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Subject Why are readers so indifferent towards Agnes?

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Publication 1132 By Marcy on Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 00:16   
Location: United States   Registered: Wednesday, July 16, 2008  Posts: 7    Search for other posts by Marcy Search   Quote
I read several essays I found online regarding the character of Agnes Wickfield, the confidante and eventual wife of the protagonist, David Copperfield.

My question is, why are people so indifferent towards the character of Agnes? What is that people don't like about her? And most importantly, why would anyone ever prefer David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, over Agnes?

Dora is childish and completely dependent on her father, and later David. She does not know how to keep house or cook. David is at first infatuated by her charms and girlish beauty. As their marriage wears on, he does indeed truly love her because one obviously has to love Dora as much as David loves her to not loose their temper towards such an incompetent young woman. But soon enough, David does express doubt about their marriage. When he visits the Doctor and Annie Strong, he realizes that his marriage to Dora is not perfect or fulfilling and never will be.

Part of Dora's charms to the reader, I assume, is that she acknowledges the fact that she is a completely useless wife. She even tells David to think of her as only a child wife. When she meets Agnes during her engagement to David, she realizes how much she pales in comparison. It is even implied that Dora wonders why David does not choose to marry Agnes instead.

Unlike Dora, which I gradually liked a little more as the book progressed, I immediately liked Agnes. She is the ideal woman: independent, intelligent, and sincere. Perhaps Agnes represents too much of the traditional, idealized wife, but there is no doubt in my mind that a woman such as Agnes would do fine in the twenty-first century while Dora, on the other hand, would have to rely solely on her girlish charms that may or may not go a long way.

An essay that has struck a particular chord with me is an article from The New York Times, written by Peter Gay, titled, "The Legless Angel of 'David Copperfield': There's More to Her Than Victorian Piety." Here are several excerpts that speak unfavorably of Agnes:

In his authoritative three-volume "Life of Charles Dickens," published from 1872 to 1874, even the adoring John Forster, Dickens's closest friend and best-informed apologist, preferred Dora, David Copperfield's first "Loving little child-wife," to his second, the "angel wife, Agnes," with her "too unfailing wisdom and self-sacrificing goodness."
George Orwell's scathing dismissal is perhaps the best known. Agnes, he wrote in this long, admiring essay "Charles Dickens," published in 1939, is "the most disagreeable of his heroines, the real legless angel of Victorian romance..."

I've also read in another essay (I've lost the link) that E.M. Forster also preferred Dora to Agnes, insisting that David falls in love with the "wrong" woman by the novel's end.

How can that be? I fail to comprehend how people would ever consider Agnes the wrong woman for David. Agnes is everything David could ever ask for and only with Agnes, David finds true happiness in life. He would never have found total satisfaction if he remained married to Dora.

Perhaps Agnes is "too perfect." Forster criticized that many of Dickens's characters are "flat" and not "round." I haven't read enough Dickens novels to argue the point, but I find many of the characters in David Copperfield to be very well-developed and alive.

If Agnes has any flaw, it is this: She does not have the courage to admit her true feelings anyone, not even to David. She tries to sustain chaos by quietly doing what she is expected while her own chance at happiness slips away from her. In that way, Agnes is every bit as human as Dora. Dora just appears more human because her flaws are much more apparent to the reader. While Agnes is David's "angel," she has very human desires.

So I was just wondering what are your opinions regarding Agnes? Please discuss. I look forward to reading the responses!

Publication 1133 By absent-minded on Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 00:39   
Location: Greece   Registered: Friday, June 29, 2001  Posts: -166    Search for other posts by absent-minded Search   Quote
Hi Marcy! I'm afraid that Agnes-criticism is not that wrong. Agnes is perfect in a way that appears too artificial, so that in the end she doesn't seem real. Even the authors of the New Testament who spoke about Christ did not end to such an idealized figure, as is Dickens' Agnes. Christ gets angry, and, most important, He even becomes desperate when the time of His crucifixion approaches. Imagine God himself to become desperate! If He is capable of that, how comes and Agnes is so immovable, so elevated above all lapses?

