David Copperfield - Charles Dickens, Jeremy Tambling Status Report: Chapters 1 - 8

i had forgotten how much i love Dickens. the man is a master at the immersive experience. it is really easy for me to get sucked into the world he is so carefully constructing, to revel in all the extensive details, the lavish description, the almost overripe imagination at work. his strength at creating a wide range of entirely lived-in settings (both brief snapshots of places in passing and crucial places like David's home and school) is equalled by his even more famous skill at sketching the characters - often, but not always, caricatures - that live and breathe in his world. this is the kind of deep-dish experience that i love to have when traveling, on a plane or a bus or in some plaza, a second world to live in while taking a break in exploring the immediate world around me.

i can't help but also remember how many people dislike Dickens. i'm remembering an ex who told me he was her least favorite author, and how her resentment at being forced to read him in high school almost put her off reading for pleasure in general. it is hard to reconcile such a strong distaste for Dickens with my own easy enjoyment of his novels. my automatic reaction is that the reader who isn't enchanted by him either dislikes the style of writing or is simply the sort of idiot who should stick to reading facebook. well i don't date idiots, so i assume her reaction is based around the writing style. maybe that is the basic rationale for most folks who don't care for him.

or maybe it is based on something else. there is something that i've found to be off-putting about David Copperfield, at least so far. namely, the incredibly passive and naive behavior of David himself (and his mother, of course). it's more than just my automatic distaste for reading about victims, although that is certainly a part of it. what it feels like at times is that Dickens is stacking the deck a bit, making miserable situations even more potentially miserable, by having his protagonist (and that wretched mother, of course) be almost developmentally disabled in his inability to understand even basic things about the world around him. it sorta drives me up the wall.

well, that complaint aside, this has still been an awesome time. first and foremost, even more than the world-building and juicy characters, i love the dry and sardonic humor that is constantly working double-time. not only does it create some distance between reader and book in regards to the various horrors visited upon young David... it is fookin' hilarious!

favorite parts so far:

- that brilliant opening chapter "I Am Born"

- the Peggotty boat-house and the warmth of that wonderful family. i would like to live there!

- Steerforth. ugh! what a charming monster.

- the sadly minor note tragedy of Mr. Mell

Status Report: Chapters 9 - 26

i think i was expecting a bit more evil from the Murdstones. the way they treat David is certainly unkind verging on cruel - but i suppose i thought it would be a lot more brutal. this is not a complaint! if anything, i appreciate that Dickens makes David's predicament a much more realistic one. the Murdstones are cold, cold people. and they certainly drive David's tedious mother to an early grave (i shed no tears on that one). but i was surprised that their primary action is to simply send David away to a boring job, one that no child his age should have (and here i am viewing the narrative through my 21st century lense). a callous decision yet not a vicious one. David is merely an irritation that they want to dispense with, rather than harm. interesting.

that brief segment was certainly enlivened by the depiction of the marvelously goofy Mr. Micawber & Family. and by a fascinating look into life in a debtor's prison. i assume this is the classic Poor House?

but then... good grief, poor David Copperfield goes through hell to escape this life of tedium. many emotions on my part, all centered on the idea of such casual cruelty towards a runaway. brought back some unsettling memories of my brief time as a homeless youth counselor.

and then - at last! - some decency. even better, eccentric rather than mawkish decency. Aunt Betsey & Mr. Dick are two more wonderful Dickens creations. especially that tough old broad Aunt Betsey - each and every one of her appearances are a delight. when David finally gets to the safety of his Aunt's house, i felt a lot of tension drain out of me. it is like his story is now truly about to begin, now that the Gothic horrors slash neglected childhood bits are out of the way.

- an introduction of the best character yet: Uriah Heep! this is the role that Crispin Glover was born to play. what a wondrously creepy and perfectly realized little villain. all that supplicating, all that writhing! brilliant stuff.

- interesting: David is rarely called by his actual name. two more nicknames are added to the list: Trotwood and Daisy. David is rather a tabula rasa of a character.

- the relationship between Mr. Wickfield and Agnes is not heartwarming. it is downright creepy.

and now the tension is ratcheted up again, but in a way that doesn't make me sorta squirm with discomfort (tales of child neglect ≠ a good time for me). three sets of increasingly dire circumstances...

(1) Lil' Em'ly and the despicable villain Steerforth
(2) Agnes and the despicable villain Uriah Heep
(3) Aunt Betsey and a mysterious, blackmailing unknown despicable villain

will David be able to intercede in any of these troubling situations? i am doubtful, but also hopeful. go, David, go!

