Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In Chapter XXII, when David comes upon Steerforth staring into the fire, Steerforth's habitual mask slips a bit, and he becomes quite vulnerable, somewhat to David's dismay, since this is so out of character. I find it very moving when he exclaims, "David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!" And, "I wish to God I had been better guided." It's just a moment, and passes quickly, but I think it's a moment that haunts the rest of the novel. It reminds me that both Steerforth and David have no fathers. A big difference between them, though, is that Steerforth, with his haughtiness and aristocratic privileges, never seems to have had a true mentor whereas David is fortunate to have quite a few, and, especially, the guidance of his wonderful aunt.

Another observation on the novel, inspired by my reading of Born Bright. Isn't it interesting that Dickens has offered us two starkly contrasting depictions of education--Mr. Creakle's spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child approach versus Doctor Strong's love and gentleness pedagogy. Normally when we apply the term Dickensian to a school setting, we mean the former--but in this story Dickens has portrayed in some detail what a truly effective school might look like, capturing the best ideas of the reform movements in education that would be so important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in England and the United States.

A final observation this afternoon: I'm sure we're all appalled and so saddened at the disgusting, rampant sexism encountered in Nicole Mason's autobiography. I wonder how different it is from the deeply sexist codes underlying the "fallen woman" theme in David Copperfield. As a great fan of Dickens, I am always confused by this aspect of his novels. To what degree is he critiquing this ridiculous fettering of women's (and men's, for that matter) sexuality? In what ways, for all his liberal views and championing of human dignity, is he just incapable of going beyond the "angel of the house" and the cult of pure womanhood of his era? I don't know, and I'd like to hear others' views on that.


  1. I believe that our July-August scholar Miriam Bailin frequently discusses gender issues in Dickens with her WashU classes. We will definitely be sharing your question at our discussion. I'm intrigued by the (to me) clumsy Dora/Agnes split, implying that a woman can be sexually attractive, or intelligent, but not both. That seems like a stale notion even for 1849. They are certainly the two least interesting characters in the novel...

    1. I agree. Agnes is so central to the story, but never comes into focus as a believable person. And Dora only in the rarest of moments, after their marriage, rises above the level of caricature.