Monday, January 22, 2007

Thoughts on David Copperfield

(...the novel, by Charles Dickens, not the magician, whom I keep picturing as the protagonist.)

1. It's so optimistic, which is maybe an odd thing to say about a novel in which unpleasant things happen and so many people (in a couple cases perhaps needlessly) die. It was declared when David Copperfield was born by sage women in the neighbourhood that he was destined to be unlucky. This turns out to be not true. Which is maybe the optimistic point: we are makers of our own destiny no matter what circumstance we are born into.

2. Why, why, why does Daisy persist in seeing Steerforth in the most favourable light? When they first meet at school, Steerforth takes advantage of him, and David acquiesces to him. Steerforth has this charismatic hold on people, which we learn about more through the reactions of others than directly. (Dicken is much better at describing ugly than good.) David does tend to see the good in people and their potential and give them the benefit of the doubt, but this goes too far.

3. The women seem so much all the same. Even when they're silly, they're kind and good. And when they've been led astray, they're at heart kind and good. Through crusty exteriors, kind and good. Or they're just kind and good (Agnes is too good to be true; I kept confusing Annie with her). The kvetchy Mrs Gummidge is maintaining a facade; she is, of course, kind and good. Even the mothers of those despicable characters are guided by love for their sons. They are all unwavering constancy and devotion, to something or other. (Miss Dartle is loyal to the object of her love, to her own detriment; Miss Murdstone is loyal to her brother and their principles.) Kind and good, or at least devoted, is not a bad thing for women to be presented as being, but it's a bit boring, even if they are sometimes slightly disguised. Julia is perhaps the only exception, coming back from India shallow and passionless, but her fate is an afterthought and never examined. Betsy Trotwood has more dimensions than the other women, having a mysterious past, a strong will, and seeming independence, but she is, undeniably, kind and good.

4. Uriah Heep is one of the most delicious villains I've ever had the pleasure to encounter — not so much for what he does (plenty others have done far worse), or how he does it, but for his gloriously uncomfortable, writhing physicality. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to be rid of him.

5. Yes, I'd like some more Dickens, please. I read Tale of Two Cities in high school. I remember having turned all the pages of Bleak House shortly thereafter, but did not retain any of the story. There are other books by other writers I like better. But some people think Dickens is the best. I'm prepared to read more, to better understand why he's considered a master, before pronouncing a verdict.

That's 1 down (750 pages), 5 to go.


rachel said...

Yeah, the portrayal of woman is a bit of a weak point in his novels. If you want some women who aren't Kind and Good, however, I recommend "Great Expectations".

I haven't read them all -- may not even have read half -- but I love Dickens absurdly and can also recommend Hard Times and Nicholas Nickelby.

Tim said...

I'm kind of onboard with this reading-giant-books thing, except that I can't find enough that I want to read. I figured I'd just start reading one (Lucifer's Hammer) and dig for others as I go. We'll see how it goes.

Anywho, I was going to say that I often find Dickens' female characters lacking. I think Defoe did a better job in that department.

Martha said...

I agree about the kind and good thing-- you just want to shake them a and say something very 21st century like 'Own your power! Be a little mean and selfish! You're important too! Work on that self esteem! For God's sake, get a personality!' That said, Mrs. Jellyby was pretty much unsalvageable in Bleak House, but then, she was clearly the personification of Dicken's contempt for a particular sort of do-gooder. You're making me consider dipping my toe back into the realm of massive nineteenth century novels though. I still think about Bleak House after more than a year-- maybe that's the great thing about Dickens. His characters are so absolutely vivid that once in your head they will never leave you alone. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

LK said...

Good point about the women characters in David Copperfield. I think I was so caught up in the plot I didn't notice.

I think Dickens does a better job with his female characters in Bleak House.

Isabella said...

The women do come off as secondary, which is fine — not all characters can be central. I don't want to make sweeping generalizations based on my sample of one novel, but I couldn't help but wonder if he could get away with the somewhat shallow characterization these days.

It did strike my that Dickens treats all these women with a lot of compassion. (Maybe this is why Doris Lessing thinks he'd be good in bed.)

One point I neglected to mention: how Dickens does away with Dora's father is a bit of a cheap trick for the sake of convenience. (Tolstoy did it too (Elena in War and Peace).) Although, it's hard to see how things could progress any differently — all the deaths are ultimately necessary, the only right resolution to the characters' roles.

danielle said...

Now I want to read David Copperfield. I want to read something by Dickens anyway. I have only read A Christmas Carol and that is so short, does it even count? I just noticed you are/were reading Queen of the South--did you like it?

Laura said...

Well, Dickens didn't make all the women in Martin Chuzzlewit kind and good. The Pecksniff girls are spiteful and bicker constantly and jockey for position as the sister most admired/desired by young men. Mrs. Lupin is nice, but she also seems kind of earthy - a "squeeze" maybe. And Mrs. Gamp is a boozy, gossippy midwife/nurse, who doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, but isn't mean-spirited, either. I do love Dickens's books, but I think some are more appealing than others. Great Expectations and Oliver Twist weren't favorites of mine, but Bleak House, Barnaby Rudge, and Dombey and Son were.