Dickens attempted to write his autobiography, but found that some episodes in his early life were too painful to relive in an autobiographical, or confessional fashion. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized account of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in an unsurpassed psychological portrait. Copperfield obviously depends on the memory of others to give an account of his birth and baby years. Dickens was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life. David Copperfield has this quality too. Dickens’ imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptures not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lends that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield.
It is unlikely that Dickens knew the term bildungsroman but he sets up his novel along the lines of the classics in that genre. The events of an individual’s life from childhood to a successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he faced and overcame in childhood and youth form an integral part of these works. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person’s story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is the only point of view given in this novel. He suffers at the hands of the Murdstones who try to prevent him from being anything but a little wretch. Steerforth at Salem House, several years his senior, offers some protection against the terrible cruelty of Creakle. He is a boarder with the Micawber family while at Murdstone and Grimby’s warehouse. This improvident family, Mr. Micawber in particular, provides some humor to brighten what would otherwise be a totally dark period. Aunt Betsy Trotwood and her protege Mr. Dick finally give him the security and affection expected of true parents. Aunt Betsy is masculine enough in some ways to be a substitute father in her own right. After his adoption by her, a new life begins for David. Life at Dr. Strong’s school is essentially calm and happy. He boards with the Wickfields and is immediately highly impressed with Agnes Wickfield, whom Dickens at the very offset plans to make the heroine of the novel. Future problems are foreshadowed by Mr. Wickfield’s alcoholism, and by the presence of Uriah Heep. His education completed, Copperfield must make a career for himself. He is apprenticed with the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. He meets what he believes to be his true love, Dora Spenlow. Dickens shows great skill in creating the mad raptures of young love, the total absorption in fantasy of early romance. Marriage with Dora proves to be a mistake, but David tries to make the best of it. He is moving toward his true profession when he learns shorthand and becomes a parliamentary reporter. He begins writing stories, and becomes a novelist. These episodes are a brilliant blend of Dickens’ experience and fiction. He, of course, did not marry Maria Beadnell, the woman on whom Dora’s character was based.
The villainy of Uriah Heep is revealed and his threat to Agnes removed. Dora dies, and David’s idol Steerforth, having betrayed him by eloping with little Em’ly, is drowned after he has dropped her when his passion for her ends. Copperfield is learning some painful lessons about love and the nature of his own personality. He wanders for three years in Italy and Switzerland in despair, finally coming to terms with his “undisciplined heart” in Switzerland. He returns home and finds his real love in Agnes. A happy marriage and a successful career is the situation from which he has surveyed his life. All bildungsromans do not end happily, and Dickens ten years later produces one which almost reverses the story he tells in David Copperfield.
The writing of this novel caused Dickens less difficulty than almost anything else he produced. He was at the peak of his ability as a novelist, and while some great gooks would come in the future in some respects he never surpassed David Copperfield. He had developed a mature style that was a marked improvement over that of his earlier works. His contemporary, to an extent his rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, believed that Dickens had improved his style by imitating Vanity Fair. He was “foregoing the use of fine words,” pruning some of the excesses which had characterized his early writing. This seems to be true. Dickens had mastered the art of using fewer words, especially in somber scenes in the book. The death of Dora is described without the sentimental indulgences seen in the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son and of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!
It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.
Some of this chapter is almost Hemingwayesque. Dickens has not omitted all passages of tearful sentimentality from this book. The passages dealing with the prostitute Martha Endell in which she drags herself through the streets of London and threatens suicide in the Thames seem wildly exaggerated to a modern reader. Little Em’ly, after her affair with James Steerforth, writes tearful letters and proclaims herself beyond redemption. Both women go to Australia with Dan’l Peggotty and begin new lives.
A stylistic device in David Copperfield are the “Retrospects,” four in number, in which David interrupts his narrative and comments on the progress he and the other characters are making. He compares his life up until he has almost completed his school days with “flowing water” and he “hovers above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream.” The past in David’s memory, as he admits, sometimes has an unreal quality. Two young loves and a fight with a bully happen at that time. Looking back he sees himself as a “shadow.” The passage of time, as remembered, flows through the seasons running toward the sea. He was 21 at that point, has overcome the difficult art of shorthand and is reporting the activities of Parliament for a morning newspaper. His marriage to Dora takes place. All now seems like “phantoms.” He has become a legally adult male. Chapter LIII is “Another Retrospect.” His child-wife Dora dies with Agnes as a sort of mother confessor at her side. Death brings the passage of time to a temporary standstill. In “A Last Retrospect,” the shortest of the four, his autobiographical narrative has been finished and he gives a report on those people who have figured prominently in it. With his marriage to Agnes his life was fulfilled, his personality fully realized.
