Sunday, June 2, 2024

Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is incredibly 19th century: it is preoccupied with the need for the emancipation of women, the commodification of relationships under capitalism, the ever present threat of destitution and debt in a callous and selfish society, the salvation promised by emigration to the Colonies. These themes are explored from multiple angles, with similar beats striking the lives of two or three characters. Though each man charts his own path and can only rarely count on the goodwill of others, Dickens seems to suggest, the tragedies and heartbreaks of the modern era happen in every other household. Though his characters and readers might feel alone, they aren’t.

This novel’s ability to weave together so many plots and stories is perhaps all the more remarkable because it is told from a first person perspective from a single point of view. That one of the most compellingly explored themes is the plight of women in marriage is similarly surprising given our point of view character is male. David’s mother marries while legally an adult but emotionally still a child. She is widowed early and left nearly friendless, and struggles to adapt to her new life. Her second husband emotionally abuses her until she becomes an anxious shell of herself, and she dies of childbirth and depression. David’s step-father goes on to repeat this process with a second victim. 

As a young adult, David falls head-over-heels for Dora, ignoring every red flag about her lack of emotional maturity. David tries to encourage his wife to learn accounting and other practical household management tasks and become an intellectual partner to him, but Dora finds herself inept and ill-prepared for all such tasks and retreats into a child-like state void of responsibility. She asks David to call her his “child-wife”; “you should think of me that way,” she begs him. Their marriage is unhappy for both of them, and she dies of a miscarriage and depression.

One of the few independent women we see is David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She uses her comfortable fortune to support David’s education, and rescues Mr Dick, a neurodivergent man who would otherwise be sent to some institution and who she treats with the dignity and respect not typical of the era. But like David and his mother (and other unfortunate characters, like Emily, a lower class woman who ran off with upper-class Steerforth without a marriage), we eventually learn that Miss Betsey was also swept up in a “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.” She, however, wisely separated from her husband, a spendthrift.

These unhappy impulsive loves are contrasted with three positive marriages: David and Agnes, Miss Peggotty and Mr Barkis, Traddles and Sophy. In each case, the marriage is happy because the husband and wife contribute to the relationship as partners; the wife supports the husband’s professional endeavors and manages the household, the husband makes wise financial decisions and cares for the wife. It is the paragon of bourgeois notions of love.

Though this is a narrow prescription for romantic love, Dickens is far more flexible in familial configurations. The most warm and loving family is that of the Peggotties, an ensemble of orphaned children and the adults that care for them. David’s step-father and step-aunt are charged with his care, but are unloving and abandon him to factory work. He instead finds support and guidance in the home of his aunt and Mr Dick, and in his old nurse, Miss Peggotty. The family you make is more important than the one defined by the law.

Interestingly, while cross-class relationships David forms in his childhood stand the test of time, David ceases to form close relationships with the lower class as an adult. Perhaps this is unintentional (the book introduces nearly every character within the first quarter or so—David’s England seems to have a population of just thirty people), or perhaps it is a commentary on how the financial relationship between two adults precludes real friendship.

Throughout the story is an ever-present fear of being financially taken advantage of. Around every corner lurk scammers. As a child, a penniless David is scammed and swindled. As an adult, his servants steal from him and storekeepers overcharge him. The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Agnes’s father’s clerk, Uriah Heep, has defrauded him. Our characters also struggle to protect their finances from the cruel claws of the bank. Debt haunts David’s father figure Mr Micawber and Miss Betsey’s estranged husband. 

The optimization of profit over the well-being of others, the cruel and impersonal nature of law over individual charity are emphasized at each devastating tragedy. A suddenly penniless David begs his boss, Mr Spenlow, for part of his deposit to be returned to him, against the terms of their contract. Mr Spenlow sighs and says that of course he would love to be merciful but his partner Mr Jorkins “is not a man to respond to a proposition of this peculiar nature.” Mr Jorkins in turn blames Mr Spenlow's objections for his inability to return David’s money.

Although the world is lonely and selfish and dangerous, the book strikes an optimistic tone: the underhanded and insincere are punished (Heep, and Steerforth if forces of nature count as justice) and the hard-working and moral are rewarded (Traddles, Agnes, David, Pegotty). In true nineteenth century fashion, much of the hope for a better life exists in the Colonies: Emily and her family emigrate to Australia to escape the social shame of her elopement; Mr Micawber and his family emigrate to Australia in search of the stable financial existence they have failed to find in England; Steerforth’s butler Littimer had hoped to escape to America with his master’s valuables but instead is transported to Australia. (Similarly characteristic of the nineteenth century, the ills of settler colonialism and imperialism are not explored.)

The book was beautifully written; I loved the intricacy of the plotlines and the way they rhymed, the mix of humour and emotional sincerity, and the charming child’s perspective of adult concepts in the first act. But the hopes and fears explored in the book, its political pleas, all felt more of a time capsule than some other books I’ve read of the era. Elizabeth Bennett, Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre feel like kindred spirits in their struggles for independence and recognition and love despite our separation of centuries, David Copperfield and the David Copperfield cast read like empathetically-portrayed historical curiosities.

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