Realism & Fancy in The Novel David Copperfield

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Realism and Romance in David Copperfield
David Copperfield: A Fairy Tale Or
David Copperfield: An Artistic Blend of Facts And Fancy
David Copperfield: A Novel of Imaginative Reality

      Every genre of literature is a reflection of the society of which it is a product. It is influenced by the events of that particular period. Thus the artist is always governed by the setup in which he has lived. A realist is one who creates a world of imagination and depicts it so convincingly as to make it look real. Hence, the improbable events look probable. There is another type of a realist who depicts things as he really sees them. In other words, this type of realist keeps his views to the external realities of life. Dickens is a great realist who depicts both the manners of reality given above. He describes the things as they are. Secondly, he creates a world of imagination and presents it convincingly and realistically.

Setting or Atmosphere of the Novel

      David Copperfield shows that Dickens is a great realist which is indicated by the following points:

      (i) Early Nineteenth Century
The period in which the novel is set is the early nineteenth century, the time of Dickens's own youth. It was a period of travel by stage coach, of which there is so much mention in the book. The first locomotive railway, the Stockton and Darlington line was built by George Stephenson. After 1835, the railways began to spread rapidly. As travel took so long inns along the roads were well patronized, and these are vividly described. The railways spelled their disaster, but in our own generation, the car has revived them, though usually they are more sleek and sophisticated than those of the times of Dickens.

Society of the Middle or Lower Class

      The society portrayed is of the middle or lower class. In days when clerks earned ten shillings a week and a penny was an acceptable "tip" snobbery was alike in all classes and "ladies” were a separate creation from women. Dickens does not describe the life of his time, but, like Jane Austen, only certain aspects of it. There is in the book, for instance, no reference to the politics of the period or international relations, except the emigration to Australia of Mr. Peggotty and the Micawbers, which touches on the growing colonization of New South Wales after 1815.

Five Places

      Geographically the story is set in five places - Blundstone (a Suffolk Village), Yarmouth, London, Dover and Canterbury These places occur and reoccur as the narrative moves from one to another. Dickens knew London and Kent thoroughly, and had traveled the Dover or Kent by road many a time, (as David Copperfield did), from London through Black-heath, Rochester, Chatham, Canterbury, to Dover. With Yarmouth, he was not so familiar. His favorite holiday resort was Broadstairs. Although he places the storm and the wreck at Yarmouth, it is pretty certain the scenery for it came from memories of Broadstairs and the wreck on the Goodwin Sands, seven miles out from that resort. But most of the action of the novel takes place in London. There are a great many references to actual localities and streets so that many Dickens’s lovers make it a hobby of trying to pinpoint the houses mentioned in the story, and visit them to-day, where they are still standing. Thus Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse is in Blackfriars; David is fond of wandering about the Adelphi; he lodges with the Micawbers in Windsor Terrace, City Road; the King's Bench Prison is in the Borough; Steerforth's mother lives at Highgate, as also does Doctor Strong later on; Dora's aunts at Putney; David and Mr. Peggotty find Martha near Blackfriars Bridge and follow her to a waterside street by Millibank; Traddles has chambers in Grays' Inn at No. 2 Holborn Court; preparing to go to Australia, the Micawbers stay at an inn close to Hungerford Stairs. And besides these actual places, there are innumerable casual references to actual streets as David goes about his business in London (i.e. Chaptaer XXVII).


Rich Imagination

      David Copperfield is a novel rich in imagination. To quote Johnson, "Of all Dickens's novels David Copperfield is the most enchanting. Few novelists have ever captured more poignantly the feelings of childhood, the brightness and magic and terror of the world as seen through the eyes of a child and colored by his dawning emotions." Here the author has described the facts with the assistance of imagination. Thus the novel is enchanting because of the mingling of facts and fancy

Tender Emotions

      Dickens has carefully presented the tender emotions. It is a novel of childhood. The tender emotions of children are vividly painted in it. Thus imagination plays a very creditable part to present the sentiments and feelings of children realistically." Dickens rendered all the vividness and flavor of those early days when the grass is unbelievably green and fruit, riper and richer than fruit has ever been since. He mirrors the tenderness of reposing safely in the assurance of maternal love, the heart-quickening mystery of sudden harshness or the frightening anger in grown ups, the disjointed strangeness of a universe discovered to contain such wonders as geese and crocodiles and graveyards and cathedrals."

