David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens

Review by Edward Tanguay
April 12, 1997

This book was cartoony, silly, and reading it was like looking at Norman Rockwell art for 20 hours. It seemed chunky in the sense that each chapter had its own entirety (he published this book as a series I believe) but by the end (and what a relief to be at the end) it had a certain wholeness with no genius involved--just a long story of David Copperfield in England. It's Victorian through and through, expressing all the values of the time (although the love triangle among David, Dora, and Agnes was refreshingly nonstandard).

Was this book melodrama or realistic? It was far too melodramatic for as long as it was--one can't stomach that much. Take for example this typical, vapid description of Dora:

She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was--anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.

That kind of writing gets to be a bit much. Ugh. And the numerous improbable circumstances and the lack of reference to specific events of the day or of specific literature or historical events brings the story into a type of fairy land. But on the other hand, Dickens participates in a little social criticism regarding schools and the treatment of children which can be seen as a reflection of his society.

I liked the relationship that David had with his mother. She seemed to be the most loving and gentle creature, yet also a bit confused and not very world wise. It was an interesting combination for David to grow up under: extreme love with an impractical view of the world.

This story has everything a life's story should: puppy love, romance, friendship, betrayal, death, family ties. You see as characters grow up as children, develop, form relationships, meet each other after long years, experience their family members dying, and reflecting on their lives when they are older. Yet the book is also peculiarly lacking in philosophical reflection. You don't meet genius in this book (as you do in Tom Jones for instance.) Dickens seems to be writing for children throughout the whole book, yet his social criticism shows through:

In a school carried on by sheer cruelty, whether it is presided over by a dunce or not, there is not likely to be much learned. I believe our boys were, generally, as ignorant a set as any schoolboys in existence; they were too much troubled and knocked about to learn; they could no more do that to advantage than any one can do anything to advantage in a life of constant misfortune, torment, and worry.

There was a smattering of humorous situations such as Mr. Dick's constant advice, Barkis' plea that "Barkis is willing", Micawber's officially scripted letters, and Dora's disastrous cooking and her attempts at maintaining a household. Nothing was extremely funny (as situations could get in Tom Jones!) but you found yourself grinning from time to time. Again, this book doesn't really seem targeted at an adult audience. I could imagine it well being adapted into a long cartoon show.

The descriptions of Uriah Heep were priceless. Dickens doesn't let go of this character, like a dog tugging with a towel. He just won't stop making this character the most repulsive person you could imagine:

I observed that his nostrils, which were thin and pointed, with sharp dints in them, had a singular and most uncomfortable way of expanding and contracting themselves--that they seemed to twinkle instead of his eyes, which hardly ever twinkled at all.

(while Uriah is sleeping in the next room) 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.

Once in a while, Dickens would land a nice, sharp description of another character, as here with Miss Murdstone:

. . . 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 like a bite.

Dickens also has a gift for describing the merry poor, the families who existed on the edge of society and made life rich with their accents and personalities and liveliness. The description of the Peggoty family all the way through gives you a good insight into the poor yet content English family of that time.

The book also seemed very personal; seemed as though each episode was tied to a situation in the memory of Charles Dickens. I'm sure he used people he knew to write these characters. I believe Dickens was able to live a parallel life by writing David Copperfield in which he wrote his life exactly how he wanted it, changing those elements which he wanted to change in his own life--and of course with a happy ending. His solutions he found for his stories and sub-stories in this novel where mostly "easy way outs" and uninteresting--the Peggoty's solve their problems by sailing off to Australia and prospering, Heep ends up in prison, David gets Agnes after she has been conveniently waiting for him her whole life, and blah blah happy happy happy. This book is just a story. It's Victorianism with the volume turned up.

Edward Tanguay

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