Saturday, July 1, 2017

I have not had a chance to watch the video of this week's discussions, so I apologize if this blog simply repeats something that was already said. But I would like to offer some initial comments.

 I read through David Copperfield rather quickly in May, and now, after being away from it for a month am reading through it somewhat slowly, savoring. Several things strike me as I reread. One is the incredible amount of foreshadowing (without giving anything away for those who are reading it for the first time). This novel as a whole is such a rich meditation on the nature of time in our lives. The narrative technique of an older Copperfield looking back over his life, using both past and present tense, teasing the reader as he moves subtly between the knowledge he has now and the knowledge (or lack of knowledge) he had then, brings us into the heart of that meditation, sometimes making us feel that we are teetering on a brink--the way young David feels as he watches Little Em'ly standing on that precarious plank over the deep water in Chapter 3. I am struck by the paragraph that follows that description, when the older David, remembering the scene, wonders if it would have been better if Little Em'ly had fallen and drowned back then.

I am also struck by Dickens' poignant and masterful blend of comedy and pathos in each chapter, often in the same scene. It's been said that tragedy is human frailty and failing viewed from a distance; comedy, when viewed up close. It seems to me that the way that Dickens blends these two viewpoints allows him to capture a deep, subtle truth about human nature. Everyone knows Dickens' famous exaggeratedly comic characters, as well as his celebrated sentimentality. But it is in the way he brings the two together that I find deeply affecting. Even in scenes that on the surface should have little humor, there it is. It's hard to find anything to laugh at in Chapter 4, when Mr. and Miss Murdstone are treating David and his mother with such gratuitous cruelty. Yet, is it just me, or is Dickens having fun (or can't constrain his wild sense of humor) in the interplay between the two tormentors or in the delicious event when David chomps down on Murdstone's hand? In a somewhat lighter vein, there's the humor in the portrayal of perhaps my favorite character, Betsey Trotwood. She is the rather foolish fairy godmother who abandons her godson and nephew because he isn't the girl she expected, but eventually comes to his rescue and turns out to be perhaps the least foolish person in the novel. Even the business of David's caul is treated comically in Chapter 1, but clearly the image (and fact) of drowning, which we have already seen throughout the first eighteen chapters, is anything but funny.

We are reading David Copperfield in tandem with Born Bright, and of course significant feature of David Copperfield is Dickens' social commentary. Can any documentary or sociological study provide a sharper, more convincing critique of classism, sexism, capitalism and rotten pedagogy than this novel? I want to continue to look at how Dickens' plumbing the depths of human psychology informs his social critique.

I look forward to watching the video of the discussions and to reading what others have to say as we all read together this truly monumental work of literature.


  1. Wow. Thank you for that, Daniel. I loved what you had to say about Dickens' mingling of humor and pathos. The example I pointed to in the discussions is the extraordinarily abrupt transition from the horrible scene in which young David is almost murdered on the road to Dover, only to find himself a few paragraphs later choking on the numerous concoctions Aunt Betsey is shoving down his throat in an effort to 'revive' him. And yes, I agree, the idea of David sinking his teeth into Murdstone's flesh really is funny. Can you think of another author who does this particular blend of comedy and misery so well?

  2. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I find my reactions to the "misery" parts has been kind of muted because I know something better/funny is on the way. In our discussions, there have been many comments from people who are overwhelmed with the sad episodes and others who are more focused on the lighter episodes.