David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Final Verdict: 3.50 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is considered to be his most autobiographical work. As such, one would expect a certain amount of realism and empathy to be present in this book, perhaps more so than in any of his others. Fortunately, this proves to be the case. In comparison to Oliver Twist, for instance, which tackles many of the same themes as this book (most noticeably child orphans and neglect/abuse) David Copperfield proves to be much more effective, in that the story seems more grounded in reality and history, the characters seem more genuine, rounded, and believable, and the overall resolution takes into consideration not just the main character, David, but also those surrounding him – many of whom became important, cared about players in the story. The honesty of this book elevates it above others’ of Dickens work, such as the historical A Tale of Two Cities which, while entertaining and interesting, does not quite connect as well on a human level. David Copperfield is much more in sync with Dickens’s later works, such as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in that you can sense Dickens in this book – his struggles, sorrows, triumphs, and haunting memories.
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.
Oftentimes, my second biggest gripe with Dickens is that his characterization and character development are almost non-existent. He typically seems to employ static characters to represent the good and bad elements of life and nature. The good characters, like Oliver Twist, are wholly good – sweet, innocent, naïve. The bad characters, like Fagin, are just downright evil. To an extent, Dickens does some of this in David Copperfield. There are no redeeming qualities in Mr. and Miss Murdstone, for instance. They are cold, hostile, devious siblings – and their motives are always clear and unchanging. Uriah Heep, the anti-hero to our David, and his mother are quite easy to despise, particularly when they try to gain sympathy by proclaiming their “’umbleness.” Similarly, there are the good characters who do no wrong – Peggotty and Mr. Pegotty, for example, are true friends to David and prime examples of hard work, kindness, and friendship. There are in this tale, however, a few conundrums – people the reader can love sometimes and hate at other times. Mr. Micawber, for example, is a good guy who keeps making bad mistakes. Steerforth, too, though relatively easy to despise, also inspires a certain amount of empathy. Even, and perhaps most importantly, the main character David can be exhausting at times but, ultimately, he is real and we root for him and his happiness in the end. Of the six Dickens novels I have read so far, this is by far the closest Dickens comes to creating a world of roundness – believable characters, with both flaws and saving graces. From Aunt Betsey to Mr. Traddles – Barkis to Dora Spenlow, these characters are interesting to watch because they can be surprising, which is something, I feel, Dickens stories often lack.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
The first argument I typically have against Dickens is that he says far too much. He is unnecessarily long-winded most of the time. Sometimes, it is in an attempt to be funny but, typically, it just seems to be “because.” For the first quarter of the book, I feared David Copperfield was doomed to this failure – as many other Dickens works have been. Fortunately, as it happens, I was quite wrong. Although the first portion of the book was a bit of a drudge, the rest of the book was written beautifully. As the story picked up and became more complicated, with David Copperfield establishing himself in business, falling in love, breaking friendships, and traveling abroad, the language wove an interesting web around him and his journey, one which connected the reader to David and encouraged him to come along, to see what happens, to experience what David was experiencing. Dickens seemed to set aside the pretension with which he usually crafts his prose, in favor of a sophisticated but straightforward language. It is possible that, the story being so near to Dickens personally, he felt less need to raise the language above it – as he does in his more didactic tales (where the prose often breaks into lecture and humorous diatribes). Although I was not entirely satisfied, it was the closest I have come to being so.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.
What is most rewarding about this book, particularly for one familiar with Dickens, is that he manages to get his point across without the preaching he does in so many other books. This is clearly a story about perseverance, growth, and interpersonal relationships but, rather than try to convince the reader of this through narrative lecturing, Dickens accomplishes it through the story-telling itself. All creative writers are at some point taught to “show, not tell” and while it may seem trite or cliché –perhaps even out of mode these days- to mention it, there is still much to be said about a writer who can show his reader what he means, without telling them. This is exactly what Dickens accomplishes with David Copperfield. If you can slug your way through the first three hundred pages of the book which, in my opinion, are rather slow, lofty, and indulgent, the reward is another five hundred pages of touching humanity in print – a boy, abandoned, is found and in the process, finds himself, not without stumbles and misjudgments along the way. This is perhaps a Victorian equivalent of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – less gritty and certainly haughtier but, ultimately, a satisfying tale of love, family, friendship, and coming-of-age.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
“It’s a mad world. Mad as Bedlam, boy!”
