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.
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.