Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Thirty - David Copperfield - Part Two (Officially)

In this novel as well as in Bleak House, a big deal is made of who will keep the household keys. What is the deal with keeping the keys? What is locked? The china? The silver? The pantry? Did they expect everyone in the household to steal?

Dickens has a way with description -

… said the Master, looking at another old woman in a large chair by the fire, who was such a bundle of clothes that I feel grateful to this hour for not having sat upon her by mistake.

All this, I say, is yesterday's event. Events of later date have floated from me to the shore where all forgotten things will reappear, but this stands like a high rock in the ocean.

A few of David’s brilliant observations – 

At a dinner party he meets a man he says is like Hamlet. The man’s aunt he names Hamlet’s aunt and says, “… Hamlet’s aunt had the family failing of indulging in soliloquy, and held forth in a desultory manner, by herself, on every topic that was introduced.”

This dinner party is made up of people who seem to me to be not quite aristocracy but desire to be; there is much talk of Blood with a capital B.  The only frame of reference I have for this is the Harry Potter books, and I suspect that JKR had these people in mind when she wrote of those who talk of the superiority of Purebloods. I don’t know if this sort of thing is exclusive to England; I suspect other countries with a tradition of divided social classes have this prejudice as well. I am not saying that in the U.S. we don’t have social classes, for we do, much as no one wants to discuss the matter. But due to our relative youth as a nation we don’t have the history of being born into a class, knowing your place and knowing you will never be anything other than what you were born. I’ve often wondered about the servants in Jane Austen’s books… if the Dashwood girls’ lives were so difficult after they moved into a cottage and they could only escape their relative poverty by marriage, what were the servants’ lives like? Could they “marry up?” The servant class is never addressed in Jane Austen and I understand that. Her goal was to write a novel that would sell, not a history book. Still, I always wonder about that.

Another example from David Copperfield –

It completely conveyed the idea of a man who had been born, not to say with a silver spoon, but with a scaling-ladder, and had gone on mounting all the heights of life one after another, until now he looked, from the top of the fortifications, with the eye of a philosopher and a patron, on the people down in the trenches.

General thoughts - 

… how kind and considerate [name removed to avoid spoiler] had always been to her, and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers.

Something I have noticed from past experience: trying to be something you are not is unwise. It doesn’t work.

I don’t know how good a movie of this book could ever be – I’d miss all of the feelings we get from the first person narrative. You can see him cry in a movie perhaps, but the way he expresses the depth of his childhood emotions is magnificent.

'For stubbornness won't do here,' said his sister 'What it wants is, to be crushed. And crushed it must be.'

That’s the way – crush his spirit. Quell any hint of creativity or imagination or ambition. This is something I think we do too much of. We make children conform when they go to school – I know when you’re dealing with a room of 25 children there must be conformity to rules in terms of lining up to go to the bathroom and things like that but do we reward imagination? Do we really encourage children to think for themselves? Are we surprised that so many people are sheep when they’ve experienced nothing but being shepherded their entire lives?

Dickens was such a great observer of human nature… people think they are right, and do not change that opinion just because someone tells them they are wrong. Dickens is clear about who he thinks is right and wrong, but don’t most people do the best they can do with the tools they have at hand?

One family in the novel would fit right in today. They’d have bought an expensive home and filled it with big screen TVs and the latest iPhones – even though they couldn’t afford any of it. They live beyond their means because they don’t like their means. So they spend money and are happy for a moment - until the next time they are forced to think of their debts. The husband and wife in this case are perfect for each other; they hold out for something to turn up some day like Richard in Bleak House. They are always waiting for something good to appear out of thin air and actually convincing themselves that it will.Raise your hand if you knew the Mrs. of this pair was going to make her usual speech at David’s dinner party! That’s one reason I love her – she’s consistent. I cannot abide artificial people. You never know who they’re going to be from one day to the next. But with these people – you know. You always know.

