David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 11 and 12

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing the survey of my favorite passages from each chapter:

Chapter 32:

“Yes, it’s always so!” she said.  “They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and fully grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me!  They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier!  Yes, yes, that’s the way.  The old way!”

This from Miss Mowcher the dwarf, in a surprising scene with David, revealing her sorrow at Steerforth’s behavior and her not catching it beforehand.  A great example of the celebrated humanity of Dickens, his empathy for the motivations of behaviors of even his minor or comedic characters.

Chapter 33:

Taking that part of the Commons which happened to be nearest to us – for our man was unmarried by this time, and we were out of Court, and strolling past the Prerogative Office – I submitted that I thought the Prerogative Office rather a queerly managed institution. Mr. Spenlow inquired in what respect? I replied, with all due deference to his experience (but with more deference, I am afraid, to his being Dora’s father), that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of that Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply. That, perhaps, it was a little unreasonable that these registrars in the receipt of profits amounting to eight or nine thousand pounds a year (to say nothing of the profits of the deputy registrars, and clerks of seats), should not be obliged to spend a little of that money, in finding a reasonably safe place for the important documents which all classes of people were compelled to hand over to them, whether they would or no. That, perhaps, it was a little unjust, that all the great offices in this great office should be magnificent sinecures, while the unfortunate working-clerks in the cold dark room upstairs were the worst rewarded, and the least considered men, doing important services, in London. That perhaps it was a little indecent that the principal registrar of all, whose duty it was to find the public, constantly resorting to this place, all needful accommodation, should be an enormous sinecurist in virtue of that post (and might be, besides, a clergyman, a pluralist, the holder of a staff in a cathedral, and what not), – while the public was put to the inconvenience of which we had a specimen every afternoon when the office was busy, and which we knew to be quite monstrous. That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.

It’s long, I know, but I do love it when Dickens gets himself worked up like this over some unjust, rectifiable absurdity of bureaucracy or government.  He developed such an effective and entertaining rhetoric of outrage.

Chapter 34:

Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flowerpot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.

Traddles’ love affair with the two pieces of furniture for his future household with his beloved Sophy, which he bought, then pawned, then bought back, is another delightful example of the way in which Dickens creates the illusion of not just a plot or a community, but a universe: it is the accumulation of just such tertiary incidents, and the care which he put into them, which gives the impression that the characters are living, in a world very similar to (but not identical with) our own, operating on tweaked rules of logic and behavior.  Such rules lead to characters like Tommy Traddles inevitably winning back the flowerpots they’ve earned for their beloveds, and cradling them happily in their arms.

Chapter 35:

There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm, seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning:

“Blind!  Blind!  Blind!”

The fact that David is blind when it comes to Dora is indisputable.  He is an idiot about her; she is a child; that childlike selfishness, pettiness, and idleness is, of course, the reason for the attraction for him, who was deprived of most of his childhood.  The startling thing is how David (the narrator) foreshadows this fact, and gives us these hints of foreshadowing darkness in even the besotted-courtship phase of their relationship, such as this startling tableau with the beggar to close the chapter, after the revelation of his impoverishment.

Chapter 36:

I began the next day with another dive into the Roman bath, and then started for Highgate.  I was not dispirited now.  I was not afraid of the shabby coat, and had no yearnings after gallant greys.  My whole manner of thinking of our late misfortune was changed.  What I had to do, was, to show my aunt that her past goodness to me had not been thrown away on an insensible, ungrateful object.  What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart.  What I had to do, was, to take my woodman’s axe in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty, by cutting down the trees until I came to Dora.

This is great, this bright and beautiful beginning to the chapter, following right on the pensive and deeply dark end to the previous one, its optimism so indicative of the feeling you can get on a crisp morning that anything is possible.  And oh, that “woodman’s axe”: one of the most vivid examples of David seeing and telling the fairy tale of his life.

Chapter 37:

My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of the window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world.  These vigorous measures struck such terror to the breast of Mrs. Crupp, that she subsided into her own kitchen, under the impression that my aunt was mad.  My aunt being supremely indifferent to Mrs. Crupp’s opinion and everybody else’s, and rather favoring than discouraging the idea, Mrs. Crupp, of late the bold, became within a few days so faint-hearted, that rather than encounter my aunt upon the staircase, she would endeavour to hide her portly form behind doors — leaving visible, however, a wide margin of flannel petticoat — or would shrink into dark corners.  This gave my aunt such unspeakable satisfaction, that I believe she took a delight in prowling up and down, with her bonnet insanely perched on the top of her head, at times when Mrs. Crupp was likely to be in the way.

I love that “insanely perched” bonnet and that “wide margin of flannel petticoat.”  The third sentence would be a lot of fun to diagram — it’s one of Dickens’ twisty marvels.

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:

Chapter 19:

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.

Chapter 20:

“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.

Chapter 21:

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.

Chapter 22:

“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.

Chapter 23:

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.

Chapter 24:

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.

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