Thursday, March 18, 2010

David Copperfield

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.

Charles Dickens often referred to David Copperfield as his "favorite child". Though all of his stories contain glimpses of his own life, it is this particular one that gives us the fullest picture in his own words. Many readers of Dickens also consider this to be the finest in the long line of novels written by him. So, I went into David Copperfield wondering how it would stack up in comparison to the other novels of his that I have read. Would it become a favorite of mine as it has for so many people around the world? The answer was more complicated than I had ever imagined.

The Plot:

From the moment he is born, David Copperfield is fatherless and a disappointment (to some). His happy childhood is cut short when his young mother marries Mr. Murdstone, who (along with his sister, Jane) becomes a source of constant terror and heartache to both David and his mother. But David is not friendless. He finds solace in the friendship of the Peggotty family, and of two of his schoolfellows, Thomas Traddles and James Steerforth (whom he idolizes).

After tragedy strikes his world, David finds himself virtually alone on the streets of London. It isn't long before he sets out in search of an aunt, Betsey Trotwood, whom he has never seen, yet whom he hopes will take him in. She does, and his life heads in a new direction. The rest of the story follows him through his triumphs and his failures, his dreams and his nightmares, his happiness and his despair. David Copperfield's life unfolds before our eyes and we see reflected in it not only the life of his creator, but our own lives as well.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I came away from this sixth story in my attempt to read all of Dickens' novels with sort of mixed feelings. It was an amazing novel and definitely one of the best of Dickens' that I have read, and yet I couldn't help but feel a slight disappointment. As if something beautiful had suddenly withered on the vine. Turns out, I'm not the only one.

In his introduction to the novel, G. K. Chesterton writes "David Copperfield begins as if it were going to be a new kind of Dickens's novel; then it gradually turns into an old kind of Dickens's novel." And he is right. The early chapters of the book are amazing, fresh, and different from any other Dickens novel you will ever read. David himself is so real. He is one of the few Dickens heroes/heroines who actually lives and breathes on the page. We feel a connection to him immediately. We cry for him, we cheer for him, we feel for him. We hate the Murdstones not for what they do to David's mother, but for how that affects him. We love the Peggoty home, not for what it is in and of itself, but because of the peace and happiness it brings to David. We love Betsey Trotwood for loving David. And then something happens right about the time that David goes to school in Canterbury. He lives on in the story, but he dies on the page. He slowly, almost imperceptibly turns into every other Dickens hero: bland, undistinguished, and boring. Our attention is then drawn (as they are in every other Dickens story) to the eccentric characters that surround him. It is a disappointment that cannot be soon forgotten.

And yet, the novel is not a total loss. It is a very rewarding read and still one of the best Dickens novels that I have read. As always, Dickens manages to create characters that will haunt you for the rest of your days. The evil Murdstones whom you can't help but wish a slow and painful death upon. Betsey Trotwood whose hatred of donkeys and men begins to actually make sense. Sweet and silly Dora who is probably the most exciting and lovable of all Dickens' leading ladies. Mr. Micawber whom we love even with his debts and Mrs. Micawber who will never desert him. Uriah Heep whose very name sends chills of disgust running up and down your spine. And Mr. Dick who often seems the wisest of all the characters, even with Charles I haunting him. These characters along with Dickens' power of description help to make this another must read from the prolific pen of one of Victorian lit's best authors.

So how does it stack up? I would say that so far, only Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities are able to top it. Though the idea of what it might have been leaves me disappointed, it is only slightly and I find that I have enjoyed myself anyway. Go ahead and add this to your reading list. It might just become one of your favorites as well.

The Movie:

Like almost every other Dickens story, David Copperfield has about a gazillion adaptations. I have only seen one, which is the 1999 BBC version starring Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Alun Armstrong, and Imelda Staunton. See my review of it here.

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