David Copperfield: Realism and Romance

Charles Dickens, author of David Copperfield (1849-1850).
Charles Dickens, author of David Copperfield (1849-1850).

I have said in a previous post that David Copperfield is a defence of the poetic view of life (this was a quote from GK Chesterton). But to clarify, Charles Dickens’s great novel is more than this. It is one of the best examples in literary history of the fine balance between realism and romance.

Before clarifying this point, let me be clear on terms. By ‘realism’ I mean with respect to the realist movement in literature in the 19th century. In this sense it applies to writing that attempts to describe the world as it really is, devoid of fancy or exaggeration.

Realism in the literary sense applies to works of fiction written in prose. It was influenced heavily by the journalistic, documentary style of newspaper and magazine writing in particular. This form of literary realism attempts to reach objective truth through faithful descriptions, for example of real scenes, or a person’s appearance, or aspects of a character.

By ‘romance’ I’m referring to a mode that emphasises or exaggerates specifics without trying to capture the whole. This mode is subjective and is often also called ‘poetic’, because it is the essence of poetry. In a descriptive scene, for example, the poetic mode highlights the significant detail at the expense of a totally realistic description of the scene (see my post on Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper for example).

The other major aspect of the poetic mode is its use of ambiguity. Clearly ambiguity is the very opposite of realism, but the poetic mode commonly uses a range of deliberate ambiguities to shine a light on deeper truths; William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is the key work on this approach (the complete text can be downloaded at the Internet Archive).

Blending poetic romance and prose realism

The ‘poetic’ and the ‘realist’ mode, then, are antithetical in approach. All fiction uses elements of both to various degrees, but I believe that, at his best, Dickens achieves the perfect balance. David Copperfield is one of his greatest achievements in this respect.

Consider the following description of David’s first sight of his step father’s sister in Chapter 4:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.

The descriptive technique here is based on prosaic realism, but the effect, with its trenchant premonition of David’s forthcoming incarceration, is poetic.

At times the romantic mode emerges through hints of something fantastical, as in this excerpt from Chapter 23:

Doctors’ Commons was approached by a little low archway. Before we had taken many paces down the street beyond it, the noise of the city seemed to melt, as if by magic, into a softened distance. A few dull courts and narrow ways brought us to the sky-lighted offices of Spenlow and Jorkins; in the vestibule of which temple, accessible to pilgrims without the ceremony of knocking, three or four clerks were at work as copyists. One of these, a little dry man, sitting by himself, who wore a stiff brown wig that looked as if it were made of gingerbread, rose to receive my aunt, and show us into Mr Spenlow’s room.

This short passage starts with the realism of a documentary but soon dissolves, as if by a spell, and we seem to be suddenly in another land, one of far off temples and fairytale gingerbread wigs.

Another example can be found in Chapter 47, where David Copperfield and Mr Peggotty follow Martha down to the river in Westminster. In this passage Dickens demonstrates the consummate skill with which he so easily blends fictional strategies. Here he passes from high realism to morbid melodrama  as smoothly as the river that flows through the scene:

The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which – having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather – they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.

Charaterisation, fiction and mythology

There is another sense in which Dickens contrasts realism with romance, and this is in his characterisation.

It is often remarked that many of Dickens’s characters are two dimensional and unchangeable. Examples in David Copperfield include Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep, Mr Murdstone and James Steerforth. But to make this a point of criticism is to miss his intention, for as GK Chesterton explains in the chapter on the Pickwick Papers in his fascinating book on Dickens, this side of his work is derived from mythology and folklore rather than a modern conception of fiction:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.

This is true of some of the characters, but we can’t fail to see the realism of others. We certainly see development and change in David Copperfield himself (this is the whole point of the novel), as well as Little Em’ly, Ham, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and many others.

We must also take into account the highly realistic scenarios that these characters inhabit. For example, there is far more realism than romance in the sexual relationships described in the novel.

Romantic love never works in David Copperfield; witness the failure of David to really connect with Dora despite his desperately powerful romantic courtship. Likewise Mrs Strong fails to forge a relationship beyond immature attraction with Jack Maldon and Steerforth cannot develop his passion for Little Em’ly into anything lasting or meaningful.

The really successful love relationships in the novel are far more complex and require patience and experience to make them work effectively; for example David’s attachment with Agnes, Peggotty’s marriage to Barkis, and Dr Strong’s eventual reconciliation with and closer understanding of his young wife.

In all these ways, and many more, Dickens blends diverse modes of fiction to create a unique style of story telling. At times they are so fused together that it is difficult to tell where gritty realism ends and fanciful poeticising begins. It is my opinion that Dickens achieves this mysterious alchemy more completely and more successfully than any other prose writer in history.

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