Personal Experience Coloured with Imagination

      Charles Dickens had described his personal experiences in this novel. His method of narration is autobiographical. He has tried to color them with the help of his imagination, Experiences of childhood, boyhood and adolescence have been described with the help of imagination and they present a psychological as well as a real picture. To quote Johnson, "All these things have their roots in Dickens's personal experience, and derive their depths from the intensity of his feelings about his own childhood and days of youth. Above all, they are steeped in his childhood unhappiness and sense of rejection, and in the misery and heart-break of his love for Maria Beadnell, the elements in his own past that Dickens used and those he does not tell at all, the way he weaves them with imaginative episodes, and the nature of the invented material, are all deeply revealing. Both the separation and the fantasy are profoundly indicative of the wounds that were still unhealed after a quarter of century. In addition to a delight as a story, David Copperfield is thus of cardinal significance to the psychologist and the biographer."

His Description Soaked with Rich Imagination

      In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens has portrayed the extremely unsatisfactory conditions prevailing in the temporary schools the horror of prison life and the degenerate legal system. But the presentation of London is not photographic. The descriptions are dipped in the glow of Dickens's rich imagination. So, he is not a realist in the narrow sense of the word. "What he gives us is not hard fact but the fact suffused in the glow of his rich imagination. This means that the world Dickens creates is the world as we normally conceive it, transformed, heightened in a sense, cruder, more highly colored, more violent. His people are much more sharply differentiated from one another than people seen in real life. They are altogether richer in idiosyncrasy or altogether more wicked, or altogether more kind-hearted. The real world is all right. We are on solid ground, but in some ways, it seems mainly as a starting off place. It is as though the real world can suddenly become either the country of nightmare of fairyland. We realize while reading Dickens that nightmare or fairyland have common frontiers and merge each into the other."

Painful Personal Events Impersonalized

      Certain painful events took place in the life of Charles Dickens. He has tried to impersonalize them. There are certain hard facts of the life of the author that have been painted in the novel. Charles Dickens himself had the experience of learning shorthand and working as a writer in Doctors' Commons and had seen the working of the law courts. All these things have been described in the novel. Dickens succeeds in narrating these events of life because he tries to impersonalize these painful experiences by means of 'indirection' and 'circumvention'. It seems as if he were shrinking from a tearing, hideous and half-healed scar.

Fantastic World

      In David Copperfield, Dickens has successfully blended the real and the imaginative world with the result that it merges into each other. His men and women have been given a breath of Dickens's very vital imagination. Many of them have been drawn from actual men and women whom Dickens had come across. In some cases, the resemblance was so evident that the originals protested against the portrayal. And yet of these very characters, Dickens exaggerated some trait or peculiarity to such an extent that they look more like creations of a fanciful mind than of reality. On the other hand, some of his characters, though purely a product of imagination, are so vividly drawn, each details of their appearance, peculiar habits of speech and manners depicted so realistically that one cannot help thinking that Dickens must have had a particular person in mind.

Brooding Imaginative Force of Charles Dickens

      Dickens succeeded in blending fact and fiction in David Copperfield. He possesses in superabundant measure - the brooding imaginative force, which can endow material objects with demonic life. Dickens is not merely an observer like the modern realist. He is a creator. He gives us a banal photographic representation of life and in David Copperfield and a fuller, more vivid and more compellingly truthful vision of life. Dickens writes to his friend, Forster and commented on the autobiographical element, "I really think I have done it ingeniously, and with a very complicated interweaving of truth and fiction." Thus there is a marvelous blending of realism and romance in the novel.

The Fairy Tale Element or A Day Dream in David Copperfield

      In spite of the realistic details in David Copperfield, we feel that the impression of reality does not exist because much of it is a day dream. The Murdstones enter the scene like giants and monsters of the fairy world. They subsequently fade away like a nightmare. Furthermore, Miss Betsey Trotwood is like a fairy god-mother. She has no human need to conform herself to reality. Finally, Miss Peggotty's boat-house belongs to romance and so does the account of Barkis going out with the tide. As Walter Allen remarks, "It is a world in which even crocodiles appear cabbage. It is a fantastic world looked at through the eyes of a child. Hence it is that the novel has an element of the fairy tale in it. Like a fairy tale, it transports us to a world of romance, where the wonderful and the fantastic are ordinary and commonplace."

