David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 9 and 10

January 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Bringing us to the mid-point of the novel, here are my favorite lines from each chapter of the ninth and tenth parts:

Chapter 25:

“It’s a topic that I wouldn’t touch upon, to any soul but you.  Even to you I can only touch upon it, and no more.  If any one else had been in my place during the last few years, by this time he would have had Mr. Wickfield (oh, what a worthy man he is, Master Copperfield, too!) under his thumb.  Un—der — his thumb,” said Uriah, very slowly, as he stretched out his cruel-looking hand above my table, and pressed his own thumb down upon it, until it shook, and shook the room.

Another of the touches of surreality brought to the text by Uriah Heep, in that shaking of the room by a thumb.  This little passage highlights many of Uriah’s traits that get under David’s skin: that recurring dig of calling him “Master Copperfield,” as if a child, showing Uriah’s way of finding and exploiting weaknesses and vanities in his adversaries; his praise for those he seeks to control, as if he were unworthy of them; his taking liberties he has not earned and sharing confidences his companion would rather he not.

Chapter 26:

I hazarded a bold flight, and said (not without stammering) that it was very bright to me then, though it had been very dark to me a minute before.

“Do you mean a compliment?” said Dora, “or that the weather has really changed?”

A pretty funny exchange, in context, from early on in David’s wooing of Dora Spenlow, emblematic of David’s being a “lackadaisical young spooney” for her, in his own excellent words, and also of Dora’s ditziness.  At least so far, their relationship seems to be Hollywood-romantic-comedy level stuff.

Chapter 27:

The time he had mentioned was more than out, and he lived in a little street near the Veterinary College at Camden Town, which was principally tenanted, as one of our clerks who lived in that direction informed me, by gentlemen students, who bought live donkeys, and made experiments on those quadrupeds in their private apartments.

What’s the deal with the donkeys in this book?  Aunt Betsey is obsessed with them, and then this ghoulish chestnut gets tossed into a description of the neighborhood in which Tommy Traddles is living with the Micawbers.  The image of vets-in-training dissecting donkeys in their living rooms is so bizarre it must be based in reality.  And really, what an evocative way to suggest the unsavory nature of the neighborhood.

Chapter 28:

“Sir — for I dare not say, my dear Copperfield,

“It is expedient that I should inform you that the undersigned is Crushed.  Some flickering efforts to spare you the premature knowledge of his calamitous position, you may observe in him this day; but hope has sunk beneath the horizon, and the undersigned is Crushed.”

Another of the suicide notes from Mr. Micawber sprinkled throughout the text, this with a particularly effective combination of Micawber’s “legal phraseology” and his (real or feigned?) desperation.  The contrast of Micawber’s public positivity and shameless search for funds or position worthy of his “talents,” with his private letters to David admitting (and overstating) the doomed nature of his life, makes for a fascinating motif.  This chapter’s also notable for a great culinary scene of making deviled mutton on a gridiron, and the return of Steerforth, suddenly obviously a villain — Dickens rather overstates the case here, I think, in so quickly transforming his behavior.

Chapter 29:

As she still looked fixedly at me, a twitching or throbbing, from which I could not dissociate the idea of pain, came into that cruel mark; and lifted up the corner of her lip with scorn, or with a pity that despised its object.

Rosa Dartle’s cut through her lip, from when Steerforth threw a hammer at her as a child, is an odd but effective touch of the Gothic here: a sort of mark of Cain, and the first hint we’re given that Steerforth has a rotten core, it also takes on a character of its own, revealing itself whenever she grows pale, and contorting her face as if against Rosa’s will into the expressions she feels.  Rosa’s a really interesting character; I look forward to seeing what Dickens does with her.  She reminds me a bit of both Esther and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.

Chapter 30:

I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

It must’ve been amazing to hear Dickens read from his work.  I suspect he could’ve made me sob like a baby with a scene like this.  The cadence is just perfect, and that last line so sweet, and sad.  Dickens could come off as cloying or contrived in some of his death scenes, especially if of a main character, when the scene could become an “event” (see Nell, Little); here, he writes a perfectly balanced scene of comedy and tragedy, life and death, culminating in this quiet moment of dignity.

Chapter 31:

“Em’ly’s run away!  Oh, Mas’r Davy, think how she’s run away, when I pray my good and gracious God to kill her (her that is so dear above all things) sooner than let her come to ruin and disgrace!”

This is actually my least favorite line of the chapter, and one of my least favorite of the book, and it can stand in for more or less all of the most queasily and quintessentially Victorian lines in Dickens.  It’s just the line that provoked the strongest reaction.  It’s not even the first time that a character has suggested that Emily would be better off murdered than having run off to have sex with a man outside of her class (David mentions that maybe Emily would’ve been better off falling into the sea and drowning as a child, early on).  I don’t know what’s going to happen to Emily, yet.  But this sort of better-off-dead-than-deflowered BS… I mean… what’s the defense for it?  Why put this line into the mouth of virtuous Ham, Emily’s constantly devoted fiance?  It’s vile.  It shows all that seems most foreign to us in the society of 150 years ago.

Did Dickens himself believe this sort of thing, given his, shall we say, complicated personal life?  Or was he just obeying convention?  Surely lines like this were seen as necessary at the time, so as not to shock refined sensibilities, just like it’s impossible to show anything but negative effects of drug use on TV now.  It’s just so over the top.  Here’s my advice: Ham, you probably should not pray to almighty God to slaughter your beloved because she may be having premarital sex.  And you probably should not wish her life had ended when she was five because she may one day have sex with a man whose family has more money than she does, David.  Just my opinion, I guess.

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