David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 7 and 8
January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: David Copperfield.
Continuing my review of favorite passages from each chapter of DC:
I know that my juvenile experiences went for little or nothing then; and that life was more like a great fairy story, which I was just about to begin to read, than anything else.
A fascinating observation by David, here, as he reflects on his departure from school for what we now refer to as “real life.” There have been many allusions to fairy tales throughout David’s telling of his childhood: ghosts, ogres, fairies, wicked stepparents, runaway children, much more. And yet it’s now, when that childhood is over (at least in David’s own perception, at the time), that he explicitly compares his experience of life to those childhood stories. Not to get too theoretical, but one of the recurring themes of David’s (fictional) autobiography is just this construction of identity and the narrative of life, and its pitfalls — the perception of experience as filtered through different kinds of stories when viewed at different times.
“Really!” said Miss Dartle. “Well, I don’t know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that. It’s so consoling! It’s such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don’t feel! Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether. Live and learn. I had my doubts, I confess, but now they’re cleared up. I didn’t know, and now I do know; and that shows the advantage of asking — don’t it?”
Miss Dartle, “all edge” in Steerforth’s words, with her scarred lip and habit of framing everything as a question in which she can embed her own sarcastic answers, says this after Steerforth has explained his view of lower-class “common” people as less “sensitive,” and “not easily wounded.” It’s an uncomfortable exchange for a reader now, and I’m sure it also was for Dickens’ contemporary readers, especially as Steerforth has heretofore been presented in a positive light, and Miss Dartle initially comes off as simply abrasive and unpleasant. (I think it’s here that Dickens begins to darken Steerforth’s portrayal, and show the space between David’s infatuation with him and his actual character.) It’s also an interesting passage in thinking about Dickens’ own portrayal of such lower-class characters, which sometimes suffers from the same sort of criticism that Miss Dartle brings up here. I wonder if this was a self-critique of a sort, or if Dickens really did not think of himself as harboring any of this kind of condescension.
I believe there never existed in his station a more respectable-looking man. He was taciturn, soft-footed, very quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but his great claim to consideration was his respectability. He had not a pliant face, he had rather a stiff neck, rather a tight smooth head with short hair clinging to it at the sides, a soft way of speaking, with a peculiar habit of whispering the letter S so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man; but every peculiarity that he had he made respectable.
Littimer, Steerforth’s “servant,” is hereby introduced (in part). Dickens’ excessive use of the term “respectable” telegraphs (intentionally) that he means the opposite, that Littimer is not to be trusted — though I wonder how obvious this was to the Victorians, or if its obviousness is an effect of the following century’s thorough distrust of the supposedly trustworthy. I enjoy the mention of Littimer’s use of “the letter S”; that Satanic sibilance also puts us on our guard against this respectable servant, the sort of figure that would be ignored as a matter of course in most fiction of the time.
“If either of you saw my ankles,” she said, when she was safely elevated, “say so, and I’ll go home and destroy myself.”
This from Miss Mowcher, a dwarf-hairdresser and social butterfly of sorts, who begins as an amusing grotesque and whom Dickens reveals later as an actual character. This line just made me laugh out loud, and it’s also representative of her public face of excessive interest in social niceties and conventions. I also enjoyed, in this chapter, David’s evocative return to his childhood home, then occupied by “a poor lunatic gentleman,” and I wonder if anything will come of that.
Littimer touched his hat in acknowledgment of my good opinion, and I felt about eight years old. He touched it once more, wishing us a good journey; and we left him standing on the pavement, as respectable a mystery as any pyramid in Egypt.
Dickens succeeds in making David, unlike Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit or (to a lesser degree) Nicholas Nickleby, a fully formed character in his own right, rather than a virtuous cipher to whom interesting things happen. His anxiety about his youth, for instance, which comes up in his lack of a need to shave at this time, and in his blind spot for Littimer’s respectability, which makes him feel even more like a child, and leads to his overlooking the oddity of Littimer having “business” to attend to on Steerforth’s behalf at Yarmouth — business that ends up being vague, at least as far as I’ve read so far, but definitely not respectable and seemingly akin to the activity of a pimp.
Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as “Copperfield,” and saying, “Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.” Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair — only my hair, nothing else — looked drunk.
I love the drunken hair. This is a great chapter, showing David’s “First Dissipation” in having his own apartment, holding his first dinner with Steerforth and his friends, drinking and smoking too much, making an ass of himself at the theatre, sleeping a horrible drunken sleep, and ruing his activities the day after, wondering if he will go the way of the apartment’s previous tenant, a man who smoke and drunk himself to death. Dickens at his best, the chapter’s a sensory feast both pleasurable and excessive, perfectly in tune with its content.