Fiction > Harvard Classics > Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Criticisms and Interpretations > V
Charles Dickens. (1812–1870).  David Copperfield.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
V. By W. Teignmouth Shore
THE PLOT of “David Copperfield” is faulty, it is divided between the actions of two sets of characters, who fundamentally have no connection with or bearing upon each other. David is a forced connecting link between his own affairs and those of Steerforth, the other “leading young man” of the tale; David affects his friend not a whit or his career, and though he states the opposite, is not in reality affected by him. To put it another way, instead of the incidents of the plot centring round the hero, they centre round two heroes, there is as it were an attempt to draw a circle with two centres, the result being no circle but an aimless meandering. Or yet a third view can be taken: Dickens has endeavored to write one novel with two plots, the result being a distracted interest, which should not be, or rather never is, the case with a properly constructed story. “Tom Jones,” it has been said, has a perfect plot, the incidents develop naturally; so does the character of the central figure, round which all the incidents and personages cluster.   1
  The two plots in “David Copperfield” are these. First the life and adventures of David himself, his childhood, his unhappy life after his mother’s second marriage, his misery in the wine merchant’s office in London, his flight to Dover to seek his aunt, Betsey Trotwood, his education in Canterbury, his coming to town and his work at Doctors’ Commons, his first marriage—with Dora—his struggles to earn fame and fortune as a man of letters, the death of Dora, his gradually awakening love for and marriage with Agnes, the good angel of the story. The second plot, in no way bound up with the first, is concerned with James Steerforth, the spoilt son of a proud widow, the seduction by Steerforth of Little Em’ly, the search for the latter by Mr. Peggotty, the affecting story of Ham’s unhappy love, and Steerforth’s death by drowning. It is curious that the first plot is simple, natural and true, the second is not only badly handled, but many times trenches on the preserves of melodrama.   2
  Steerforth seems to us a total failure in so far as the author’s aims are concerned; for he set forth to portray a young man of brilliant parts and of irresistible fascination, but succeeds only in drawing a pretentious young prig and snob. Instead of realizing and sharing the fascination which Steerforth has for David we ask ourselves again and again as we read the chapters: “What could David have seen of charm in this insufferable young puppy?” Mrs. Steerforth, James’s unfortunate mother, lacks vitality; she moves, but in no human manner, she speaks, but with no human voice, she is a puppet from doll-land. Then there is that astonishing figure of a woman, Rosa Dartle; at first she is rather impressive, but after we have learned to know her catchwords and accustomed gestures, she is alive no more. Then turn to the group at Yarmouth, Steerforth’s connection with which forms the motive of the second plot. The only quite successful figures in this party are Ham, the stalwart, wholesome young fisherman, who loves Little Em’ly, and Mrs. Gummidge, whose cantankerous, dismal humours are highly entertaining, and whose eventual conversion to good-nature and unselfishness is very natural; who can forget, and, remembering, not laught at her “I’m a lone, creetur’ myself, and everythink that reminds me of creeturs that ain’t lone and lorn, goes contrairy with me”? Perhaps Mr. Barkis, the carrier, should be added to these two, if for no other reason, on account of his immortal remark, “Barkis is willin.” Mr. Peggotty, on the other hand, seems to us a failure, he is so very obvious; therefore true to life, it may be argued. But Dickens meant him to be a heroic and pathetic figure, he does indulge in heroics, his pathos somehow is not contagious, and his wild-goose chase for Emily is a too fantastic undertaking for one who is meant to be a hard-headed if soft-hearted man. As for Little Em’ly, she is, to use a stage term, a stock character; we all know the virtuous, innocent-minded, wronged maidens of melodrama. Little Em’ly is one of them. Here it is easy enough to see where the fault lies; Dickens has not shown us Em’ly tempted but only Em’ly fallen; we are not made to realize the growth of her infatuation for Steerforth, and occasionally the horrid thought crosses the reader’s mind that the girl is a bit of a minx and that she does not altogether deserve the love and devotion lavished upon her. The finest thing in this section—for section it is—of “David Copperfield” is the description, so admired by Ruskin, of the storm in which Steerforth is drowned, by stagey coincidence, on the scene of his villainy…. Here is a tragic background, but the figures before it do not arouse our emotion; Dickens could paint nature in her tragic moods, but men and women seldom.   3