Exaggeration of Personal Oddities and Whims

      To quote Cazaman, "His fantastic imagination works upon reality and distorts it in the interest of the picturesque and the emotional. But it must be said to his credit that though often fictitious in terms of the mere event, he is under via tingly true to emotional reality. Thus David's flight from Murdstone and Grinby is fictitious, but all the same, it is the representation of an emotional reality. There is no real pressure of reality and no logic of cause and effect in the novel. It transports us into Freud's territory of the omnipotence of thought." "David, employed in Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse, need a kind relative, financial help and education. He gets them; he desires to marry Dora against Mr. Spenlow's consent Mr. Spenlow suddenly dies, and David's dream comes true. Mr. Wickfield must be saved from the machinations of Uriah Heep, so Mr. Micawber and Traddles, the two innocents in the ways of the world, unmask the villains. Dora proves herself an incompetent housewife. So, she dies, and David becomes domestically blessed by marrying Agnes. Difficulties and troubles disappear like dark clouds and their main function seem to be to give that quickened sense of joy and relief which follows their miraculous removal."

Fantastic Imagination

      In the novel, fantastic imagination add rich coloring to human oddities and eccentricities. In this manner, Charles Dickens has exaggerated human whims and fancies. Although he has drawn his characters from real human beings, yet their peculiarities of dress and manner of speech have been much exaggerated, so that they look different from reality. They tend to become caricatures. Thus Mr. Micawber and Mrs. Micawber have been drawn after his own parents, but where in life would we find such optimism, such shiftlessness, or such waiting for something to turn up?

Imagination Heightens Emotional Reality

      The novelist has dovetailed fact and fancy so convincingly with that the boundaries of reality and imagination merge and fade away. The novelist has presented unhappy childhood, his love for Maria Beadnell (his wife), his experience as a shorthand writer and others which are narrated through the coloring of imagination. "In all these intermingling strands of facts and fantasy, the shining memory of early childhood, the nightmare reality of boyhood, the unrealized dreams of what might have been, the softening of some humiliations is obvious. Dickens still felt too sick at heart to portray the facts as they were. Though fictional for the most part, they are undeviatingly true in the matter of emotional reality. They pierce to the very heart, of how Dickens felt about those buried days.

Imagination Heightens the Intensity of Love

      Charles Dickens did have some love affairs. These affairs have been described in the form of affairs of other people in the novel. In David Copperfield, we find the picture of Dora and Agnes. These two characters are the characters of the real world of Charles Dickens and they have been drawn with the help of fancy.

Imagination Elevates the Various Realities of Life

      Charles Dickens's parents were not only bundles of weaknesses; they had certain qualities as well. These qualities have also been accorded to the Micawbers. It is on account of these qualities of industry and sincerity that Traddles pays his compliments to Micawber. Here again, facts have been presented through the medium of fancy. In Mrs. Micawber, we find that Charles Dickens has put in several qualities. Here his imagination has over-played its role. In fact, Charles Dickens had immense love for his mother and so he tried to paint the picture of Mrs. Micawber with great consideration and reverence.

      Charles Dickens's own childhood had been a period of agony, pain, suffering and troubles. Around him, he has seen women that were neglected and men who were reckless. These were the facts that Charles Dickens had come across. He has tried to transplant these facts into his novel and with the help of imagination and fancy made them glow like anything. In most of the novels, Charles Dickens has tried to paint parents and children of the type that have been painted in David Copperfield. We find that in his novels there is description of unhappy homes, parents that are not good and the children who are neglected. This was on account of his own experience with reality. His idea of reality, with the help of imagination, have found expression in his novels.

      There are mainly things that are solved with the help of psychology. In the real world these things do not find satisfaction and expression. This is true of David Copperfield as well. Charles Dickens did not run away from the factory where he worked as David does. Here psychology seems to play its part. In his imagination, Charles Dickens must have made such a flight and so it has been mentioned. It is in fact a pure play of fancy.