The courts – 

The languid stillness of the place was only broken by the chirping of this fire and by the voice of one of the Doctors, who was wandering slowly through a perfect library of evidence, and stopping to put up, from time to time, at little roadside inns of argument on the journey.
Roadside inns of argument! Ah, I love this, Mr. Dickens.

The court scenes are similar to Bleak House in their description of the courts, particularly their absurdity and power (a dangerous combination).

Lawyer/proctor quotes –

We had an adjourned cause in the Consistory that day… and as the evidence was just twice the length of Robinson Crusoe, according to a calculation I made, it was rather late in the day before we finished.
I’m still trying to figure out the Victorian court system – it was a mess.

David’s desire to be loved – 

His dealings with boys/men older than him speak to his greatest longing. One person who shall remain nameless [spoiler avoidance] appropriately represents a universal experience. Haven't you had a friend you had doubts about? Maybe you weren’t sure this friend was truly sincere, but he (I prefer the generic “he” in most cases) was just so amiable and fun! Have you ever known anyone who seems to be at home no matter where he is? He can converse with kings and with the poorest fisherman equally and seems to appreciate both equally.

But later, when the two of you are alone, this friend begins to show that he is not all he seems. Maybe he secretly laughs at others, telling his true feelings only to you. Maybe he has a mean streak. And maybe someone else warns you of this person’s underlying insincerity but you keep hoping it isn't so - even though when you examine your heart, you know the truth. Certain people seem to have a power, a gravitation pull, which draws others toward them. Obviously, not everyone with a powerful personality is secretly selfish and careless with the affections of others, but the ones who are tend to be very dangerous indeed. Dickens does a wonderful job with the first person narration on this account. David writes about his youth from the perspective of age yet he does not make excuses for his behavior. 

There are examples of bullying in the book. Lots of attention is paid these days to bullying, but haven’t we all been bullied? Aren’t there people we’ve known at work or school or church – in some setting in which we cannot easily get away from them - who are bullies? These are the people who rarely have a nice thing to say, who won’t abide an opinion other than their own – in short, people who think only of themselves. Like David, we are frequently torn between acting properly (we would call it being “nice”) and not allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. As David ages he does a better job of balancing the two, and I think we can all relate to this. There are times when I have difficulty with the balance between being “nice” and not being bulldozed. Selfish people are ruthless in their quest to do only what they please. They are difficult to deal with under the best of circumstances.

Nankeen, it turns out, is a fabric. (This will make sense if you've read the book. Seriously.)
Miscellany -

A game called skittles is mentioned. According to Wikipedia, “Skittles is an old European lawn game, a variety of bowling, from which ten-pin bowling... [is] descended.”

Dumbledore likes ten pin bowling! (It turns out that "ten pin bowling" is what we simply call bowling in the U.S.)

“In Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, Charlie Banks, the star third baseman for the pre-war New York Giants baseball team, gives Joseph Margolis, the then-twelve-year-old narrator, sage counsel on life and literature, since, as he tells him, "me being your hero and all, it's only fair if I give you one piece of advice." That advice involves the "writer Chas. Dickens," whom the baseball player admires for two reasons — first of all, he says what he means and second, he creates a protagonist with bravery and self-control.”

Last Days of Summer is excellent! My book club read it a couple of years ago and I found Steve Kluger’s website and emailed him. He replied and gave me a couple of morsels about characters in the book that I shared with my book club! You can find the book at Amazon  if you’re interested.

Needless to say, I am LOVING David Copperfield. It provides such good thinking material! I'm currently a little more than halfway through. Dickens is amazing in this one, that's for sure. 


  1. David Copperfield is my favourite book and Dickens my favourite writer. I just love how he creates characters that seem like a caricature of people I know. And as you pointed out though the book is old there are so many things there that we still see in our society.
    I just love Dickens.

  2. I can understand how this is your favorite book! I'm close enough to finishing it that I don't want to take time to do anything else, but life keeps calling...

  3. I felt just like that when I was reading it.