Symposium of Critics Remark on David Copperfield

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      Norman Collins. "Of all my books", Dickens declared, "I like this (David Copperfield) the best." And even after making due allowance for the irresistible attraction which the author always felt for the most recently completed of his works, that sentence must stand as decisive...And it is certainly undeniable that, in David Copperfield, Dickens had good reason to feel a trifle self-conscious.

      Saintsbury: The real, the great, the undue merit of Dickens is that he brought to the service of all novels an imagination which, though it was never poetic, was plastic in almost the highest degree. But to put ourselves in connection with the main thread of our story once more, he not only himself provided a great amount of the novel pleasure for his readers, but he infused into the novel generally something of a new spirit. The point is the immense popularity of Dickens, as it is vulgarly called, or the immense amount of pleasure which he has given to a number of people, who from the very vastness of that numbers, must necessarily have individuals and whole sections of readers of the most various tastes, powers and qualifications. Except for Shakespeare and Scott, there is probably no other English writer who can match him in this respect.

      Matthew Arnold: There is a book familiar to us all, and the more familiar now, probably, to many more of us because Mr. Gladstone solaced himself with it after his illness, and so set all good Liberals (of whom I wish to be considered one) upon reading it over again.....I mean David Copperfield....what treasures of gaiety, invention, life are in that book; what alertness and resources; what a soul of good nature and kindness governing the whole, such is the admirable work which I am now going to call in evidence.

      Intimately, indeed, Dickens knew the middle class, he was bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh. Intimately he knew its bringing up, with the hand of a master he has drawn for us type of the teachers and trainers of its youth, a type of it places of education, Mr. Creakle and Salem House are immortal. The type itself, it is to be hoped will perish: but the drawing of its which Dickens has given cannot die. Mr. Creakle, the stout gentleman with a bunch of watch chain and seals, in an arm-chair, with the fiery face and thick veins in his forehead. Mr. Creakle sitting at his breakfast with the cane, and a newspaper, and the buttered toast before him, will sit on, like king Theseus, forever. Forever will last the recollection of Salem House and of 'the daily strife and struggle' there

      Quiller-Couch: You feel of Dickens as of Shakespeare that anything may happen; because it is not with them as with other authors, it is not they who speak, Falstaff or Hamlet or Sam Weller or Mr. Micawber; it is God speaking.

      Robert Garis: David Copperfield is generally agreed to mark the midpoint in Dickens's career, even though in its methods and substance it belongs decidedly to the early half.

      Virginia Woolf: Like Robinson Crusoe and Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Waverley novels, Pickwick and David Copperfield are not books, but stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and not to its unaesthetic experience.

      George Santayana: It is remarkable in spite of his ardent simplicity and openness of heart, how insensible Dickens was to the greater themes of the human imagination - religion, science, politics, art. He was a waif himself and utterly disinherited.... perhaps, properly speaking, he had no idea on any subject. What he had was a vast, sympathetic participation in the daily life of mankind.

      Mark Spilka: When we speak of psychological fiction we generally mean the use of probing methods, like introspection or analysis; or we mean enveloping techniques, like point of view and stream of consciousness, which stimulate the flow of inner conflict. But there is another kind of fiction, the projective novel, in which surface life reflects the inner-self. David Copperfield belongs to that tradition. As the hero views the world, his feelings fuse with outward action and his selection of events advances inward meaning.

      Lord David Cecil: When Dickens is at his greatest he needs no such devices to make us believe in his personages. Imagination shows itself in their root conception. His method of drawing them shows him once more as the typically Victorian. His great characters are all character parts.

      Hugh Walker: By contrast with Scott, he may be called a realist; for there are no mists of time or space to throw glamour over his subjects. He takes what is nearest to his hand, what he knows best....what Dickens gives us is not the bare hard fact, but the fact suffused with the glow of a rich imagination. Poetic justice reigns; the wicked are punished.

      Priestley: Fashions come and fashions go, and now it is the Russians, but the supremacy of Dickens as a humorist remains unchallenged. We have only one name to put beside his, as a creator of humorous character and that, of course, is Shakespeare. There is no comic figure in Dickens as great as Falstaff, who has in himself the very genius of humor.... The humor of Dickens has two sides, a satirical and a sympathetic. There were certain kinds of people he never tried to understand, stiff, cold official sort of people and these he turned into the victims of his satirical humor.

      Symons: It was in his capacity as the conscience of the bourgeois that he roused an emotion, remarkable even in Victorian times, by the pathetic and sentimental scenes in his early novels.

