Sunday, May 29, 2011

Late Expectations

As part of another project I've been reading through Dickens's David Copperfield; Blood Meridian will have to wait. Thing is, I'm actually enjoying it. My only previous Dickens exposure, Great Expectations in high school and Bleak House a couple years back in college, left me bewildered by the man's long-winded prose and wide-net plotting. Such was Bleak House that my college classmates and I were convinced its ungainly prose was motivated by the incentive of getting paid by the word in serial fiction.

David Copperfield is also long in its story and in the telling thereof, but it goes down easier. No doubt this is due to the improved circumstances of reading it in relative leisure. Yet important people like Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy have declared it to be Dickens's masterpiece, so there must be somethings else going on.

There is for one thing the singular focus on Copperfield, literally from birth, as described in Copperfield's own voice:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Right from the start it shows it content to let go of some of its storytelling authority: "...or whether that station will be held by anybody else..." "(as I have been informed and believe)," "It was remarked..." No omniscient narrator, this. It's endearingly conversational.

It helps a great deal that Copperfield has so many strange and wonderful characters and happenings to describe to us. I took for instance the near-end of the first chapter as an encouraging sign of quality to come:

'How is she?' said my aunt, folding her arms with her bonnet still tied on one of them.

'Well, ma'am, she will soon be quite comfortable, I hope,' returned Mr. Chillip. 'Quite as comfortable as we can expect a young mother to be, under these melancholy domestic circumstances. There cannot be any objection to your seeing her presently, ma'am. It may do her good.'

'And SHE. How is SHE?' said my aunt, sharply.

Mr. Chillip laid his head a little more on one side, and looked at my aunt like an amiable bird.

'The baby,' said my aunt. 'How is she?'

'Ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'I apprehended you had known. It's a boy.'

My aunt said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it, put it on bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings, whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back any more.

Finally there is Dickens's/Copperfield's (being semi-autobiographical, the two are hardly interchangeable) keen power of observation. Consider this episode describing Copperfield's nasty stepfather and aunt's methods of education, the way in which they manipulate an ostensibly positive relationship into something abusive, manipulative and power-driven:

I hand the first book to my mother. Perhaps it is a grammar, perhaps a history, or geography. I take a last drowning look at the page as I give it into her hand, and start off aloud at a racing pace while I have got it fresh. I trip over a word. Mr. Murdstone looks up. I trip over another word. Miss Murdstone looks up. I redden, tumble over half-a-dozen words, and stop. I think my mother would show me the book if she dared, but she does not dare, and she says softly:

'Oh, Davy, Davy!'

'Now, Clara,' says Mr. Murdstone, 'be firm with the boy. Don't say, "Oh, Davy, Davy!" That's childish. He knows his lesson, or he does not know it.'

'He does NOT know it,' Miss Murdstone interposes awfully.

'I am really afraid he does not,' says my mother.

'Then, you see, Clara,' returns Miss Murdstone, 'you should just give him the book back, and make him know it.'

'Yes, certainly,' says my mother; 'that is what I intend to do, my dear Jane. Now, Davy, try once more, and don't be stupid.'

I obey the first clause of the injunction by trying once more, but am not so successful with the second, for I am very stupid. I tumble down before I get to the old place, at a point where I was all right before, and stop to think. But I can't think about the lesson. I think of the number of yards of net in Miss Murdstone's cap, or of the price of Mr. Murdstone's dressing-gown, or any such ridiculous problem that I have no business with, and don't want to have anything at all to do with. Mr. Murdstone makes a movement of impatience which I have been expecting for a long time. Miss Murdstone does the same. My mother glances submissively at them, shuts the book, and lays it by as an arrear to be worked out when my other tasks are done.

There is a pile of these arrears very soon, and it swells like a rolling snowball. The bigger it gets, the more stupid I get. The case is so hopeless, and I feel that I am wallowing in such a bog of nonsense, that I give up all idea of getting out, and abandon myself to my fate. The despairing way in which my mother and I look at each other, as I blunder on, is truly melancholy. But the greatest effect in these miserable lessons is when my mother (thinking nobody is observing her) tries to give me the cue by the motion of her lips. At that instant, Miss Murdstone, who has been lying in wait for nothing else all along, says in a deep warning voice:


My mother starts, colours, and smiles faintly. Mr. Murdstone comes out of his chair, takes the book, throws it at me or boxes my ears with it, and turns me out of the room by the shoulders.

Life and age are a constant rebuke of youthful fancy, as evidenced by my reappraisals of Cormac McCarthy, The Great Gatsby, and now Dickens. With that in mind, I am rather looking forward to being proven wrong in the future.

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