. I’ve since re-read most of the works from the High School curriculum and let me tell you, it’s been a completely different experience. You should try it if you have the time.

In college, I was once again faced with reading Dickens. In an unlucky twist of fate, I was assigned to read Little Dorrit (1857) not once, but twice—during undergrad and then again while pursuing my Masters. I begrudgingly read it, and maybe  my preconceived notions were responsible, but I really hated it; actually, I can only remember how disturbed I felt with Arthur Clennam’s romantic obsession with Amy “little” Dorrit (all throughout the novel Dickens discusses how childlike she is in appearance and character, and well, if you know the story, you would understand my point). 

Now I’ve had people look at me in disbelief when I’ve expressed my ambivalence towards Dickens, “how can I possibly not like such a significant literary figure,” and to them I say that I find reading his novels a tedious affair. And although I do appreciate Dickens’ literary style which is at times comedic, clever, and engaging, I find it all to be a chore, and would much rather read George Gissing.

Honestly, go ahead and read Gissing’s The Nether World (1889), or The Odd Women (1893) and tell me what you think.

Anyway, I successfully avoided picking up another one of his novels until a couple of years ago, when I taught Bleak House (1853)—it is at this point in time that my attitude towards Dickens changed. As for the novel, I enjoyed parts of it—I really disliked Esther Summerson’s narratives, and thought the whole thing was about 200 pages too long.

This year I’ve had to teach David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861). As such, I thought it would be a good idea to document my feelings while reading these works, and share them with you. And although I’m not a huge fan of Dickens, I have no problem reading/teaching his novels—when I have to—and analysing them accordingly.

I will refrain from giving any background information, only because they were both written around the time Gaskell was writing her works—so if you are interested in a bit of history, just look at my post on North and South.

I have always found Dickens’ character sketches interesting and insightful (and one of the saving graces of his novels), especially in Bleak House. For this reason I will point out a few characters that stood out to me in both novels.

David Copperfield

Mr. and Miss Murdstone (the name itself suggests murderer, or any act of violence)
Dickens pointedly describes both characters as being dark, stern, and grave. Mr Murdstone is said to have a “shallow black eye,” and his “hair and whiskers were blacker and thicker.” Miss Murdstone is also unfavourably characterised:

...gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was. 
                                                                                    —Chapter 4

Their appearances mirror their personalities, and one has no choice but to hate them—especially after the episode where Mr. Murdstone beats little Copperfield. Honestly, in every scene that includes them, you can undoubtedly feel the darkness and oppression.

James Steerforth
Just a couple of things I would like to mention. Firstly, I found his character entirely self-absorbed, selfish, and on the whole, disagreeable. Secondly, there is a certain eroticism in Copperfield’s initial descriptions of him. Throughout the novel, Copperfield continually points out how “good-looking” and “handsome” Steerforth is, and how much he “admires and loves him.” And just to add to this a bit, consider the language in this passage:

There was an ease in his manner—a gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering—which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it. I still believe him, in virtue of this carriage, his animal spirits, his delightful voice, his handsome face and figure, and, for aught I know, of some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess), to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield, and which not many persons could withstand. I could not but see how pleased they were with him, and how they seemed to open their hearts to him in a moment.
                                                                                                  —Chapter 7

After I finished the novel I read a bit of criticism, and found this essay to be of interest—Oliver S. Buckton’s, “‘The Reader Whom I Love’: Homoerotic Secrets in David CopperfieldELH 64.1 (1997): 189-222. Although I do not agree with all of Buckton’s points, he does effectively discuss Copperfield’s “heterosexual desire” towards Steerforth. If you are interested in reading about male intimacy in David Copperfield, I suggest you read the essay.

Uriah Heep
Out of all of the novels I’ve read by Dickens, he is by far my favourite villain. And although the repetition of the phrase “I'm a very umble person” is tiresome, I think that’s precisely the point—we are supposed to hate him, and be annoyed by him.

Copperfield describes Uriah as “breathing into the pony’s nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, if he were putting some spell upon him.” And more than once Copperfield expresses his disgust at having to shake Uriah’s “clammy, cold, wet” and fish-like hand. But I think my favourite episode takes place after Uriah tells Copperfield that he plans to marry Agnes:

I never shall forget that night. I never shall forget how I turned and tumbled; how I wearied myself with thinking about Agnes and this creature; how I considered what could I do, and what ought I to do; how I could come to no other conclusion than that the best course for her peace was to do nothing, and to keep to myself what I had heard….
The poker got into my dozing thoughts besides, and wouldn't come out. I thought, between sleeping and waking, that it was still red hot, and I had snatched it out of the fire, and run him through the body. I was so haunted at last by the idea, though I knew there was nothing in it, that I stole into the next room to look at him. There I saw him, lying on his back, with his legs extending to I don't know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post-office. He was so much worse in reality than in my distempered fancy, that afterwards I was attracted to him in very repulsion, and could not help wandering in and out every half-hour or so, and taking another look at him. Still, the long, long night seemed heavy and hopeless as ever, and no promise of day was in the murky sky.
     When I saw him going downstairs early in the morning (for, thank Heaven! he would not stay to breakfast), it appeared to me as if the night was going away in his person. When I went out to the Commons, I charged Mrs. Crupp with particular directions to leave the windows open, that my sitting-room might be aired, and purged of his presence. 
                                                                                    —Chapter 25

Dickens’ characters have always been praised. and I think his descriptions of Uriah’s repulsive appearance and personality are by far the most interesting in his cast of characters. I mean, if you aren’t impressed and amused by the previous passage then, I’m sorry to say, that’s really unfortunate.

