David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 15 and 16
January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just finished: David Copperfield.
Reading next: Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Norton Critical Edition).
Onward with my review of favorite passages in each chapter of David Copperfield:
It seemed such an extraordinary thing to have Dora always there. It was so unaccountable not to be obliged to go out and see her, not to have any occasion to be tormenting myself about her, not to have to write to her, not to be scheming and devising opportunities of being alone with her. Sometimes of an evening, when I looked up from my writing, and saw her seated opposite, I would lean back in my chair, and think how queer it was that there we were, alone together as a matter of course — nobody’s business any more — all the romance of our engagement put away upon a shelf, to rust — no one to please but one another — one another to please, for life.
I mean, “to rust”! What an extraordinary thing for a man to say about his life with his wife, from the vantage of many years later. And that wearying repetition of “one another” at the end. The beginning of a remarkably ambivalent story of a marriage.
I pondered on these words, even while I was studiously attending to what followed, as if they had some particular interest, or some strange application that I could not divine. “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” — “no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”
In this passage, and again at the end of the chapter, David rethinks certain statements in Annie Strong’s confession to her husband, implicitly applying them to his own situation. I particularly like this for the way that the repetition, shortening each time like an echo, puts me in mind of the cinematic device — something you’d see in Hitchcock or a film noir, and now in endless parodies — of a character hearing a bothersome or puzzling phrase again and again, nagging at them from their subconscious, as the speaker’s head floats around their own. (And a question: is this device, in fact, native to cinema, or borrowed from drama or literature? Did Dickens actually have something like this in mind?)
“And theer’s one curious thing — that, though he is so pleasant, I wouldn’t fare to feel comfortable to try and get his mind upon ‘t. He never said a wured to me as warn’t as dootiful as dootiful could be, and it ain’t likely as he’d begin to speak any other ways now; but it’s fur from being fleet water in his mind, where them thowts lays. It’s deep, sir, and I can’t see down.”
Mr. Peggotty, talking about Ham Peggotty and his thoughts on Emily and an ambiguous “end of it” he foretold one day. This passage reminds me quite a bit of Melville; amazing to think that he was writing Moby-Dick as David Copperfield was being written and published. Were the late 1840s and early 1850s actually the apex of English-language literature? What was in the water back then?
The neighborhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy wastes of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what stranged objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which — having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather — they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb tide.
There’s more, but that’s more than enough to give you a sense of Dickens’ phantasmagoric description of the riverside at night. No one does it better. “Grovelling in the dust”! “Last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men”! “Ooze and slush”! Interestingly, this is also the second chapter in a row in which a description of the London landscape serves as a portrait for a character — in the last chapter, for Miss Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth, and here for Martha, in this case Martha herself making the connection.
He appears to me to have lived in a hail of saucepan-lids. His whole existence was a scuffle. He would shriek for help on the most improper occasions, — as, when we had a little dinner party, or a few friends in the evening, — and would come tumbling out of the kitchen, with iron missiles flying after him. We wanted to get rid of him, but he was very much attached to us, and wouldn’t go. He was a tearful boy, and broke into such deplorable lamentations, when a cessation of our connexion was hinted at, that we were obliged to keep him. He had no mother — nor anything in the way of a relative, that I could discover, except a sister, who fled to America the moment we had taken him off her hands; and he became quartered on us like a horrible young changeling. He had a lively perception of his own unfortunate state, and was always rubbing his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket, or stooping to blow his nose on the extreme corner of a little pocket-handkerchief, which he never would take completely out of his pocket, but always economised and secreted.
I greatly enjoy the language in this little portrait, but also find it remarkably cruel, especially coming from Dickens and his surrogate David. He speaks in the next paragraph of his desire to “get rid of him,” and does so in the paragraph thereafter, when he steals a watch. Speaking of the fictional narrator, it is interesting to think of this as a step in David disciplining his famous “undisciplined heart,” treating the circumstances of this unfortunate kid as a bit of light comedy and a foible to be overcome in his domestic life — never even granting him the privilege of a name; speaking of this as a fictionalized autobiography, it is interesting to note the difference between Dickens’ treatment of David before he becomes an author and after, with his famous rejection of saying anything about the books David writes (also in this chapter) and a change in tone as he becomes famous and wealthy. The last third of the book, while still terrific, is not quite up to the standard of the rest; it’s sometimes missing David the character, as Dickens (I guess) becomes reluctant to talk too much about his adult self.
“The friendliness of this gentleman,” said Mr. Micawber to my aunt, “if you will allow me, ma’am, to cull a figure of speech from the vocabulary of our coarser national sports — floors me.”
The meeting of Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick — Mr. Micawber: “My dear sir, you overpower me!” — is hilarious to imagine. This chapter also contains my favorite Micawber letter, in which he writes mysteriously of “wielding the thunderbolt” and the “domestic tranquillity and peace of mind” of King’s Bench Prison.
“The miserable vanity of these earth-worms!” she said, when she had so far controlled the angry heavings of her breast, that she could trust herself to speak. “Your home! Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely? Your home! You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in.”
Ouch. Dickens seems to take a great deal of pleasure in writing Rosa Dartle’s dialogue, expressions of class and clan warfare as they can only be waged by those who are adopted into said class and clan, and David acknowledges her appeal (though earlier, before she was transformed into a demon of rage and jealousy). It’s like cartoon-villain dialogue. She might as well be twirling her mustachios. But there’s such weird and interesting sex and family stuff underneath it; Rosa and Steerforth are kind of a parallel plot to David and Agnes, if you look at the plot from a Shakespearean angle.