David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 5 and 6

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Numbers 5 and 6 are pivotal: David’s story changes dramatically, a huge number of important new characters are introduced, and Dickens pushes the action forward with the Victorian equivalent of a Hollywood movie’s music montage.  As in previous posts, here are my favorite sentences from each chapter.

Chapter 13:

Sometimes in his rage he would take me for one of them, and come at me, mouthing as if he were going to tear me to pieces; then, remembering me, just in time, would dive into the shop, and lie upon his bed, as I thought from the sound of his voice, yelling in a frantic way, to his own windy tune, the Death of Nelson, with an Oh! before every line, and innumerable Goroos interspersed.

The first half of chapter 13 is one of Dickens’ great waking nightmares of poverty, and the nightmare in this sentence is courtesy the drunken owner of a second-hand store (not the only one in the book; Dickens was warming up for the great Krook of Bleak House).  I imagine the “Goroo” sound to be a kind of throat-clearing howl, “screwed out of him” with his eyes bugging out, as Dickens says.  His earlier ranting “Oh my eyes and limbs… oh, my lungs and liver,” etc., and his cheating of David, are of a piece with the rest of the terrifying journey to Betsey Trotwood’s house.

Chapter 14:

“Mr. Murdstone,” she said, shaking her finger at him, “you were a tyrant to the simple baby, and you broke her heart.  She was a loving baby — I know that; I knew it, years before you ever saw her — and through the best part of her weakness, you gave her the wounds she died of.  There is the truth for your comfort, however you like it.  And you and our instruments may make the most of it.”

“Allow me to inquire, Miss Trotwood,” interposed Miss Murdstone, “whom you are pleased to call, in a choice of words in which I am not experienced, my brother’s instruments?”

Still stone-deaf to the voice, and utterly unmoved by it, Miss Betsey pursued her discourse.

I’m breaking my one-paragraph rule to include part of the fist-pump-worthy verbal beatdown of the Murdstones by Aunt Betsey, in which she implacably tells them the truth as she sees it of their behavior toward David and his mother and utterly ignores Miss Murdstone’s caustically sarcastic remarks.  It’s great.  Dickens gives you these moments of readerly vindication and moral satisfaction; he loves writing comeuppance; and I suppose it is one of the major points that can be held against him from a critical point of view.  Damned if it ain’t fun to read, though.

Chapter 15:

We got out; and leaving him to hold the pony, went into a long low parlor looking towards the street, from the window of which I caught a glimpse, as I went in, of Uriah Heep breathing into the pony’s nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, as if he were putting some spell upon him.

An approximation of my immediate reaction, upon reading this: Aaaahhh!!!  What the hell?!  Aaaahhh!!!

As the earlier second-hand shop example already showed, Dickens contains a lot of terrifying details.  He had a real gift for horror.  This is how we meet Uriah Heep: an unsettling physical description, heavy on the color red and the attributes of a corpse, followed by this stunning, unexplained weirdness.  It might as well be David Lynch, this is so creepy and nightmarish.

Chapter 16:

He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly; and which diverted my attention from the compliment he had paid my relation, to the snaky twistings of his throat and body.

One more courtesy of Uriah Heep.  Two things especially stand out for me in the scene of which this line is representative: first, the pacing and structure, which I cannot convey through one line, but which is really fantastic.  Between the short lines of a seemingly innocuous conversation between Uriah and David, David the narrator inserts comments on the uneasiness Uriah provokes through his appearance, his movements, his clamminess, his obsequious “‘umbleness.”  Second, Dickens’ choice of the word “writhing” to describe Uriah’s movements, which recurs in the scene and then becomes a signature for the character, in Dickens’ typical style.  It’s the perfect word, with its associations with worms and snakes; its connotation of futile struggle and striving, which seems to be Uriah’s basic state; and the echo in writhe of wraith, and the touches of the supernatural, deathly, and satanic that have already been connected to Uriah.  It’s what he is and what he does.  He writhes.

Chapter 17:

“I suppose history never lies, does it?” said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.

“Oh dear, no sir!” I replied, most decisively.  I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so.

Quite a cheeky epigram for the writer of a fictional “personal history” to include.

Chapter 18:

It is a summer evening, down in a green hollow, at the corner of a wall.  I meet the butcher by appointment.  I am attended by a select body of our boys; the butcher, by two other butchers, a young publican, and a sweep.  The preliminaries are adjusted, and the butcher and myself stand face to face.  In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my left eyebrow.  In another moment, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is.  I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.

In this very short chapter, Dickens move David through puberty.  Much of it is standard stuff, and I suppose I like the passage above more for some of the music of language — the staccato rhythm, which persists through the entire chapter, and that lovely first sentence of scene-setting — than for the content of the teenage fight with the town-bully butcher.  I guess Dickens moves through it in this reportorial, perfunctory way because he knows it’s hackneyed.  And yet I like this chapter so much, because the form of the chapter somehow matches the experience of puberty and the way you recollect it.  It all means so much to you, but eventually those fierce crushes get crushed themselves, into just the kinds of paragraph-sized vignettes Dickens shapes here.  You can’t do anything but report; you’re a different person, walking through a fever dream.  Music montages became a cliche for a reason, I guess.

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