Posted by: erichosemann | December 20, 2009

Parting thoughts on David Copperfield

I enjoyed the book quite a lot.  On the edition I read, there’s a quote on the back from T.S. Eliot: “Dickens excelled in character; in the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings.”

I’m not qualified to say whether or not the intensity of Dickens’ characters exceeds that of real people.  I’ve known some colorful characters in my life.  I suspect a novelist is compelled to create larger than life characters to move drama along within the constraints of print.  Reality tends to even out “larger than life” characters because it is larger than a book.  I think the scales of Dickens’ characters are directly related to their function in moving the drama along.  The drama and the emotion of the story come not from the choices of the protagonist or his closest friends, but from those of secondary characters such as Emily, Steerforth, Micawber, and Doctor and Mrs. Strong.

Copperfield, his nurse Peggotty, Agnes and his aunt Betsy are all even-keeled characters who tend to make good choices though buffeted about by the whims of fortune.  Copperfield’s job as narrator depends on him being even-tempered and non-judgmental, though some of the most entertaining episodes involve his youthful indiscretion (see chapters 24, “My First Dissipation” and 33, “Blissful”).  Peggotty, Agnes and Aunt Betsy are sensible characters that ground Copperfield and return him to his senses after brief flights away.  Mr. Dick, the benign simpleton, makes no choices whatsoever, but steadies Copperfield nonetheless with his benevolence and good nature.

Steerforth was to me a creepy character.  I was put off by what I interpreted as his taking advantage of the young Copperfield.  Part of this might have to do with the hierarchy of a nineteenth century boys’ school, but Steerforth’s early behaviors gave away his future role in the novel of corruptor and user. When David received care packages from his mother and nurse, Steerforth always stepped in to claim his share; he abused whatever social privilege he had to demean a well-meaning and downtrodden teacher; one of his signal achievements was throwing a hammer at Rosa Dartle.  Even though Copperfield venerated Steerforth throughout the novel, I found myself thinking he was the principle villain.  Choices he made had a big impact on Copperfield life and those of his loved ones.  Steerforth’s presence made the novel rewardingly complex.

From what I’d heard of Uriah Heep before reading David Copperfield, I thought he would be one of the principal characters of the story.  After reading it, I think he was not quite a secondary character, though vividly drawn and certainly menacing; his presence helped to portray the strength of Copperfield’s character in starker relief.  Heep’s end came as no surprise to me, though the ideas Dickens used Heep to express at that end certainly did.

I’m glad I read the book, and as I’ve said before I can hardly believe I made it this far in life without having read Dickens.


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