David Copperfield and the Poetic View of Life

WC Fields as Mr Micawber in the MGM film of David Copperfield, 1935.
WC Fields as Mr Micawber in the MGM film of David Copperfield, 1935.

David Copperfield is Charles Dickens’s most autobiographical work (see this short article on auobiographical elements in David Copperfield for some details). If we are to take the main character of David Copperfield as a representative of Dickens himself, we must take seriously his reflections on the nature of that character. There is one point in the novel where he makes a direct assessment of his own qualities, and it occurs in Chapter 42, Mischief:

I will only add, to what I have already written of my perseverance at this time of my life, and of a patient and continuous energy which then began to be matured within me, and which I know to be the strong part of my character, if it have any strength at all, that there, on looking back, I find the source of my success…

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. I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the steady, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. There is no such thing as such fulfilment on this earth. Some happy talent, and some fortunate opportunity, may form the two sides of the ladder on which some men mount, but the rounds of that ladder must be made of stuff to stand wear and tear; and there is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never to put one hand to anything, on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was; I find, now, to have been my golden rules.

Here we see a strong self portrait of Dickens himself, and we can only be struck by the strength of his self-awareness. GK Chesterton makes a similar assesment of the character of Charles Dickens in his Appreciations and Criticisms:

He sometimes wrote bad work; he sometimes wrote even unimportant work; but he wrote hardly a line which is not full of his own fierce vitality and fancy. If he is dull it is hardly ever because he cannot think of anything; it is because, by some silly excitement or momentary lapse of judgment, he has thought of something that was not worth thinking of. If his joke is feeble, it is as an impromptu joke at an uproarious dinner-table may be feeble; it is no indication of any lack of vitality. The joke is feeble, but it is not a sign of feebleness. Broadly speaking, this is true of Dickens. If his writing is not amusing us, at least it is amusing him. Even when he is tiring he is not tired.

This is such an important facet of Dickens the writer that it should be front of mind during any attempt to appreciate or criticise his work.

John O Jordan has noted that earlier critics identified signs of weakness in Dickens’s work in his ‘sprawling melodramatic plots, larger-than-life characters (and) verbal extravagance’. These qualities will particularly strike the modern reader, but to fully understand Dickens we have to grasp these as fundamental aspects of his writing. In fact, as Chesterton asserts in his book on Charles Dickens (1906) (which TS Eliot called ‘the best on that author that has ever been written’) this is the whole point of Dickens’s work, and especially David Copperfield:

David Copperfield is the great answer of a great romancer to the realists. David says in effect: “What! you say that the Dickens tales are too purple really to have happened! Why, this is what happened to me, and it seemed the most purple of all. You say that the Dickens heroes are too handsome and triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever so handsome and triumphant as the Head Boy seemed to me walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains are too black! Why, there was no ink in the devil’s ink-stand black enough for my own stepfather when I had to live in the same house with him. The facts are quite the other way to what you suppose. This life of grey studies and half tones, the absence of which you regret in Dickens, is only life as it is looked at. This life of heroes and villains is life as it is lived. The life a man knows best is exactly the life he finds most full of fierce certainties and battles between good and ill—his own. Oh, yes, the life we do not care about may easily be a psychological comedy. Other people’s lives may easily be human documents. But a man’s own life is always a melodrama.

In this sense David Copperfield is a ‘defence of the poetic view of life’, and characters like Mr Micawber ‘an immense assertion of the truth that the way to live is to exaggerate everything’.

I can’t end this article without quoting Chesterton once more, in what appears to me the last word in Dickensian criticism:

This is the excuse for all that indeterminate and rambling and sometimes sentimental criticism of which Dickens, more than any one else, is the victim, of which I fear that I for one have made him the victim in this place. When I was a boy I could not understand why the Dickensians worried so wearily about Dickens, about where he went to school and where he ate his dinners, about how he wore his trousers and when he cut his hair. I used to wonder why they did not write something that I could read about a man like Micawber. But I have come to the conclusion that this almost hysterical worship of the man, combined with a comparatively feeble criticism on his works, is just and natural. Dickens was a man like ourselves; we can see where he went wrong, and study him without being stunned or getting the sunstroke. But Micawber is not a man; Micawber is the superman. We can only walk round and round him wondering what we shall say. All the critics of Dickens, when all is said and done, have only walked round and round Micawber wondering what they should say. I am myself at this moment walking round and round Micawber wondering what I shall say. And I have not found out yet.

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