David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 3 and 4

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

My favorite passages from chapters 7 through 12, including David’s adventures at Salem House and Murdstone and Grinby’s:

Chapter 7:

An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command.  The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better to-morrow.  Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it — miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.

This passage is the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to find in earlier Dickens: the virtuous protagonist taking part in cruelty, the author showing us a fault in the wronged.  Another good example is David’s pride he feels in the “dignity attached to [him]” among his schoolmates by the death of his mother. The shift to the first person is part of this — Dickens’ earlier third-person narrators have little heart for showing actual sin, rather than harmless foibles, in their favorites, whereas David himself can more easily admit to wrongdoing.  Of course, Dickens qualifies the wickedness by stating that the children laugh because they are afraid (and that David’s pride was nothing to his “sincere grief” at his mother’s death), but this scene of cruel laughter at others’ misfortune startled me.  It brings such a terrible, true image to the mind.  I suppose it is good and characteristic of David (and Dickens) to blame the laughter on fear and abuse rather than on genuine enjoyment of another’s misfortune.

Chapter 8:

What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!

This, the culmination of a pageful of “what”s on the grinding anxiety, embarrassment, and boredom of David at home with his mother and the Murdstones, brilliantly done.  I do not know how large a part the Murdstones play in the later plot of the book; at the moment, after having read the first eighteen chapters, I feel that Dickens may have underestimated the evil that they convey, and could have used them more extensively than they did.  They are so malevolent.  In keeping with David’s earlier recollection of the acute sensitivity and perception of children to sensations and to emotional states, the bending of Clara and David Copperfield to the Murdstones’ fascistic, petty will makes his life a living hell, simply by his being made into a “blank space,” and by his being made to feel guilty for his mother’s love of him.

Chapter 9:

The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers.  Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets.  This she did upon her knees, humming lively little tune the while.  Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready.  Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle and threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.

The entire scene at Omer’s funerary shop is utterly remarkable.  The three “young women,” the Fates, at work on “black cloth”; the “RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat” of hammering outside, eventually revealed to be the hammer of Joram making David’s mother’s coffin; David’s observations of being among these happy, lively “creatures” at work upon death; it’s a work of genius, playing on all of the senses, resonant as mythology, and one of the most remarkable blends of memento mori and dolce vita I’ve ever read.

Chapter 10:

These offerings of affection were of a most various and eccentric description.  Among them I remember a double set of pig’s trotters, a huge pin-cushion, half a bushel or so of apples, a pair of jet earrings, some Spanish onions, a box of dominoes, a canary bird and cage, and a leg of pickled pork.

This list of gifts that Barkis gives in wooing Peggotty displays again Dickens’ gift for lists.  Part of it is a delight in everyday things from another time; part of it is the joy in his choice of objects; most of it, I think, is his utter gift for the musicality of language, the flow of vowels and words.

Chapter 11:

Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first.  I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road — one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then — and sold them for whatever they would bring.  The keeper of this bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning.  More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut in his forehead or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses over night (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay on the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him.

Ah, the book trade.  Really, this should probably be the passage in which David shows us one of Mr. Micawber’s creditors yelling at his window from the street, or the description of rat-infested Murdstone and Grinby’s, or the introduction of Micawber’s prison quarters, or just the simple fact of the sublime name “Mealy Potatoes” — but who can resist this scene of the debauched, disreputable bookseller?

Chapter 12:

“He is the parent of my children!  He is the father of my twins!  He is the husband of my affections,” cried Mrs. Micawber, struggling; “and I ne — ver — will — desert Mr. Micawber!”

The Micawbers are fascinating, like a trainwreck.  Their histrionics, their violent swings from threats of suicide to irresponsible overspending, their insistence of respectability in the worst state of squalor: it’s fascinating, especially when you factor in their basis in Dickens’ own parents.  Mrs. Micawber’s fanatical vows of loyalty to Micawber after listing all of the reasons she should leave him smacks of protesting too much, and perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome.

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