Publication 1149 By Aishwarya on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 07:30   
Location: New Zealand   Registered: Wednesday, September 10, 2008  Posts: 1    Search for other posts by Aishwarya Search   Quote
Agnes is not as insipidly perfect as some of Dicken's other heroines (I have Madeline Bray and Nell Trent in mind). Dicken's notion of the ideal woman seems to have been a helpless, self-sacrificing saint. What sets Agnes apart from this category is her prudent self-preservation. I admire her for NOT feeling obliged to marry an unworthy man (Uriah Heep) in order to protect her father's interest, unlike Madeline in 'Nicholas Nickleby'. Also, it is evident that she internally struggles to accept David's marriage to Dora: her cheerful attitude with the latter is hardly spontaneous. Her strength lies in that she overcomes envy and never allows it to distance her from the couple.

In response to Absent-Minded: like Christ, Agnes feels pain but she is elevated to a higher level of goodness because she nonetheless does what is right. That is what endears her to me.

Publication 1165 By Arkay on Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 17:11   
Location: United States   Registered: Tuesday, December 16, 2008  Posts: 1    Search for other posts by Arkay Search   Quote
Having just discovered and joined this forum, I am delighted to be able to offer some comments.
I just finished reading DC for the first time since high school and the passage of many years.
Perhaps ones impression of Agnes is colored by one's own age and breadth of experiences. I really fell in love with Agnes and saw, in her, a companion's that I had many years ago. At that time I never thought of her in any way other than a friend and a confidante but now I see many more possibilities that might have been. As for Agnes's demeanor, I think that we are speaking of a different age when females were expected to behave in a much less outgoing manner and would never have thought of making the first move. Therefore I did not see anything wrong in how she acted. Traddles wife Sophia is similarly devoted to family and might be considered a parallel to Agnes in her dedication and saintliness. It is perhaps a sign of our modern times that we would think it strange that a child would devote their life to caring for a parent in lieu of spreading their own wings.
To sum up and echo what someone else has already said on this board, I was urging DC to marry her, you twit, can't you see she is the one!

Publication 1166 By absent-minded on Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 18:31   
Location: Greece   Registered: Friday, June 29, 2001  Posts: -166    Search for other posts by absent-minded Search   Quote
Just like his aunt was telling him, "Blind Trot, blind..."

Publication 1169 By Marcy on Monday, January 19, 2009 at 21:29   
Location: United States   Registered: Wednesday, July 16, 2008  Posts: 7    Search for other posts by Marcy Search   Quote
Which leads me to one of my favorite moments in the book...

And how she spoke to me of Dora, sitting at the window in the dark; listened to my praises of her; praised again; and round the little fairy-figure shed some glimpses of her own pure light, that made it yet more precious and more innocent to me! Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, what I knew long afterwards! -

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!'

Publication 1185 By Nibs on Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 19:53   
Location: United States   Registered: Wednesday, May 6, 2009  Posts: 48    Search for other posts by Nibs Search   Quote
Agnes is probably my favorite character in the book and is one of my favorite characters in literature. To many readers, Agnes seems boring and unexciting, a goody two-shoes who just naturally does the right thing. But I think Agnes' actions stem from a strong spirit; she tries to help and comfort those around her, even when it is very hard. It's also important to remember that, for most of the book, we are seeing Agnes through David's notoriously "blind" view. It takes a careful reader to distinguish between Agnes' genuine actions and feelings, rather than simply following David's angelic descriptions. Agnes isn't as obvious as Dora.
I also really like how Agnes is similar to Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty in the fact that she actually takes control of things - behind the scenes. For instance, Mr. Micawber, David, and Mr. Wickfield all let Uriah Heep do whatever he wants. But Agnes reacts when Uriah tries to force her to marry him - she works with Mr. Micawber to expose his villainy. It is ultimately Agnes who brings down Uriah, none of the "strong" male characters.
Plus, Agnes is doing all this as an orphan with an alcoholic father, knowing that her mother is dead because of her birth. She is so strong and I don't see how anyone can dislike her!

Publication 1219 By Nibs on Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 10:09   
Location: United States   Registered: Wednesday, May 6, 2009  Posts: 48    Search for other posts by Nibs Search   Quote
Oh, BTW Marcy, how did you read the article by Peter Gay at NY Times? When I go to that page (even when I try to register) it only shows part of the article. I'd love to read the whole thing!

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