Whether I shall accurately convey the thoughts and feelings of the last novel I have read, or whether that conveyance will prove nothing but incoherence, these words must show. For I have come to the current climax of my blossoming reading profession as I lately finished what was the height (at least, his own height) of Charles Dickens’ literary career. Indeed, I have finished David Copperfield after roughly a month upon first entering the pages of such a long work. I decided at the very beginning to take the novel in monthly installments, reading it as one would have read it in the 19th century. I reached the end of those first three chapters, and a small battle ensued within me. I could not stop.
Thus, I decided that if I was to cast my original plan into the sea, I would instead take this novel as slowly as I possibly could. It was the first book (not including the Bible) that I took paragraph by paragraph for a better part of the book. For at some point along my reading, I became too hasty and the last fourth of the book was not as magical as the first three-quarters. This I write because it is a lesson in taking life slow at times. Our generation and culture believes that the faster a task is completed, the better that task has been accomplish. And so nearly every task we undertake is done in a such a way that if we feel we could have accomplished it by quicker means, we are a tad perturbed. In any case, I took this novel, now my favorite, at the slowest pace I could — not allowing myself to move on to the next paragraph until I fully understood the one I was undertaking. This slow journey through the life of David Copperfield (or should I say Charles Dickens?) was the most fruitful journey I have undertaken yet.
But let me first address the first sentence of this post. I am unable, I feel, to accurately explain just how I feel about such a book. The book is so deep yet surprising simple; so minutely accurate yet containing no fluff; so humorous yet serious and melodramatic that you forget whether to laugh, or cry, or cheer, or simply sit back and appreciate all that you are reading. Dickens stretches himself thin in this book displaying the widest range of emotions of any book of his I have read. Each and every character in the novel demands you to pay attention to each, every, and all characters in your own novel. It makes you want to both live at the sea and pick up the pen and start writing, yet it demands that we look at our own world where we are currently living with such awe and wonder in not only its own uniqueness but more of the idea that it is even there and existing at all. Dickens is creating a symphony in this book as he does in all his novels and each character, even the most seemingly inconsequential character, is a beautiful instrument. And yet they are each so dynamic that every character down to the most minor of minor characters is a symphony in and of themselves. Each could be a hero in his own novel, and it would be a novel worth reading multiple times. A Dickens character, however insignificant to the plot of the story, is more dynamic, more wondrous, more interesting, and more lovable that the protagonist of many a novel. It is as if the characters are themselves attached by a thread to something else entirely. Something unseen. They are closer to fairies or goblins than people. They are either so splendid they are nearly angels or they are so disgusting they seem demonic. Lewis said it but Dickens displayed it in prose that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with work with marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” This, in short, is Dickens. He demands that we slow down when we read him, and he demands that we slow down in life, that we take such a hard look at every person we come into contact with that we are no longer looking at them but at something much more grand, more obnoxious, more awe-inspiring than we could ever imagine.
These types of characters line the pages of the novel. Dickens creates a world in which certain characters are entirely obnoxious. Wilkins Micawber is constantly begging for money and looking for a job; Dora is a poor housewife; Thomas Traddles is annoyingly optimistic despite never catching a break; Betsey Trotwood is abrupt and speaks her mind far too often; The Peggoty’s are common; Mr. Dick is constantly flying that kite of his. And such folk are only a few examples of the obnoxious characters. Dickens “encourages us,” in the words of another man “to laugh rather than fume at annoying travel companions, poor service in eating establishments or physical discomfort: to rise above the everyday annoyances which might ruin our day.”
Though he has some issues with the novel (which I can see yet will dismiss), G.K. Chesterton states that “It is the whole business of Dickens in the world to express the fact that such people are the spice and interest of life. It is the whole point of Dickens that there is nobody more worth living with than a strong, splendid, entertaining nuisance… All this was what Dickens stood for; that the very people who are the most irritating in small business circumstances are often the people who are most delightful in long stretches of life.”
I cannot but help point out one character which is so strangely fantastic yet so unnecessary to a novel of such length, and yet he is ingrained in my memory as one of those indistinguishable characters you can never really forget. The character we scratch our heads at is a random waiter little Davy meets during a trip. This waiter is nothing but a character that any other novelist would use and discard, but Dickens sees the novel inside the waiter and describes him as thus:
He was a twinkling-eyed, pimple faced man, with his hair standing upright all over his head; and as he stood with one arm a-kimbo, holding up the glass (of beer) to the light with the other hand, he looked quite friendly.
This waiter proceeds to continue staring at the light through the glass and tells David a story about a man that came in the day prior only to drink the ale and fall dead. Now, little David being spooked by this story decides water might be best. The waiter then goes on to explain that “our people don’t like things being ordered and left, it offends ’em. But I’ll drink it if you like. I’m used to it, and use is everything. I don’t think it’ll hurt me, if I throw my head back and take it off quick. shall I?” Indeed, he seemed the fresher for taking the swig.
