"Again, I wonder with a sudden fear whether it is likely that our good old clergyman can be wrong, and Mr. and Miss Murdstone right, and that all the angels in Heaven can be destroying angels." [IV]

decorative initial 'T' he world would not take another Pickwick from me now" (to Dudley Costello, Letters, ii. 150, 25 Apr 1849) Dickens wrote as he began work on David Copperfield. The truth was that the world as he saw it would no longer maintain the beautiful vision of Pickwick, and David Copperfield was to be an exploration of the external pressures which severely limit the possibilities of creating the internal Eden Pickwick had proposed. The comic society, though rather tenuous in several other of Dickens's novels, is here pushed to the distant outskirts of the world and is embodied only in a collection of the most distinctly misfit: the imprisoned, the alienated, the mad, and the dying. The comedy of accommodation hinted at in Martin Chuzzlewit is emphatically denied here. Jonas Chuzzlewit has taken over much of the world, and the presumably invincible Bailey is now shown, in David, to be terribly vulnerable. There are no resurrections; only the very, very sad recording of defeats, limitations, compromises. David Copperfield is no comedy, but a farewell to comedy. It is, in fact, the most reluctant farewell to comedy on record.

For David is extremely sensitive to the comic vision; he is born in the midst of gentleness and joy, and he never forgets that atmosphere. It is certainly his misfortune that the Murdstones enter his life, but it might also be said that it is equally [162/163] unfortunate that he had enjoyed such an idyllic childhood before the murderers arrived. He is thrown directly from a rich and imaginative Eden into a mean and restricted cash-box version of reality. He leaves for Yarmouth from a home which has nothing but joy and returns to a home which has none. No transition and no connection are ever established between these worlds, and as a result it is not possible for him to find in life either complete commercial rigidity or full imaginative joy (the thematic reading used here is developed further in two articles of mine, "Darkness" and "Structure"). Although he later enters pretty fully into the Murdstonean ethic, he never absolutely abandons the perspective of his fragile and pathetic mother: "What a troublesome world this is, when one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible!" (IV). David is always haunted by the sense of something missing, "the old unhappy loss or want of something", and, like his mother, has the comic sense that things ought to be better, that one has a right to Eden. But the comic and commercial, the lovely and the firm, are never brought together, and David becomes something of a representative nineteenth-century man, for whom the realm of the imaginative, the spiritual, and the ideal is divorced from the realm of the pragmatic, the commercial, and the real. And, in place of a resolution, he adopts a very representative operating principle: a self-congratulatory firmness, modified by a compensating sentimentality, One can say, of course, that he comes to terms with his world, but the price he is asked to pay is enormous.         

He must, as he says so often, "discipline" his heart (for a reading of the novel which accepts this phrase as an adequate statement of the theme see Gwendolyn B. Needham; several interpretations of the novel which start from an autobiographical premise are also associated with the notion of developing discipline and control; the best is by Edgar Johnson, ii. 677-90). It has struck many readers that this is a terribly reductive formula for a humane and responsive existence, that it is priggish, escapist, ugly, and narrow, that it denies the values, that count — those of Dora, the Micawbers, and Mr. Dick — and that this "disciplining" is partly a euphemism for desensitizing, falsifying, sentimentalizing. All these charges are true; they [163/164] are fully supported by the novel. But it is equally true that the novel is never ironic in the sense of attacking its hero; it is never critical of David's decisions. But it is very sad about them. David Copperfield's famous tone of melancholy (the discussion most tactfully and fully responsive to the subtlety of this tone is in George H. Ford's Introduction to the Riverside edition of the novel) is created by more than its bittersweet reminiscences; it is perhaps more to the point that these are reminiscences of defeat, of a world now lost. David's course, from joy to a pain so intense that it admits of no escape but only of more or less inadequate evasion, is one which is at the centre of the experience of the last two centuries. Indeed, it helps explain the novel's immense and continuing popularity. The primary means of the attempted escape are also common ones: the important comic values are denied, and trivial antithetical values are loudly proclaimed. David tries very hard to turn his novel into a celebration of prudence, distrust, discipline, rigid and unimaginative conduct, and the commonest sense. It is a cause both of his pain and of the novel's greatness that he has terrible difficulty ever accepting these values; their inadequacy and irrelevance are signalled over and over again.

