By tim on
Sunday, August 26, 2001
Sunday, August 26, 2001
Here are some extracts from the cliffnotes
To be a best-selling novelist in nineteenth-century England was practically like being a pop star today. In those days before movies, radio, or television, people read novels as their main form of entertainment. They didn't think of them as "literature." Dickens' books did a lot to make novels more respectable, because his novels were read by all levels of society. Intellectuals pored over them for their political satire and social commentary. Middle-class families in their cozy parlors looked forward to reading Dickens' latest book, admiring his sentimental scenes and moral messages. In poorer neighborhoods, people might gather in groups, breathlessly listening to it being read aloud; they laughed at the broad comedy and gasped at the thrilling suspense. Dickens had hit upon a formula for pleasing everybody: he spanned all levels of society with his multilayered plots and huge cast of characters, and he ended each serial installment with a thrilling climax, to make his readers rush out to buy the next month's.
(...)in David Copperfield, he protests against the sexual mores of his age that condemned "fallen" women- unmarried women (usually poor) who had affairs or gave birth to illegitimate children. He also shows the misery of child labor. (While his original readers probably assumed the warehouse scenes were invented for purposes of satire, we now know that Dickens was recording actual memories of his secret past.) Dickens criticizes the antiquated legal institution of Doctors' Commons in a few passages. He also devotes a chapter to satirizing prison reform.
Some of these bursts of satire are not really central to the book. It's almost as if Dickens felt he had to include satire, because that was what he was known for. Much of Dickens' popularity was based on his reputation as a social critic. Many middle-class Victorians liked to think of themselves as concerned citizens, whose rational, humane efforts were creating the perfect society. Dickens was, like them, a reformer but not a radical. Some of the conditions he criticized had already been improved by these reformers by the time he wrote about them. Dickens had no interest in tearing apart the framework of society- only in improving it to come closer to his ideals of justice and Christian charity. He was actually more of a conservative than many readers realize.
Some readers believe that David is simply a portrait of a typical young gentleman of the early Victorian age. He has a middle-class gentleman's education (a good secondary school but no university degree). He holds some liberal beliefs; for example, he criticizes Doctors' Commons and the parliamentary debates. But on the whole he is a supporter of the Establishment. He doesn't question the social conventions that judge his friend Emily to be "ruined" because she has had an affair. He's convinced that it's important to work hard, succeed in a career, and make money. He believes in God, but only as a vague idea- you never see him going to church as an adult. He places a high value on domestic harmony, and thinks that a woman's place is in the home.
Dickens' political "cause" in this novel is the plight of fallen women (he was involved with running a home for such women in London). Emily is Dickens' main example of a fallen woman, and therefore, to make his social comment, he is very careful to present her in a sympathetic light. He introduces her as "Little Em'ly," a playful, spirited child, so your first impression is of her innocence and freshness. Only later, when David revisits the Peggottys, can you sense the doom hanging over her- a fatal hunger for adventure, for being "a lady." Yet Emily is by nature a lady. Even her speech is aristocratic, unlike the dialect of her Uncle Dan and cousin Ham. In some ways, Dickens blames the class system for her fate. Society's double standard will punish Emily, but not Steerforth, for their affair.
Emily's character gradually becomes less and less distinct. Although she was David's childhood sweetheart, his romantic interest fades after they grow up. Mr. Omer, the local undertaker, tells David about her, while Emily herself slides silently in and out. The anguish of a village girl's shame is voiced dramatically by Martha Endell, but Emily's shame is told only in her letters. After she returns to England from her scandalous life on the Continent, David sees her only through a doorway and across a crowded ship. Even Ham doesn't talk with her again, though he has forgiven her for jilting him. Maybe Dickens doesn't want you to see a "sinful woman" up close, or maybe he's emphasizing what an outcast she has become. Although Emily's uncle takes her back, most girls in her position weren't so lucky. Though she makes a new home in Australia, she chooses to remain cut off from life, unmarried. As a Victorian, Dickens can't approve of her moral lapse- he only asks pity for her.
Dickens records the Yarmouth dialect accurately in the speech of Daniel, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge. Emily, however, speaks standard English. Dickens often uses dialect either for comic effect or to emphasize a character's social class. Sometimes Dickens uses dialect to emphasize the simple goodness of working-class people, like Dan and Ham. In other cases, he will use dialect to show that a villain is from the lower classes. As you read, notice who speaks dialect, and consider why.
Agnes' hostess, Mrs. Waterbrook, invites David to a fashionable dinner party. At this period in his life, Dickens had been honored with too many such parties, so he has David satirize the guests with exaggeration and irony. He uses capital letters scornfully to emphasize their favorite topics- especially Blood (meaning hereditary social position). Mr. Gulpidge and Mr. Spiker carry on an obscure conversation using initials instead of names, as if to confuse anyone who's not an insider. David is rather insignificant in this crowd, and he acts mostly as an observer. But he does meet his old Salem House friend Tommy Traddles, who's now a lawyer.
Some readers have felt that David is acting like Mr. Murdstone in teaching his wife new habits, and that Dickens disapproves. Others think Dickens is merely mocking David for trying to change a child like Dora. David's speeches to Dora do sound a little self-righteous, but they are standard Victorian rhetoric about social duty and domestic order. Dickens portrays David's efforts to teach Dora with irony, but it's hard to tell whether David or Dora is the object of satire. (It may be both!)