Copperfield has more than mastered shorthand: he has become a master of language. Autobiography is of necessity a verbal accomplishment. David recalls certain events with extraordinary detail, and more than one critic has noted that some parts of this novel anticipate Proust. For example, certain religious prints that David had seen in Mr. Peggotty’s boathouse have but to be seen again to bring back to mind the entire interior of that home. Again, the very name Yarmouth forever reminds him “of a certain Sunday morning on the beach, the bells ringing of church, little Em’ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones into the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist…” Peggotty is always associated with her work box with the picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on its cover. These memories are from those happy days before the Murdstones appear.
The sea is a potent symbol in all of Dickens’ novels after Dombey and Son (1846-1848). Life is seen as a river that flows to the sea, death. Mr. Barkis, Peggotty’s husband, dies when the tide ebbs, according to a local superstition. The sea is a mysterious force that is destructive at times. One of the climaxes of the novel is the great storm that smashes into Yarmouth, “Tempest.” “I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.” Both Ham and Steerforth are victims of the savage wind and water. A good young man and a wicked egoist share a common fate. Ham was to have married Little Em’ly and Steerforth seduced and eloped with her. Ham dies trying to rescue Steerforth who was clinging desperately to the mast of a founding ship. It becomes the subject of Copperfield’s nightmares for the rest of his life, and the mention of the seashore brings the memory of the fierce gale back. The storm has destroyed much that was meaningful in his past-Ham, Steerforth, even Dan’l Peggotty’s boathouse. It may be too much of a coincidence that the waves bear Steerforth ashore and that he finally lies at David’s feet. In the very posture he remembers so well, his head rests on his arm as David remembers seeing him sleeping during the days at Salem House. He still loves and even admires Steerforth although in terms of what he might have become, not the seducer that he actually is.
Dickens may have had Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in mind when he has David wander in Italy and Switzerland in such despair that he passes ancient monuments with scarcely a glance. This kind of dark period occurs in many Victorian writings-in Tennyson’s In Memorium and later in the autobiographies of John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle describes an emotional crisis that he calls the “Everlasting No,” a mood of the darkest depression. Copperfield describes his Everlasting No in the chapter entitled, “Absence.” “Listlessness to everything but brooding sorrow was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart.” Dora and Steerforth are gone, other friends are now in Australia, he is alone with bitter memories and the conviction that his life and everything associated with it is a meaningless failure. His will cannot cope with this sense of utter futility. Neither Dickens nor his hero turns to conventional religion in times of crisis. In the Swiss Alps a consciousness of their beauty mark a turning point for him. In a very Wordsworthian passage, as he descends into a valley, the voices of singing shepherds seem to speak to him. The sublimity and awe of the scenery had been working on his consciousness and now he was aware that “great Nature spoke to me…” and opens a sense of hope for his desolate spirit. This could be called another use of the pathetic fallacy resorted to by Dickens in his other novels, in Dombey and Son, for example, when little Paul hears the sea calling him. But the English Romantics believed that they could commune with Nature and that she, like a kindly nurse, could heal them. The next phase, described by Carlyle as “The Everlasting Aye” has begun. David lies on the grass and weeps “…as I had not yet wept since Dora died!”
“Absence” is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. Some of this is seen in the Retrospect chapters. David’s life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. The letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his great grief would become not endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases.
Many critics, however, see Agnes as one of the weaknesses of the novel. As the critic Robert R. Garnet recently suggested, her character functions more as a symbol in this book than as a believable flesh-and-blood woman. She seems to have been perfect in every way from childhood on. She resembles the image with which Goethe concluded the second half of his Faust: “The Eternal-Feminine/Lures us to perfection” (trans. Walter Kaufmann). She is a sort of English Madonna who has such a high spiritual level that David has always stood in awe of her. In reviewing her character, author George Orwell called her “the real legless angel of Victorian romance.” In fact, she is an example of Dickensian saintliness, an idealization, and a spiritual guide to Copperfield. An earlier image is the one presented by Steerforth; a model of all that David thought was noble. But Steerforth is a Byronic figure who appears to have been born skeptical and cynical. To follow his example would be disastrous. Agnes, however, helps David ascend to her level of virtue, although he has to order his “undisciplined heart” before he can make Agnes his own. Her image is always pointing upward in his imagination, as she was when she silently indicated that Dora was dead. As Chapter XL concludes, the memory of her “pointing upward” is with him again, and he hopes he may one day join her in heaven and there declare his love for her. But she also loves him, has loved him all of her life. They become married and have three children. As the novel ends, the final image he presents is of her even at the end of his life “near me, pointing upward.”
David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr. Strong’s young wife, Annie, when she confessed to her husband a brief infatuation she had had for her cousin Maldon. She describes it “…as the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart.” She did not wrong her husband, and the scene has been described by some critics as typical of the distraught sentimentality too frequent in Dickens. But David realized that his own heart was as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to the maturity that his life with Agnes has achieved, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.