“Whether I shall be the hero of my tale, or whether that office shall be left to another, these pages shall describe.” - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
What a book. Again and again I’m reminded why they’re called “Classic Literature.” The breath and scope of this book is just wonderful and compelling. Sure, it’s long as all get-out, but it’s worth every second and every page.
I had actually started reading David Copperfield prior to coming to Vermont for ADP. I took the Greyhound to Montpelier and back from Cincinnati, and I knew I’d need something long for the twenty-six hours each way, so I grabbed it fairly at random off the shelf. It was between David Copperfield and The Canterbury Tales. I’m glad I chose as I did.
Mid-way through the book I started to think, “Why am I reading this?” It was so dark, so bleak
and despairing. And with what my family and I are currently in the midst of, we need things to inspire, to uplift and bring hope. Dickens wasn’t giving much hope.
But over the course of the story you learn that hope comes not in individual actions or events, but in a life well-lived; in family and friends, in shared victory and defeat, in close companionship, love and loss. Copperfield starts out well with a loving mother, but things quickly go bad, and from bad to worse for quite some time. But his good-will, his bonhomie and general resourcefulness are a source of hope and inspiration. He determines to do what he can. He is clear eyed and unflinching in his estimations of Mr. and Ms. Murdstone (David’s Stepfather and his sister) as well as his ongoing relationship with Uriah Heep, scoundrel of scoundrels and prototype of malevolence.
I felt strong identification in David’s relationships with women, first with “Young Em’ly” and later with Agnes. He pursues Dora, who by her own admission is a child, a silly thing, while all the time he has near him two of the most beautiful, kind, gentle and loving creatures ever to grace the page. Emily turns from his affection first to Ham Peggoty, and eventually runs away in shame with Steerforth. Agnes, however, waits for him, the very picture of fidelity and truth. I feel like I myself wandered through a good portion of my life completely unaware of the jewels that lay around me in relationships, opportunities and experiences that I took for granted. Maybe that’s an inherent trait to young boys. But we would hope that it’s a trait passing with age. In Copperfield’s case it’s not age that brings the change, but tragedy. Dora’s death frees him to realize that he had married poorly, and that his true love had been there all along, and remained there.
There is great hope in the story. As a moral tale it reminds me of a story by C.S. Lewis. Some perceived Lewis’s icon and mentor, George MacDonald, as a heretic because he believed that God always offers a chance for redemption, even after death. MacDonald could not believe that God would ever turn his back on the soul truly penitent. In MacDonald’s defense Lewis wrote The Great Divorce, a story about souls on a bus ride through the afterlife, essentially from Hell to Heaven. When they reach Heaven, the grass is so sharp it cuts the feet. The light so blinding it hurts the eye. And many turn back from such a painful glory and choose the comforts of their familiar Hell. Lewis’s point is that the choices we make in life are the same choices we are likely to make in death. Second chances (or third, or fourth) are often pointless because we choose poorly no matter how many times we’re allowed. And so with Steerforth, and with Em’ly’s maid, whom she takes to Australia.
There is not much change of character or of heart in David Copperfield. The truly good remain good at heart. Some triumph and some perish. The truly bad remain bad, no matter their temporary appearances. In the end, the lives of the wicked are wasted, no matter the gain, and the lives (and even deaths) of the “righteous” (here I’m betraying my fundamentalist upbringing) are triumphant and glorious, even in death. Where the change comes is when someone’s true character has been hidden or subverted. Then there is the epiphany of finding who that person really was. There is great hope in that, as there always is in something that takes us out of ourselves and reminds us of our place in the larger story.
Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, describes taking some of her stories to an old neighbor in rural Georgia. When she returns to ask what she thought, the woman says, “Well those stories just gone and showed you what some folks would do.” That’s right. Dickens’ stories are grand and involved. But in the end, the reason they’re so wonderful and touching is because they just show you what some folks (like ourselves) would do. And it’s good to have company.