‘”Never,” said my aunt, “be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you.”’
“Accidents will occur in the best regulated families.”
“Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!”
“My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”
“There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”
Thanks for a great review! Concerning Dickens’ plot/ style, as you point out, we are often annoyed by his digression and superfluity. But this may be a sad habit characteristic of modern people to try to find something consistent and explore the meaning of every detail. I personally think that Dickens’ great charm lies in his inconsistency and unnecessary details that almost look nonsense, that actually mirrors what our everyday life is. We can even find a number of parts in Dickens that remind us of modernist writers’ techniques such as Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Faulkner’s inner monologue, etc.
Hi, Esther –
Thanks for your comment! You make a valid argument, but I think it’s an unfortunate circumstance that the first counter-argument we make toward claims of wordiness or superfluity in Victorian literature is that “it’s out of fashion” in modern times, so we, naturally, do not appreciate or enjoy it. This could be true in many instances and for many readers, but the argument I am making is not just that Dickens tends to be wordy and lofty, but that he does so without a “means to an end,” so to speak. I believe Dickens is an author who simply liked (or needed to be) wordy, without concerning himself with whether or not that wordiness was conducive to the story. Some might find this endearing, but I find it unnecessary and distracting. I would liken him to Thakeray or David Foster Wallace, for instance. All-in-all, they write great stories and I end up enjoying them – but I could do without great chunks of nonsense.
Comparatively, if I look at War and Peace or Les Miserables, I would certainly say these books are long, wordy, and often the authors take tangents and make digressions from the story. The difference, however, is that they do so while still maintaining consistency and purpose. I would not extract a page from the 1,424 page Tolstoy; nor would I remove a paragraph from the 1,463 page Hugo novel – but I could easily do without a couple hundred pages in many of Dickens novels. There’s a certain art to the craft, so to speak. Long books and wordy books are perfectly fine – Steinbeck could craft a brilliant 90-page story and a brilliant 600-page novel. But, in my opinion, Steinbeck (unlike Dickens and others) knew how to craft his stories so that every word counted. Dickens either did not know, or did not care. Again, this could be perfectly fine for some – even charming, but it is lacking in literary merit. Even so, as I said, I believe Dickens actually did a better job in David Copperfield than he did in some others and, overall, I really enjoyed the book.
My grandmother loved this book above all others so I must declare an interest or bias here. I prefer ‘Great Expectations’, but I think I know what she meant. Sometimes I think there is a problem involved in reading literature of the past and making critical comments because we are sometimes saying more about ourselves than the work. Reading then was a different activity than it is today. In the time when Dickens was writing, people had perhaps less instant gratification in their lives- it was okay for him to start slowly and to meander or digress because his transported readers were fine with that. His unique style enabled him to sketch vibrant characters who we remember decades after we stop reading and my grandmother would have cursed you for not giving this book full marks. Personally, I know where you are coming from re modern literary standards and thank you for a super review. John.
Hi, John –
Thank you for your reply! I appreciate your (and your grandmother’s) point of view – and I hope I can respond without stepping on either of your toes.
Like you, I prefer Great Expectations and the reason is largely because Dickens stayed on message, even when he was detouring from the main story, and he wrote with a more realistic, less self-indulgent prose. I agree with you that there can be issues when modern readers pick up the classics and find themselves disliking the book because they are in unfamiliar territory. This, as Esther mentioned below, often happens because contemporary readers are not used to the idea of books as entertainment- that we should immerse ourselves into a story and get lost in it (which means, sometimes, the lengthier books are all the more gratifying – at least they were to Victorian readers). This simplified “I don’t like it because it’s wordy” argument would happen, I think, with inexperienced readers or with less-studied readers, such as those who typically read young adult fiction, romance, etc.