      Cazamian: Dickens is a great writer by virtue of spontaneity of his verve, and this with a minimum of art. His vocabulary has superabundant wealth; it wells up naturally and easily; and the inherent genius of the English folk for concrete perception goes to nourish it. It carries with it, and turns to use, the contents of other veins of speech.


      Baker: Both critical and popular opinions are at one in noting David Copperfield (1850) their favorite among the novels of Dickens. First of all, it happens to be in large part his autobiography; and even the reader who is unaware of this feels the warmth and movement and buoyancy which Dickens, in his maturity, put into reminiscences, which he loved to dwell and ponder on and, not unnaturally, to idealise and embroider, for it is his life as he would fain have reconstructed it, not exactly the life of fact. There is a plot in David Copperfield and some of the largest episodes are as theatrical as any he ever devised. That plot in truth, often reminds one of the loose, ill-fitting suit, which David had to put on when he arrived, barefoot and in rags, at his Aunt Betsey's. But the plot business is so detachable from the story of David, it interferes so little in retrospect with more interesting context, that the tale runs in our memory more limpidly and unimpeded than that in any other of Dickens's novels.

      After all, autobiography can only state experiences and express feelings; it is almost as an indirect result that it puts the man himself before the eye. But to do this is the express object in the many autobiographies, though not by any means in all, and David Copperfield emerges a real man. He is not literally Dickens, the novelist. In that sense, the protest of Charles Dickens the Younger may be accepted, when he says, except in incidents known to all who have read the Life "there is nothing, not withstanding the popular theories on the subject, autobiographical about the book." But the attitude of Mrs. Dickens and her son on the question of publishing of what they thought disreputable facts has been touched upon already. David Copperfield is a more intimate revelation than Forster's or any other biographer's of the trials and experiences that formed the character, kindled the human sympathies, and trained the outer and the inner eye of the potential novelist.

      A.O.J. Cockshut: The book's most unsatisfactory aspect is undoubtedly the fake autobiography. It is difficult to criticize because obviously any novelist has a perfect right to invent a fictional character partly like and partly unlike himself. But there we have something more than that. There are some incidents, which make no sense at all in terms of the plot and of David's position in the world. But they become crystal clear as soon as they are seen as an attempt to exercise or tame intractable and bitter memories. Take for instance, David's account of his fears when he was first taken to Dr. Strong's school in Canterbury. "But, troubled as I was, by want of boyish skill, and of book-learning too, I was made infinitely more uncomfortable by the consideration that, in what I did know, I was much farther removed from my companions than in what I did not. My mind ran on what they would think, if they knew of my familiar acquaintance with the King's Bench Prison? Was there anything about me that would reveal my connection with the Micawber family-all these pawnings and sellings, and suppers in spite of myself?"


      Mark Spilka: When we speak of psychological fiction, we generally mean the use of probing methods, like introspection, or analysis; or we mean enveloping techniques, like point of view and stream of consciousness, which simulate the flow of inner conflict. But there is another kind of fiction, the projective novel, in which surface life reflects the inner-self. David Copperfield belongs to that tradition. As the hero views the world, his feelings fuse with outward action, and his selection of events advances inward meaning.

      In Dickens, outer scenes are real, but are made to seem fantastic through projected feelings; in either case, the effect is of a surface charged with baffling implications. For Dickens, the creation of that surface came naturally, as part of his attempt to master childhood pain. In David Copperfield, he had summoned up the most anguished memories of his youth: his wretched job in a blacking warehouse, his rejection by Maria Beadnell, and his earlier defeat within the home. With an artist's instinct, he had given form and texture to those episodes; and with genial and expansive humor, he had eased their pain and enlarged their meaning.

      This is brilliant psychological fiction. Murdstone has become the risen and revengeful father; his powers involve the mysteries of sex, and somehow pull the mother out of range. In the meantime, the boy's hostility and fear suffuse the outward scene. The projective artistry is unmatched, it comes to full dramatic focus. Kept uninformed by nurse and mother, David has suffered deeply from the news of the marriage. The shock might have been lessened, if Murdstone had responded with encouragement. Instead, he offers 'firmness' and distrust. Idyllic spelling lessons, once directed by the mother, become drudgery under Murdstone and his sister. David stumbles in their presence, and when Murdstone brings a cane to help his memory; the boy goes blank. In the struggle which follows, he bites the hand which touched his mother; he is beaten then with a vengeance and locked inside his room where he rages helplessly upon the floor. Outside the wild household, commotion is stilled. In the unnatural quiet, David crawls to the mirror and sees his face in the glass, "swollen, red, and ugly that it almost frightened me. stripes were sore and stiff, and made mercy afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been the most atrocious criminal."


