Exaggeration in The Novel David Copperfield

Also Read

      The most common criticism leveled against Charles Dickens's art is his love of exaggeration. This love of exaggeration can be traced to Dickens's hypersensitive imagination and a childlike vision of the world. Dickens sees the world through the eyes of a child.

      Dickens novel David Copperfield is written entirely from a child's point of view. His love of exaggeration can be seen in all the aspects of his art. His characterization, humor, pathos and descriptions - all tend to be highly exaggerated.

Jonsonian Emphasis on Particular Traits of Character

      Most of Dickens's characters are of the Jonsoman type. Like Ben Jonson, Dickens too chose one particular trait of character and works on that. Hence the character in Dickens becomes the embodiment of a single virtue or vice. "Dickens's general method of creating character was to exaggerate the traits, peculiarities, foibles of his models and to put into the mouth of each one some phrase or string of phrases, which stamped his quintessence on the readers mind." (Somerset Maugham). Maugham believes that Dickens only exaggerated and that he was never able to show the development of his characters. And Lord David Cecil believes that Dickens's great characters are all character parts.

      In David Copperfield, most of the characters look like symbols of virtues and vices. Thus Mr. Micawber becomes the symbol of 'hopefulness' and Uriah Heep of false humility The author's tendency to exaggerate has made even some of his common characters look uncommon. Thus it is that a Murdstone looks like an ogre, and a cruel Mr. Creakle appears like a monster and the slimy; writhing, hypocritical Uriah Heep is depicted as a red-headed animal.

      Dickens's characters are often described as caricatures. Alice Meynell says in defense of Dickens, "The word 'caricature' that is used a thousand times to reproach him is the word that does him singular honor.'' In fact, Dickens appeals to our intelligence in all his caricatures. His caricatures are not cardboard figures. They are full of life and vigour because Dickens exaggerates only when he finds a real truth to exaggerate.

Essence of Comic Narration: Usage of Exaggeration

      Dickens concentrated more on the qualities of feature, dress and behavior and developed them in the extreme so as to make them ridiculous. It is this quality in Dickens which gives his irony its force. Dickens makes a character say what he would never utter in real life but what his word and actions would imply if one could read them truly. Thus Uriah Heep's constant profession of “umbleness" emphasizes and implies just the contrary. By no yardstick is Uriah 'humble', or 'umble' as he and his mother would say it.

Exaggeration: Dickens's Strength and Weakness

      Dickens's strength and weakness is his strong attraction for exaggeration. True exaggeration is the essence of comic narration and characterization. But this is only so when it is done in the correct proportion. There is a scene in David Copperfield in which David engages a cart driver to carry his box. The cart driver absconds with David's money and box. Even here Dickens cannot resist exaggerating David's innocence. David, even though a young lad, must have gained some experience in the ways of the world while working at Murdstone and Grinby's. Thus his behavior as an innocent in the ways of the world in this scene is incredible.

      Dickens's love of exaggeration can be seen in full play in the pathetic scenes. He tries to squeeze an extra drop of tear from the eyes of his reader by dwelling on the minute details of death scenes. The description of Dora's death or the death of David's mother shows that Dickens was carried away by his imagination and does not know when to close a scene. He unduly prolongs the agony.

Dickens's Love for Exaggeration

      A.O.F. Cockshut dubs David Copperfield as a traditional fairy tale. This is what he says, "Everyone has noticed I suppose, how close David Copperfield is to the traditional fairy story. Much of it is a daydream, where, pieces of gigantic good or evil fortune happen without cause or consequence, where each incident seems detached from every other. The Murdstones enter the scene like ogres, they fade away like nightmare, and it is probable that no one ever acquired legal control of a child as quickly and easily as Betsey Trotwood did of David. Betsey Trotwood herself is perfectly in the tradition of the fairy god mother - omnipotent, wilful and kind..." Cockshut is right to an extent. One of the charms of Dickens is his love for exaggeration.


      After having made this survey it is clear that exaggeration is the basis of Dickens's art as a novelist. However, this is not an unmixed blessing. His love of exaggeration is a hindrance in the pathetic situations but it is undoubtedly a help in creating immortal characters and great comic scenes.

Previous Post Next Post