Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Michael5000 v. Dickens: David Copperfield

2012 Assessment: I don't believe I've had the pleasure.

Current Reading: I listened to an audio version, from Blackstone Audio I think.

You feel bad for the poor literature professors who have to try to pin down The Modern Novel, because whatever characteristics they try to tie to Modernism, the Victorians always got there first. Two Modern Novels I thought of while reading David Copperfield were, first, To the Lighthouse, which is notable for the way it handles the flow of time. The action in Woolf’s book takes place in two closely observed episodes, separated by a sudden rush of time in which much happens that we learn of only in telegraphic fragments. Copperfield has more episodes, they're more conventionally biographical, and the summarized gaps of time between them are less extreme, but the dilation of time is built into the story’s structure just the same.

Then of course there would have to be Ulysses, and the first of the many quirky things you learn about James Joyces’ tome is that it’s about a more or less ordinary guy going about his more or less ordinary life, with no immediately apparent traditional narrative arc. David Copperfield isn’t quite so free-form – it has several plot lines that progress through conflict to resolution, and has perhaps more denouement than is really good for it – but at the same time, it doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative arc. It’s difficult to say what the book is “about,” because it doesn’t have the central story line that most novels, of most periods, are built around. It’s really about a more or less ordinary guy going about his more or less ordinary life. It’s about David Copperfield.

The first thing to know about David Copperfield is that he’s a fellow who, like most men of sense, enjoys the company of women. Although he is not really aware of it, he is a guy with three girlfriends. And let’s be frank in our assessment: one of the girlfriends is toooo dumb, and one of the girlfriends is essentially toooo smart for her own good, as a Victorian woman; but, the third girlfriend is juuuust right! So you think you know what is going to happen, and then you get a bit of a shock when he goes and marries the numbskull. If you’ve read enough nineteenth century novels, you can recover from there and work out where things are heading.  If you haven’t, or if you were one of Dickens’ original readers, you might be on tenterhooks to figure out how the situation would be resolved. Or, you might not even recognize that there was a situation that needed resolving, due to that lack-of-an-immediately-apparent-traditional-narrative-arc thing I mentioned earlier.

David Copperfield is written (by Charles Dickens) as a first person account written by its subject, David Copperfield. Dickens is clearly in great sympathy with Copperfield – in the forward, Dickens calls Copperfield his "favourite child" – but it’s not always crystal clear whether the two of them are in perfect accord. This stood out for me in the case of Uriah Heep, ostensibly one of the villains of the piece. Heep is oily, low, scheming, and thoroughly disagreeable, and despite or perhaps because of this I found that I had a great deal of sympathy for his motives and respect for his cunning.

Copperfield does not share my partiality. Copperfield loathes Heep from the very moment he sets eyes on him, and hasn’t a kind word to say for him throughout. So the interesting question to me is, how did Charles Dickens feel about Uriah Heep? Was he enough in sympathy with his character David Copperfield that we can assume that Copperfield’s repulsion mirrors his own, the repulsion we are “supposed to” feel for Heep? Or, did Dickens intend for me to feel sympathy for Heep, and for me to regard Copperfield’s malice towards him as a humanizing character flaw in his hero?

I’d like to think the latter, as Copperfield could use a little humanizing. Like other Dickens novels that focus on the adventures of a single character, David Copperfield suffers a bit from looking at the world from the perspective of someone less colorfully drawn then everyone else in the story. In a novel populated by people with exaggerated mannerisms, vivid personalities, and axes to grind, Copperfield himself is a bit of a cypher: decent, earnest, capable, and bland. He’d be a good chap to have in your corner, but he's the least interesting guy in his own book. His inhibiting presence in every scene is probably what separates this very good Dickens novel from the real masterpieces.

Plot: David Copperfield is born, deals with an abusive stepfather, gets an education, makes friends, enters adulthood, and eventually sorts out his girlfriends.

Prognosis: Good stuff!

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 11/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.  On deck are Oliver Twist, Little Dorritt, The Old Curiosity Shop, and the Mystery of E

Second Opinion: The Guardian says it's the 15th best book in the English language.

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