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.
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