The Women:
Betsey Trotwood
The only strong female character in this novel, in my opinion anyway. Although her agency is undercut by her abusive, estranged husband, by the end of the novel her power is restored. I really enjoyed reading her parts, especially when she defends David when the Murdstone’s arrive to take him back.

Dora Spenlow
If you were wondering who the most ridiculous female character in the story is, it is Dora. She represents the dependent/subordinate/childish Victoria woman to a tee, and you can’t help but get annoyed with her incompetence. I always questioned David’s infatuation with her, especially because by the end he chooses to marry Agnes—Dora’s extreme counterpart.

Agnes Wickfield
Which turns my attention to Agnes, aka Angel, due to the religious imagery surrounding her character. Yes, I completely expected David to end up with her by the end of the novel, but that doesn’t mean I buy it. She is too perfect and understanding of a character to ever be relatable or even real, and their marriage is likewise unbelievable. Furthermore, the only admission of his love for Agnes, and I am referring to romantic love not sisterly love, is in the last chapters:

'Dearest Agnes! Whom I so respect and honour—whom I so devotedly love! When I came here today, I thought that nothing could have wrested this confession from me. I thought I could have kept it in my bosom all our lives, till we were old. But, Agnes, if I have indeed any new-born hope that I may ever call you something more than Sister, widely different from Sister!—' […]
     'Agnes! Ever my guide, and best support! If you had been more mindful of yourself, and less of me, when we grew up here together, I think my heedless fancy never would have wandered from you. But you were so much better than I, so necessary to me in every boyish hope and disappointment, that to have you to confide in, and rely upon in everything, became a second nature, supplanting for the time the first and greater one of loving you as I do!'
    Still weeping, but not sadly—joyfully! And clasped in my arms as she had never been, as I had thought she never was to be!
    'When I loved Dora—fondly, Agnes, as you know—'
    'Yes!' she cried, earnestly. 'I am glad to know it!'
    'When I loved her—even then, my love would have been incomplete, without your sympathy. I had it, and it was perfected. And when I lost her, Agnes, what should I have been without you, still!'
Closer in my arms, nearer to my heart, her trembling hand upon my shoulder, her sweet eyes shining through her tears, on mine!
    'I went away, dear Agnes, loving you. I stayed away, loving you. I returned home, loving you!'
    And now, I tried to tell her of the struggle I had had, and the conclusion I had come to. I tried to lay my mind before her, truly, and entirely. I tried to show her how I had hoped I had come into the better knowledge of myself and of her; how I had resigned myself to what that better knowledge brought; and how I had come there, even that day, in my fidelity to this. If she did so love me (I said) that she could take me for her husband, she could do so, on no deserving of mine, except upon the truth of my love for her, and the trouble in which it had ripened to be what it was; and hence it was that I revealed it. And     O, Agnes, even out of thy true eyes, in that same time, the spirit of my child-wife looked upon me, saying it was well; and winning me, through thee, to tenderest recollections of the Blossom that had withered in its bloom!
     'I am so blest, Trotwood—my heart is so overcharged—but there is one thing I must say.'
     'Dearest, what?'
     She laid her gentle hands upon my shoulders, and looked calmly in my face.
     'Do you know, yet, what it is?'
     'I am afraid to speculate on what it is. Tell me, my dear.'
     'I have loved you all my life!'
     O, we were happy, we were happy! Our tears were not for the trials (hers so much the greater) through which we had come to be thus, but for the rapture of being thus, never to be divided more. 
                                                                                    —Chapter 62

Quite a lengthy passage, but I think this encapsulates what I’m trying to say. I find it really hard to believe that the marriage is for love and not for convenience. Agnes has always loved David, and her love for him has been consistent and unwavering; but, I cannot say the same for David—especially when considering the way he speaks about Dora vs Agnes. In fact, this scene almost resembles one in Great Expectations, when Pip decides to ask Biddy to marry him, not because he loves her, but because it’s convenient—I won’t say anymore on this subject because I will discuss it in more depth next time. By the way, my students also expressed their doubts about the ending, and specifically of David’s marriage to Agnes.

All in all, I have to admit that I liked the first half of David Copperfield more than the second—in fact, I really struggled to stay interested after Chapter 45. Again, I think the novel could have been 200 pages shorter (just my opinion). Furthermore, I have couple of issues with the novel (which are also consistent with most of Dicken’s novels): romantic relationships seem unlikely and female characters aren’t fleshed out, especially in relation to their male counterparts.

I will end my discussion of David Copperfield with Federico’s assertion:

"Expressing, then, Dicken’s own emotional state, David Copperfield is also an intimate study of ambiguities, entanglements, and paradoxes of one of the most enduring legacies of liberalism: the conscious desire for happiness in one’s life, and the right to pursue it."
—Annette R. Federico, ‘David Copperfield and the Pursuit of Happiness’, Victorian Studies, 46/1 (2003), 70.

Although I didn’t discuss the pursuit of happiness, primarily because I opted to comment on the characters, it is an important theme. Does David attain happiness by the end of the novel? Yes. Do all the morally good characters attain their own happiness? Yes. And I think it’s because Dickens was trying to represent what would happen in an ideal world, if all the bad/good people were punished/commended for their moral characters. In this respect, the novel works.

In the next instalment I will discuss Great Expectations, a novel which I thoroughly enjoyed, and is actually my favourite of Dickens’ works.

And if anyone is interested in watching the films based on these novels, I suggest you watch the BBC versions of them.

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