David Copperfield: Dickens’ Favorite

In a recent commentary at First Things, Eleanor Bourg Donlon discusses the interminable, and futile, laments of academia that young people aren’t reading literature. Nor does the proposed remedy—shifting the emphasis from the humanities to technical writings and current events—seem particularly helpful. To Donlon’s credit, she avoids simplistic answers. For her it is not so much modern media which is to blame. After all (aside from a few flops) there have been some superb film adaptations of Austen and Dickens which may encourage people to pick up the originals. The real culprit, she says, is the classroom:

The uninspired pessimism of high-school teachers blights the young receptacle, already numbed into thinking that the Harry Potter series is “quality literature”…. Meanwhile, in the universities, Dickens and his characters are accused of homoeroticism, incest, misogyny, and so on: an infamous parade of unseemly sins. Beyond these torrid projections, Dickens is condemned as too sentimental for cynical modernity, too preachy for tolerant modernity, and too prosy for innocent undergraduate eyes. Young students are distracted with Woolf and Joyce and oversexed interpretations of Shakespeare.

So why read Dickens in particular? Donlon answers:

We need to recover the lost art of enjoyment—enjoyment that is not simply mind-numbing intoxication or drooling appreciation of a television hero. Through the classics, a proper appreciation for virtue (classical and moral) may be effectively cultivated.

Though Dickens is derided for making his men and women “two-dimensional,” I think it’s truer to say that he presents us with real personalities, but bolded, underlined and highlighted. Not all of his works were masterpieces. However, the best stories give us figures who are living and memorable. We talk about Scrooge, Micawber, Mrs. Haversham and Sam Weller as if they were historical characters. In a sense, they are.

Although I was disappointed with aspects of Bleak House and found Our Mutual Friend too soap-operatic and sprawling, David Copperfield proved a favorite. I tore through the 800-page novel in a record-breaking four weeks. Writers often do best when they write about themselves and Copperfield is clearly autobiographical. Dickens called it his “favourite child.”

The book indulges in none of the populist sanctimoniousness of Hard Times—Dickens’ much disparaged sentimentality is at fault not so much in his understanding of people as it is in his understanding of economics. David Copperfield also benefits from a tight focus. And while for some the unctuous and conniving Uriah Heep may lack the villainous intensity of Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist) or Daniel Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop), he is captivatingly abhorrent. The novel offers such original characters as Betsy Trotwood, the good-natured curmudgeon, and Mr. Dick, the lovable madman. While characters like James Steerforth, Anne Strong or Martha Endell are anything but facile, there is no doubt that Dickens’ sense of embellished drama and humor always drive home the moral of the story in an unforgettable way.

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