      A.O.J. Cockshut: When Dickens wrote David Copperfield he was in a sound position to take stock of the past and to face the ghosts of his childhood and adolescence. His fame was established, the slight setback he had suffered at the time of Martin Chuzzlewit was forgotten. He was an institution; he was prosperous; and he had recently, in Dombey and Son, taken a big step on the path which was to make him a great artist as well. The extreme personal reticence and the touchiness of the past now seemed to him out of place. He was ready to tell his own story. Or was he?

      It is obvious, of course, that emotional identification of Dickens with David, is very strong; and his readers were clearly encouraged to be aware of a close analogy between them. Trivial clues, like the use of his own initials in reverse, were interwoven into a more straightforward identification of careers. David, like Dickens, was a parliamentary reporter, who became a literary man. Dickens, like all great artists, had a way of fulfilling a number of disparate aims at once. And if he wanted to unburden himself of his secrets, and to present himself in a favorable light, he also knew very well that his devoted public was longing to know more about the personality and experience behind the mask of Boz; an autobiographical novel would increase his sales. But if Dickens had a strong urge to speak publicly of his life and hard times he also had an urge to falsify them. He could never quite come to terms; with his father's disgrace as a debtor, or his own ’declassing’ in the blacking factory. Hence his actual accounts of these things, and his fictional variations upon them in David Copperfield are alike characterized by an excessive emotional instability. He oscillated between indignation, self-pity, and reticence of the stiff upper-lip English school. He was moved successively or even simultaneously by a desire to be admired for his extraordinary triumph over circumstances, a desire to be pitied as a childish outcast, and a desire to appear as a gentleman to whom education and literary culture came as a birthright. All these impulses were reflected in David Copperfield and as they are incompatible, and also, as Dickens realized when he faced them squarely, not very signified emotions it is not surprising that at times a heavy sentimental smoke-screen was needed. For a writer with these devious ends in view, or rather, not exactly in view but half concealed from himself, the advantages of the form of David Copperfield are obvious. He could speak in the first person, and enjoy all the pleasures of sentimental reminiscence. He could put in enough obvious clues to convince even his dullest readers that the book had a connection with his own life. He could repeat in David Copperfield the facts about himself that everybody knew, for instance, the fact that he had been a parliamentary reporter. He could thus without telling any untruth cause the public to assume that the earlier scenes also were drawn from his own experience. So indeed, at the emotional level, many of them were, but they're also a good many convenient alterations of fact, and some false trails.

      Everyone has noticed, I suppose, how close David Copperfield is to the traditional fairy story. Much of it is a day-dream, 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 are made away like a 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. She has no human need to conform herself to reality. All her prejudices, some of which are cruel, are treated as admirable. Fairy godmothers have a right to them.

      Peggotty's house belongs to fairyland and so does the account of Barkis going out with the tide. One has only to compare this last scene with the serious symbolic use of the sea in Dombey and Son to see the great difference. And moreover, Dombey and Son had already been written: the Barkis episode is not the product of immaturity, but of a kind of deliberate relapse to an earlier and less exacting method. It is not just a study of local superstitions and of a child's eager response to them. For the fact follows the superstition, just as it does in fairy tales. Throughout the book, there is no real pressure on reality, no logic of cause and effect. We are almost in Freud's territory of the omnipotence of thought. David employed in the wine-firm, needs a kind relative, money and education. He has avid desire to marry Dora against her father's consent. He will not relent and Dora could never disobey him. Dora's father suddenly dies. Dora is the type of featherbrained beauty who is only tolerable when she is very young, and avid needs to escape to the safe arms of his good angel Agnes. So Dora too dies, and, of course, her beloved dog drops dead at the same moment. Agnes' father must be saved from the machination of his partner, so Mr. Micawber, of all people must sedulously and snakily find proof of all the partner's crimes. All the shrewd criticism offered by the author of the Micawber routine of debt and misery cannot hide the fact that the financial and professional side of the novel is itself Micawberish. Something always turns up at the last moment. And all the criticism of Dora's feathery self-centeredness cannot hide the fact that the book's emotional life is largely Dora-ish. Difficulties and dangers disappear like mist; and their main function seems to be to give that quickened sense of joy and relief which follows their miraculous removal.