      Charles Dickens himself had to work in a workhouse. He used to wash and label bottles. That was a very painful experience. The novelist has tried to transplant that painful experience to the life of David Copperfield The only difference that we find here is that David is shown working in a warehouse while Dickens had to work in a factory that manufactured shoe-blacking material.

      In the novel, we find that Mr. Micawber had to go to King's Bench Prison. His wife and family had to sell the household articles. All these things did happen in the life of Charles Dickens's own father. The humiliations of these experiences have been transplanted into the life of Mr. Micawber.

      Charles Dickens had an unhappy childhood. This unhappy childhood was a fact and it has been painted onto David Copperfield's childhood. Here the combination of facts and fancy has created a novel in an attractive situation.

      In David Copperfield, we find the traits of Charles Dickens's father transplanted into Micawber. Here again fancy has played with facts. Here we may find that Charles Dickens has tried to give vent to his own humiliations and sufferings. His parents in fact have been portrayed in Mr. and Mrs. Micawber who have the quality of grandiloquence and recklessness about economic affairs and all these qualities belong to John Dickens.

      Dickens was an idealist. So his presentation of life is not in ordinary terms. He has idealized the various happenings of his life. He could not rest in peace by observing and depicting the horrors of life. He wanted to reform his society. He, therefore, created people and places which showed the victory and goodness and virtue over the evils and vices. Therefore poetic justice dominates almost all of Dickens's novels. In David Copperfield itself, we have numerous instances of this. Miss Betsey gives shelter to the poor boy who has been badly treated by his step-father, Mr. Murdstone. Mr. Micawber is a good hearted person. After facing hardships he becomes a successful magistrate in Australia. Uriah Heep is punished and has to return all that he had usurped by forgery. David wins Dora when her father Mr. Spenlow suddenly expires under tragic circumstances. After her death, David's good angel, Agnes, marries him, and declares that she had loved him from the beginning. Thus Dickens' realism is correlated with his idealism. The readers get a new charm of reality because of dovetailing of realism and idealism in the story.


      George Gissing has remarked that Dickens "sought for wonders amid the dreary life of common strees. The condition of London of his time was very deplorable. These aspects of London had some bright features which made them picturesque." Even though Dickens gives us the pictures of London as it was in the 1820's and 1830's with its squares and shops and offices, its murky slums and prisons its clamorous thoroughfares, its churches striped with soot, its suburbs with their trim cottages and tidy, gentle spaces of open countryside, he is in fact presenting them through the prismatic lenses of his imagination. They all emerge from his writings, tinged with a new color looking bright, new and wonderful. Unlike the modem realists who depict the slums in all their ghastly blackness, Dickens found a streak of beauty and brilliance even in the dullest and ugliest of objects.

      "In all these intermingling strands of facts and fantasy; the shining memory of early childhood, the nightmare reality of boyhood, the unrealized dreams of what might have been, the sufferings of some humiliations, Dickens still felt too sick at heart to portray as they were. Often fictional as to the mere events, they are devotedly true to the emotional realities. They pierce to the very heart of how Dickens felt about those buried days upon which, since the hour when they had come to an end, he and his parents had been as if they were struck dumb. Their very elements of invention are truer than the fact, because they symbolize the emotional reality. In them Dickens makes profound and tremendous efforts to come to grips with himself, to evaluate influences that had made him what he was, to understand himself and the meaning of his own experience. That is why he gives his greatness to the entire book."


"David Copperfield is a novel with an artistic mingling of facts and fancy." Discuss the statement with reference to David Copperfield.

"Dickens is a great novelist only by virtue of his imagination." Amplify the statement and illustrate your remark from David Copperfield.

Indicate the dangers inherent in treating David Copperfield as an autobiographical novel.

"It is Dickens' peculiar triumph that he has created a world as solid as it is soaked in imagination." Discuss with reference to David. Copperfield.

"It is almost a definition of 'David Copperfield' that 'it is a romantic attempt at being realistic." Discuss this statement with reference to David Copperfield.

It has been said that "the novels of Dickens while they contain many realistic details, seldom give the impression of reality." Discuss this statement with special reference to David Copperfield.

Write a critical note on the combination of realism and fantasy in David Copperfield.

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