There are really two major kinds of signals: the commercial values do not help David, and, in addition, they are disproved by the beauty and power of the improvident and the undisciplined in the novel. First of all, David's own proclamations of prudent sanity are outgrowths of a rather complete fantasy life, an unhealthy substitute forced on him first by the Murdstones, later by Steerforth, and even by his aunt, rescue by whom ironically pushes him into the delusory world of the Strongs and the Wickfields and finally into the aura (not the arms) of Agnes, who is a vaporous and shadowy attitude rather than a woman. The firm pragmatism David mouths, in other words, is never solidly realized in his existence and is, therefore, largely a compensation for the fact that he can accept fully neither the comic reality of the Micawbers nor the black reality of the Murdstones. He is thus forced, subtly but insistently, into the position of impotence and delusion where, with Agnes, he believes that "real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in [164/165] the world" (XXXV). On the next page, David says that Agnes is indeed strong in "simple love and truth", and it is these simple qualities which he thinks will somehow deal with the complexity of Uriah Heep or Murdstone or Steerforth. This blind trust in a vague Providence can, in the end, lead to the awful suspicion that "all the angels in heaven" really are "destroying angels" (IV). The same reliance also often renders David passive and impotent. When Rosa Dartle viciously attacks Mr. Peggotty, for example, David can only sputter, "Oh, shame, Miss Dartle! shame!", and he later listens next door while Rosa verbally flays the newly found Em'ly. It is lucky that there are active comic agents, such as Micawber, Traddles, Mr. Dick, and Mr. Peggotty, around to participate actively and creatively in arranging their lives. These people and others like them also establish a strong value system directly opposed to David's (and Murdstone's) firmness. It is a subversive structure which is constantly in evidence. Micawber, for instance, the architect and most enthusiastic builder of this system, does not simply wander in and out of the plot; he appears strategically and on schedule as apologist and propagandist of his sense of comic community.

Thus, as in many of Dickens's earlier novels, there is a basic dualism, a split between the comic world of the imagination, and the threatening and hostile world of practical or commercial "reality". In David Copperfield this split receives its most subtle and mature treatment. The novel also makes the most complex use of the rhetorical humour Dickens had mastered. Laughter is used to establish values, themes, and, paradoxically, the atmosphere of melancholy. David Copperfield is one of the funniest of Dickens's novels but also one of the saddest; for all of the fun is enlisted on the side of forces which are finally extinguished.

The crucial issue, then, is related to the technical one of point of view: the relation of the novel's established values to those gradually accepted by David and the control of our attitude toward both sets of value. It seems to me essential that we recognize that David is, in many key ways, neither the voice of the author nor the voice of the novel. In any case, there are three clearly distinguished stages in the novel, in which the conditions of David's life, the values suggested, and the rhetoricial techniques all shift radically and significantly: [165/166]

i. Childhood joy. Chapters I-III. This section, though quite short, is extremely important in that it establishes an image of Eden which is never absent from David's mind but which is realized later only in tantalizingly brief snatches. The laughter in this section not only supports the comic values associated with David's happy childhood but, interestingly, encourages us to reject as harmless many of the threats which will later become more precisely defined and much more dangerous.

ii. Isolation and fear. Chapters IV-XIII. This black period, the period of Murdstone, Creakle, and the warehouse, functions as a direct contrast to the first and makes impossible for David the openness, spontaneity, and trust necessary for comedy. The humour in this section is similar to that in Oliver Twist, acting as rhetoric of attack in order to demand our sympathy for and identification with David. It also begins to build, through Micawber, an alternate system.

These first thirteen chapters are the novel's most crucial ones in determining the character of the hero; they are also among the finest in English literature in forming a complete fusion with their subject and creating a total imaginative identification with the child: George Orwell said that when he first read the early chapters, "the mental atmosphere ... was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child" (p. 17; attacks on the last two-thirds of the book am as common as praise for the first third, expressing, I rather think, the effectiveness of Dickens's rhetoric, not his failure). They suggest the absolute necessity of comic joy; they also suggest its impossibility. These chapters urge us to identify with David, to sympathize with a value structure, and then to recognize that the two will likely never come together. The rest of the novel can be seen as the development of these dichotomies and of this rhetoric of frustration and melancholy.

iii. Fantasy and firmness. Chapters XIV-LXIV. The remaining chapters explore David's attempts to deal with the hostile world about him, his dependence upon fantasy, and his pathetically ironic drift towards Murdstonean firmness and sentimentality. Laughter here is asked continually to reinforce the comic value system, identify the split between this system [166/167] and the hero, and try to heal it. It trails off altogether as David moves to Agnes and Micawber moves to Australia. The impossibility of a comic society must finally, and sadly, be admitted.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010