      A. C. Ward: Dickens is capital at a baby. Even when most playful, most farcical concerning children, his fun is rarely without something of true tenderness for he knew the meaning of that dreariest solitude which he has so often pictured, but nowhere, of course, with a truthfulness going to straight to the heart as in David Copperfield, the solitude of a child left to itself. Another wonderful true child character is that of Pip in Great Expectations, who is also, as his years progress, an admirable study of boy nature, for Dickens thoroughly understood what that mysterious variety of humankind really is, and was always, if one may say so, on the lookout for him. He knew him in the brightness and freshness which makes true ingenues of such delightful characters (rare enough in fiction) as Walter Gay and Mrs. Lirriper's grandson.

      His men and women and the passions, the desires, the love and hatred that agitate them, he has usually chosen to depict on that background of domestic life which is in a greater or lesser degree common to us all. And it is thus also that he has secured to himself the vast public which vibrates very differently from a mere class or section of society to the touch of a popular speaker or writer. The types of character, which in his fiction he chiefly delights in reproducing, are accordingly those which most of us have opportunities enough of comparing with the realities around us, and his test, a sound one within reasonable limits, was the test he demanded. To no other author were his own characters ever more real; and Forster observes that "what he had most to notice in Dickens at the very outset of his career was his indifference to any praise of his performances on the merely literary side, compared with the higher recognition of them as bits of actual life, with the meaning and purpose, on their part, and the responsibility on his, of realities, rather than creations of fancy It is, then, the favorite growths of our own age and country for which we shall most readily look in his works, and not look in vain; avarice and prodigality; pride in all is phases, hypocrisy in its endless varieties, unctuous and plausible, fawning and self-satisfied, formal and moral; and, on the other side, faithfulness, simplicity, long-suffering patience, and indomitable, heroic good humor.... And will not prodigals of a more buoyant kind, like the immortal Mr. Micawber (thought, may be, with an eloquence less ornate than his), when their boat is on the shore and their bark is on the sea, become "perfectly business-like and perfectly practical," and propose, in acknowledgment of a parting gift we had neither hoped nor desired to see again, "bills” or, if we should prefer it, "a bond or any other description of security." These characters in Dickens have a warmth which, only the creations of Fielding and Smollett had possessed before and which like these old masters, he occasionally carried to excess. At the other extreme stand those characters in which the art of Dickens always in union with the prompting of his moral nature, illustrates the mitigating or redeeming qualities observable even in the outcasts of our civilization. To me his figures of this kind when they are not too intensely elaborated, are not the least touching.


      Angus Wilson: 'David Copperfield, I suppose, has a claim to be his best work of art if we look for unity of narration, development and, above all, that sense of intermingled comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears and so on, that Tolstoy has set up as the norm of great realism. Yet I cannot really think that David Copperfield for all its excellencies is great in the sense of Anna Karenina. This soft of vided, life-acceptant realism has always the danger of flattering that somewhat smug acceptance of life that is called 'middle-brow'. I think that in David Copperfield after the childhood scene, and especially in the character of David himself, Dickens comes nearer to this sort of complacency, so much more adult than his sentimentalism yet to my mind so much less immediate and effective. David Copperfield on the whole avoids the melodramatic, but it does not entirely avoid the awful 'sweet wisdom' that can be so nauseating in Thackeray; indeed the character of David is dangerously close to that of Arthur Pendennis. The fabricated nostalgia that hangs around happy memories of Dr. Strong's academy, though less embarrassing to the sophisticated reader than much about Little Nell or Tom Pinch, is, I believe, less sincere and therefore finally more embarrassing than the obsessive preoccupation with innocence. Steerforth is the padded comfort of the book.


      Ross H. Danby. After Dombey and Son and before Bleak House comes David Copperfield, Dickens's favorite child, and a book which has always claimed a category of its own among the novels. One reason for its singularity as well as its popularity is its comparative lack of concern with social reform. This lack is not just a question of Dickens failure to make a sustained attack on an institution (such as equity jurisprudence, administration, or parish relief), or to call attention to the sufferings of the poor. These omissions are found in other novels - for instance, Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. But in all the rest of Dickens's novels from Oliver Twist through Our Mutual Friend, there is the sense that society is pervaded by ruthless egotism and needs a radical moral reformation. David Copperfield despite the Murdstones, Creakle, Steerforth, Uriah Heep and his mother, lacks this sense. Except in the early episode of the David's conflict with the Murdstone, the emphasis is on the need for personal discipline, not on the need for caritas.

      This shift in orientation is reflected in the marriages which make up the plot. In earlier novels a bad marriage was a mercenary one, characteristically forced on young people by their calculating elders; in Copperfield, most of the bad marriages are disinterested, innocent, and impulsive while the good marriages-Peggotty’s to Barkis, Annie's to Dr. Strong, David's to Agnes-are passionless and carefully weighted.

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