Charles Dickens – David Copperfield (Book Review)

David Copperfield cover

Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

David Copperfield is the first Charles Dickens book I’ve read, other than the not very representative A Christmas Carol. The novel is the fictional autobiography of the title character, covering his time from birth to young adulthood.

Most of what I’ve heard about Dickens’ writing is correct. His chief strength is his skill with characterization. Varied, memorable, and believable, the people who populate this novel are fascinating. No two have the same motivations or personality, meaning that even the story’s villains play distinct roles from each other. Dickens does have a tendency towards catch-phrases and annoying tics in order to keep characters easily memorable, but most of the people I got tired of turned out to have new depths or went through interesting changes later in the novel.

The complaints you may have heard about Dickens are accurate, too. Whether it was due to the different standards of the time, or the fact that he was being paid by the quantity of writing, his prose is wordy and repetitive. Some of the drawn-out parts are necessary for setting the scene, but the book is still filled with extraneous asides, page-long speeches that only needed a few sentences, and adjectives that serve no purpose. With an editor cut those and make some hard choices about winding plot branches, I suspect that half of this thousand-page book could be chopped out with little loss.

Many of the story’s memorable passages happen near the beginning, during Copperfield’s childhood. Dickens captures the innocent way a kid looks at the world, but doesn’t omit the evil that is actually there. Mean people lie and take advantage of Copperfield, while good ones hide harsh truths from him, and the reader gets to experience both the child’s and adult’s view of the world at the same time. His childhood is by turns both funny and tragic.

Given the strength of characters in this book, it’s a little frustrating that Copperfield himself at first has less personality than anyone else. He’s positioned as a silent observer of those around him, and even goes through many different names to reflect the identities that others project onto him. Eventually, a personality does begin to emerge, though it’s still very passive. As a reader who was at least discussing this story with others, I sometimes felt that I was taking a more active role in his life than he was himself! If the point of the story is to see his personality forming in response to the world, though, then it succeeds.

Dickens could write in a variety of styles. His preferred one seems a bit too melodramatic today, though when he dials up the emotions for “retrospective” chapters (which brush over the emotional impressions that he carries from that time in his life, and writes in the present tense to emphasize their lasting impact), it actually works well. A confused chapter capturing the jumbled experiences from a drunken party is my favorite, with a style that actually seems somewhat modern. I’m left wishing for an editor’s intervention again, because I wonder what Dicken’s could have produced with a little more stylistic focus.

The plot is at times realistic and at times exaggerated Victorian fantasy. From today’s perspective, it’s difficult to tell exactly when Dickens was bucking trends, but it is obvious that he included some challenging social commentary and at times made characters realistic enough to force readers out of their comfort zones. At other times, though, everything comes together in perfectly clichéd ways, with the deus ex machina and dramatic speech required to give us a morally satisfying outcome.

Unfortunately, this weakens the last couple hundred pages of the book significantly. Characters have sudden life changes necessary to give them the expected closure, the rate of coincidental meetings skyrockets, and one dies for no other reason than the narrative convenience of letting Copperfield move to the next chapter of his life. (Ok, that character’s death is given an in-story reason, but it was predictable even before the vague illness begins.) Copperfield’s own adult successes feel entirely unearned. He becomes a famous author, but glosses over the hard work it must have taken and any details about what he actually produced, simply saying that it isn’t interesting to him to narrate that part. By the end of the story, others are frequently proclaiming his greatness and success, but we never get to see how it grew out of the hundreds of pages that were supposed to be establishing him.

By turns excellent and flawed, my final impression is that David Copperfield is the thousand-page first draft of a great five hundred-page novel. We only get to see hints of what that could have been.

Grade: C


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