This is not the end to his queer proceedings. After drinking the beer, this same waiter goes on to ask David if he’s eating chops — for whats better to take off the effects of the ale? Ain’t it lucky? And he eats both a chop and a potato of David’s. Repeats the process. And again, eats a chop and a potato. “When he had done, he had brought me a pudding,” muses David, “and having set it before me, seemed to ruminate and to become absent in his mind for some moments.” The waiter goes on to, it seems on purpose, incorrectly observe that David is eating a pie only to find out it is pudding — and batter-pudding at that! Ain’t that lucky? For batter-pudding is this waiter’s favorite type of pudding. He challenges David to an eating contest to see who can eat the most pudding, and of course, our waiter wins. After inquiring where David goes to school, he explains to him that a small boy about his age broke two ribs from being beaten, frightening our main character. As David leaves, he blushingly ask the waiter what he should pay him. The waiter answers:
“If I hadn’t a family and that family the cowpock, I wouldn’t take a sixpence. If I didn’t support a aged Pairint, and a lovely sister,” — here the waiter was greatly agitated — “I wouldn’t take a farthing. If I had a good place, and was treated well here, I should beg acceptance of a trifle, instead of taking it. But I live on broken wittles — and I sleep on the coals” — here the waiter burst into tears.
David gives the man one of his three bright shillings on account of his troubles and out of his ignorance. Though the young David has no serious mistrust of his waiter, the knowledgeable reader laughs at the idea that the waiter swindled David out of his beer, three pork chops and three potatoes, and most of the pudding, caused him to fear his imminent future at school, and overcharged him for his services. In short, the waiter is a bad waiter, and we as readers are only given two options: to laugh or to stand in awe at his absurdities. The small unnecessary section is not written in such a way as to allow any anger at the misbehavior. Dickens could very well have left that scene out. He could have made the waiter nothing but a person doing his duty and leaving. He could have not had David Copperfield stop at all on his way to school. Yet he chose to display this man, however odd and uncouth, to his readers. He is not asking, for the character is far too outlandish, he is demanding our attention: that we see all people, however inconsequential to our own plot lines, as fantastic objects of wonder.
When we come to it, reading this novel (and any of Dickens’) makes us seriously question the thought process that goes on inside of us when we encounter those obnoxious people we inevitably meet in life. The slow clerk checking out our groceries as if each item being scanned needs be checked for the possibility of it being an explosive; the slower person driving like a reckless turtle with his head in his shell unable to see over the steering wheel, all in an amazing display of the great lengths our government will go to allow such people the freedom to take to the streets; the man intent upon smacking and chomping and slurping and drooling and appearing to have no knowledge of napkins or decency desiring to show each and every person in the room how much more beautiful the food looks in the very process of its being masticated; the materialist staring so intently upon all those screens in the wonderful attempt to see if his eyes can take the damage all the while bumping into every real person he meets as he communicates with someone out of physical reach; the roommate, or husband, or wife who cannot, will not, by any means, or in any circumstance, under constraint of possible death, be it in a house or with a mouse, in a box or with a fox, in the rain or in a train, on a boat or with a goat, be it in heaven or on earth, load the dishes. In short, everyone. And all the obnoxious people come full circle as we inevitably see ourselves in the novel as perhaps the most obnoxious of all. It is not until we understand our own obnoxiousness that the annoyances of others can really be laughed at.
And in the end, Dickens has certainly spun the web his protagonist tells us he spun. One gets the sense when reading this novel that the characters you meet along the way do not stop doing what they do. Every character you meet has some odd quirky habit that occurs often, and when you leave that character, you do not forget them as you would a character in another novel. Indeed, you cannot. While David Copperfield is by himself you almost have a projection in the back of your mind that all the characters are still moving. Micawber is still and always will be, looking for a job; Betsey Trotwood and Janet are still fighting off the donkeys; Mr. Dick is still writing the memorial; Dr. Strong his dictionary; Pegotty is still looking for his adopted daughter; Uriah Heep is still scratching his chin. And so on it goes as each character creates a world of their own.
“Distribute the dignified people and the capable people and the highly business-like people among all the situations which their ambition or their innate corruption may demand; but keep close to your heart, keep deep in your inner councils the absurd people. Let the clever people pretend to govern you, let the unimpeachable people pretend to advise you, but let the fools alone influence you; let the laughable people whose faults you see and understand be the only people who are really inside your life, who really come near you or accompany you on your lonely march towards the last impossibility. That is the whole meaning of Dickens; that we should keep the absurd people for our friends.” — Chesterton