Status Report: Chapters 27 - end

exhilarating, wonderful, awesome, etc, etc. all the good words. i laughed (a lot), i cried (just a little, and in a manly sort of way), i wouldn't change or subtract a single word. perfect!

Final Report

okay this will be less of a Final Report and more of a collection of final thoughts as i think back on the novel and consult with the various threads in Serials Serially - the group that started me reading this novel.

first, the division in the novel. the first third or so, all about young David and his fairly awful travails: vivid and powerful. the remainder of the novel, all about David in his young adult years and following the growth of all those narrative seeds planted in that fertile first third; an excess of details veering on repetitious, and so that the book becomes less of a frightful gothic tale and more of a slow-burning assortment of mysteries (and many, many instances of pure comedy): less vivid and perhaps less powerful. looking back, i have to say that i am in the minority and preferred the last two-thirds. not only was the tension of potential situations involving child abuse and neglect now gone (a personal bugaboo of mine that will quickly render almost any literary or cinematic experience into something hugely uncomfortable and unappealing)... but it somehow all felt more real to me. the first third was visceral but almost cartoonish while the rest of the novel felt as if i was actually living in the novel. such was the extent of the detail and the effect of following these characters as they move throughout many different situations and changes in their lives.

"cartoonish". or better yet, "Dickensian". what does that really mean? a peculiarly stylized version of caricature? i understand the rep that Dickens has with his characters. they are stylized, obviously. but very few of them remained caricatures to me. ultimately, most ended up feeling very real and i was impressed at Dickens' ability to provide multiple dimensions to his characters - although he does it in a rather subtle way. his heroes do not get strong criticism and his villains do not get endearing moments of humanity. and yet it is there. David Copperfield is kind and good, but he is also a passive, foolishly naive fellow whose kindness and naivete often does nothing but make situations worse - especially in nearly every instance involving his relationship with Steerforth. Agnes is also kind and good, but her passivity makes her function as a sort of enabler to her father. Steerforth is a callous and feckless villain, but has moments of genuine warmth and kindness. Rosa Dartle is a heartless shrew - but look at that poor bitch's entire life with Steerforth & mom - i'd become a heartless shrew in that situation as well. Uriah Heep is an unctuous, slimy kiss-ass and back-stabber... but look where he comes from, his context, the kind of person his father was and the ideals he was raised up to worship. and of course Micawber, who would be pure pathos but whom Dickens treats with an extraordinary amount of affection. Dickens is not necessarily an 'even-handed' author, but he is one who is clearly aware of context.

there are some comments in this review's thread about women in Dickens - comments that i initially agreed with. but in retrospect, i actually don't agree. looking back on this novel, the women are often just as full of life as the men. perhaps folks are mainly thinking of the rather anemic Agnes. but now - when i think of dim Dora and vicious Rosa and ferocious Aunt Betsey and tragic Emily and loveable Peggotty and maudlin Mrs Gummidge and pathetic Martha and the eccentric 'two little birds' (Dora's aunts) and pretentious Julia Miles and dignified-under-pressure Mrs Strong and hilariously faithful-to-a-fault Mrs Micawber - i think of characters who leap right off of the page and stay to live in my mind. so, no, i am not critical of how women are portrayed in Dickens.

except, maybe, Dora. she is surely one of the most bizarrely stupid characters ever created in classic literature. when she first baby-talks David's nickname "Doady", i practically wanted to barf. she's so stupid that many times i found myself thinking She's Not Stupid - She's Mentally Disabled! good grief! and so i felt bad about my contempt and i started having mixed feelings about David even being with her. it seemed somehow wrong. there is also something so sexless about her character - it was impossible for me to imagine her capable of any sort of genuine intimacy. but i have to give it to Dickens - he doesn't present her as an ideal (unlike David), he satirizes her mercilessly in scene after scene, and in the end, invests both her marriage and her death with such genuine, palpable emotion that i became genuinely, palpably moved. her marriage scene (practically every paragraph beginning with "Of") was one of the most dreamily written passages i've ever read. and her death - not explicitly described, but paralleled with Jip's death - wow. amazing scene.

the combined death scenes of brave Ham and horrible Steerforth was almost equally moving. that last line describing Steerforth at his final rest: superb.

okay i think i'm spent. this is one of those novels that i can probably talk on and on about, so i should just make myself stop. i'll close by saying that the novel is, in a word, brilliant. i loved the language, the humor, the whimsy, the drama; the characters were wondrously alive; the narrative both surprisingly subtle and excitingly larger-than-life. so many scenes were indelible - too many to recount.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels.

David Copperfield: An Alternative Perspective