David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 1 and 2

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

Reading this book is a remarkable experience in a number of ways, and for a number of reasons — one of the foremost being that it’s Dickens in first person, which seems such a radical experiment for him after all of his previous books employ that roving eye and range of angles made so much easier by the third person, but also because it is such a feeling work: you can feel the emotion, Dickens’ emotion, on every page, and yet it is so masterfully controlled.

It is an exquisite book, at least so far: the prose is just astoundingly, incredibly beautiful.  And so I wanted to choose my favorite passages — from a single sentence to as long as a paragraph — from each chapter.  Herewith, my favorites from the first six chapters, comprising the first two original serial numbers.

Chapter 1:

I was a posthumous child.  My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.  There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlor was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were — almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes — bolted and locked against it.

This, after just beginning, and learning that David was born at midnight and local superstition held that he could therefore “see ghosts and spirits.”  These touches suffuse the first chapter with a pervasive melancholy, just below the surface of the comedy of David’s birth and his aunt’s disappointment that he is a boy.

Chapter 2:

I look from Mr. Chillip, in his Sunday neckcloth, to the pulpit; and think what a good place it would be to play in, and what a castle it would make, with another boy coming up the stairs to attack it, and having the velvet cushion with the tassels thrown down on his head.

The early chapters are such amazing representations of the experience of childhood, and of the experience of remembering childhood.  The portion of this chapter just preceding this passage, when David recalls his childhood home, is also great.  But I love this passage about being in church as a child, especially because I can remember thinking just this same thing as I dozed off during many a sermon, about how fun it would be to have the pulpit to myself, to play in.

Chapter 3:

I rambled down-stairs to find anything that was like itself, so altered it all seemed; and roamed into the yard.  I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog kennel was filled up with a great dog — deep mouthed and black-haired like Him — and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprung out to get at me.

This is the last sentence of the first number, and as such is a kind of cliffhanger.  However, with its correspondences between the dog and Mr. Murdstone, and between the earlier loving description of the yard and this new experience of home as a place to fear and watch one’s self at all time, it is also a kind of preemptive elegy, a mourning for the childhood already beginning to be lost, and it strikes such a difficult and beautiful note, so early in the work.

Chapter 4:

They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that, than for my going away.  I felt it sorely.  I tried to eat my parting breakfast, but my tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea.  I saw my mother look at me sometimes, and then glance at the watchful Miss Murdstone, and then look down, or look away.

This chapter is full of tear-jerking moments: David’s reminiscence of the friends he found in books, the scene of the beating itself, the masterful sentence in which he remembers his imprisonment after the beating and the lengthening of those endless days.  But this passage, his recognition of his mother’s thinking him wicked, is a killer.  An absolute murderer.

Chapter 5:

“My dear Peggotty.  I have come here safe.  Barkis is willing.  My love to mama.  Yours affectionately.  P.S.  He says he particularly wants you to know — Barkis is willing.”

I love the comedic timing here, of young David throwing in “Barkis is willing” in the middle of his letter, as if Peggotty would know what he’s talking about (and perhaps she does, at that).  Barkis is one of Dickens’ more or less interchangeable, kind-hearted, working-class buffoons, but he tickles me, for some reason.  I enjoy his courtship of Peggotty. There’s more great stuff at the end of this chapter, in the empty school, but the “Barkis is willing” line is set up so well it made me laugh out loud.

Chapter 6:

We sat in the dark for some time, breathless.

This simple, gorgeous line, after David’s idol, the older schoolboy Steerforth, has explained, illuminating his face with a match, how he would beat the schoolmaster should he ever challenge him.  The depiction of their brotherly relationship is one of the best I’ve read of big brother-little brother dynamic that does sometimes flourish in schools, for reasons mysterious at the time and maybe obvious in retrospect.

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