  We will now turn to the main plot, the concerns of David himself. Of his childhood the pictures are very pleasing, sentimentality—always a temptation to Dickens—is avoided, and there is plenty of fun with nurse Peggotty and Mr. Barkis. David’s mother is not in herself interesting; she is a flabby, pretty person, faithfully portrayed, but none the less dull. As readers of the story know, David’s early years are made wretched for him by his mother’s second husband, Edward Murdstone, and his sister Jane. In drawing characters with whom he was in heartfelt sympathy, Dickens was liable to overcharge his brush with colour; the same was true of him with characters that he disliked. The resulting over emphasis led to failure, as in the case of the Murdstones, who rouse in the reader no feeling of dislike, for we do not dislike mere phantoms. Leaving his home in undeserved disgrace, David goes to school at Salem House, on his way meeting that delightful waiter William, who showed such a capacity for beer, chops, and batter-pudding. At school, where he is from the first saddled with a bed name, David makes the acquaintance of Steerforth, and of the bullying Mr. Creakle, who need not detain us, also of Traddles, one of Dickens’s delightful “innocents,” wholly natural and lovable. Then comes the death of David’s mother, and his “advent” at ten years old, a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone and Grinby, wine merchants in Blackfriars; which episode in his life is even in detail the autobiography of Dickens’s own boyhood. Here David meets with one of the world’s most famous men, “a stoutish, middle-aged person, in a brown surtout and black tights and shoes, with no more hair upon his head (which was a large one, and very shining) than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face…. His clothes were shabby, but he had an imposing shirt-collar on. He carried a jaunty sort of a stick, with a large pair of rusty tassels to it; and a quizzing-glass hung outside of his coat—for ornament, as I afterwards found, as he very seldom looked through it and couldn’t see anything when he did,” Mr. Micawber, who stands above the need of praise. This character alone would make Copperfield immortal; to produce a miniature portrait of this prince of happy-go-luckies would be impossible; Dickens has drawn him at full length; he lightens up the scene whenever he appears, and though we are always laughing at him, in the end we part with him with sincere regret as at the loss of one for whom we have more than a sneaking affection.   4
  Driven to despair, David bethinks him of his aunt Miss Betsey Trotwood, and sets forth to find her at Dover, where he knows she has her residence. Miss Trotwood and her loyal friend and ally, Mr. Dick, who cannot get away from the head of Charles I, are a delectable couple, without one touch of caricature, a pair of amazing eccentrics, drawn with the deftest skill. Then we come to the days at Canterbury, where David once more goes to school, where he meets with Agnes, whom he eventually marries, with her father, who is somewhat of a bore, and with Uriah Heep. Heep and his mother have always seemed to us overdrawn, their slyness and ’umbleness would surely never have deceived even the most innocent; Dickens hated them and overstated his case, the result—as pointed out already in other instances—being lifelessness; Uriah is a type, not a man. Among the pleasant folk at Canterbury are the old schoolmaster, Dr. Strong, and his young wife, Annie; and among the unpleasant, “Mrs. Strong’s mama”—Mrs. Markleham, the “Old Soldier,” like Uriah a trifle overdone.   5
  Agnes appeals to our admiration, to our judgments; Dora to our pity, to our hearts, even though there be some who can find it possible to despise her. Dora is a wonderful piece of work, perfect in every detail; so pretty, so helpless, so childlike; she lives for us, we feel that we have met her in the flesh, we forget that she is an imaginary portrait. We know of few more affecting things in imaginative literature than the description of Dora’s gradual fading away from life.… Agnes is cold, not of this earth; an angel rather in woman’s form, not an angelic woman. We long, as we grow intimate with her, to find her losing her temper or showing some of that pretty contrariety which so becomes a woman. Her perfection is exasperating, and we almost believe that David must have repented of his bargain, found Agnes to be a trifle of a prig and not a little of a bore, and looked back with ever keener regret to his child-wife, with all her little follies, her shortcomings and her sweet lovableness.   6
  In this one book we have a representative work of Dickens’s art, which enables us to criticise his worth and to judge his weakness. We have noted the weakness in the arrangement of the tale, the presence of two distinct plots, only joined together by the small part that David played in the second of them. We see Dickens at his worst in such characters as Steerforth and his mother, Rosa Dartle and the Murdstones; we see him doing indifferently well with Uriah Heep and Mr. Peggotty, and at his top in David himself, Micawber, Miss Trotwood, Mr. Dick and others. We find that his chief strength lay in delicate pathos and comedy, in farce and in caricature; his chief weakness in extravagance of emotion and in farce so extravagant that it rings false.   7
  We should note when studying this novel that it is narrated in the first person, the story is an autobiography, the most difficult form of fiction in which to attain a close approach to realism. Dickens has succeeded wonderfully; the scenes follow one another naturally, the narrator never shows signs of knowing what has taken place without his knowledge, and the course of the tale is not strained so that David shall be present at scenes without due reason and just cause. Even David’s memories of his childhood and the account of his birth are so told as not to jar upon our love of the natural and probable.   8
  In this novel, too, Dickens gives proof of that fecundity which pertains to genius only; we have noted some of the more prominent characters; there are a host of others of minor importance, all distinct, most of them lifelike. Dickens wrote of the story: “I am not quite sure that I ever did like, or ever shall like, anything quite so well as ‘Copperfield”’; by it he might have been well content to stand or fall.—From “Charles Dickens.”   9



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