My point, however, is not just that Dickens is wordy and lofty, but that he is wordy and lofty without valid cause. Yes, for some, reading is different today than it was then; but I am a literature scholar. I have two degrees in English and my graduate degree is in American literature. I might not have clarified enough that I marked this book down from perfect in the prose section not simply because I found it wordy and unnecessarily self-absorbed (because, in fact and as I mentioned, I found this to be an improvement over some of his other books, in this respect), but because he writes lengthy phrases and passages simply to write them – without thinking about the words’ purposes. This could be a result of the critical school I come from, wherein we believe every word should matter; however, as I mentioned in my reply to Esther, two of my favorite books are War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
These books are each more than 1,000 pages long. They are lofty, wordy, and tedious. The authors take numerous tangents and oftentimes break off from the main story to tell back stories, concurrent stories, and relative stories (such as the impact of certain war efforts on the social climate). What is different, though, is that there is a sense of necessity in these books. While many read Dickens for entertainment, he was also a social writer, trying to make a point – about the poor, about social injustice, about work-houses and class disparities, etc. Other Victorian writers of the time were equally entertaining and equally effective, without having to be quite so verbose. My belief is that Dickens simply enjoyed writing, so wrote much more than was necessary. Of course, he also was paid by page/chapter, so the longer his books, the more he made for each. I would compare him, rather, to William Makepeace Thackeray and David Foster Wallace (and even, though I hate to do so, to Ayn Rand).
These are writers who simply like to hear themselves speak (See themselves read? Watch themselves write?). They are less concerned with the importance of each word or segment, and moreso with the fact that they get everything they want to say said, without regard to what is particularly necessary or not.
All that being said, 3.5 out of 4.0 stars is a great rating – I really enjoyed the book and I’m sure your grandmother and I could have a great conversation about its rich characters and the autobiographical nature of the story.
Another Hugo fan like me- I loved that book too.
I guess I am completely opposed to marking books all together, I think Dickens was exuberant and enjoyed writing for its own sake. I agree with many of your points. I would however ask you to give Ayn Rand as few further mentions on your brilliant blog as possible. I don’t mind how many degrees you have; but I sense your love of books and people. Hence I humbly beg you not to add to the publicity that woman’s ideas already have. Dickens may have been a paternalist, some would just call him a Tory, but his views were not like hers. Perhaps trying to read books very quickly means that it is harder to appreciate the more meandering or digression-prone narratives? Also Dickens might not be made for your intellectual level- my grandmother probably liked him so much because of his common touch.
Thanks for your follow-up! I wasn’t comparing Dickens to Rand socio-politically. They were polar opposites in that regard. I was simply comapring an aspect of their writing style. 🙂
Dear Adam & John,
Extremely interesting! I never thought such exciting exchanges of views going on while I was sleeping. Whether we like Dickens’ style or not…some people prefer going to a first-rate restaurant where a full-course dinner is served: first, appetizer, next soup, then a main dish, dessert, and finally coffee – there is certainly logical order. Others prefer a home-made stew your mother concocted, in which every kind of ingredient you could enjoy all at onece, though there is no causal relation in a pot. To demonstrate how delicious Dickens’ magic stew is, let me cite a part from David Copperfield (Chapter 24): “Somebody was leaping out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the coolstone 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; my eyes had a vacant appearance, and my hair – only my hair, nothing else – looked drunk.” Here, Dickens instead of writing “I drank myself unconscious” put prolix sentences, which only appeal to people who have had same kind of experiences, absurd irrational feeling and sensation. Thanks for such exciting discussions!
Hi, Esther –
That’s a great analogy (and could apply, I think, to stream of consciousness writers, more than anything). I love that passage as well – one of my favorite from the book BUT it was a favorite not just because of the style in that particular sentence (which is endearing) but also because it applies directly to David’s (or Trot, here) coming-of-age journey.
Thanks for the continued sharing!
I’ve only read two Dickens novels so far, but you’ve got me considering this one because you say it’s got less moralizing (sp?). Oliver Twist was a bit heavy-handed in that regard, imo. Thanks for the review! I’m working on reading more of the classics.
Yes, it’s definitely less didactic (although, some of the characters are still statically “good” or “bad,” as in the majority of Dickens novels). This one was much more autobiographical, though, which I think really added something to what we would expect from a typical Dickens. I ultimately ended up enjoying and appreciating Oliver Twist, but I know what you mean. David Copperfield (though slow at first) will likely suit your tastes much better.
Pingback: Classics Club: Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield « Fat Books & Thin Women