Sunday, April 18, 2010

Weaving the Plot - David Copperfield

Last year I took a crack at Charles Dickens and read “Great Expectations”. I found the experience to be entertaining and educational. So this year I decided to give him another try (again during winter, which just seems like a Dickensian time). I heard that “David Copperfield” was not only the book that Dickens’ considered his favorite, but many readers consider it to be one of his most accessible novels. At the bookstore I was in for a bit of a shock – “David Copperfield” was a huge book. Weighing in at slightly less than one ton, I was intimidated. Could I endure that much Dickens, or would it end in tears? But hey, I read all of “The Histories” by Herodotus and it was about that long.

Once again it took me a couple of chapters to get into the style and language of the time. Dickens is pretty notorious for getting paid by the word, and yes there are sections of this story that prove that. But Dickens does something else that helps increase his word count without being overly verbose – he structures his story in a way that lends itself to multiple points of view. He did this to an extent in “Great Expectations”, but in “David Copperfield” it felt more obvious.

David is telling us his story, and so he provides us with two points of view. One point of view is of younger David as he makes his way through life and the other is the older David commenting on that life. This isn’t Dickens merely restating the same scenes, he actually offers commentary as older David, hinting at things we have yet to read and offering a bit more depth that the younger David can’t know. This duality actually works very well to not only increase the word count, but also add to the story on various levels.

The other thing that Dickens does is introduce a whole cast of interesting and colorful supporting characters. Some of them help David, some of them actively try to hinder him. All of them pop up continuously through the narrative. This is typical of Dickens and some fault him for it. I find it to be a charming part of the world he creates. Yes, he is commenting on current events, but I think it’s a bit easier for us reading years later to see it as a different world, a fiction where people would come into contact throughout life.

The danger of this technique is that readers will lose track of who is who. Dickens avoids this by give each character a unique personality. Sure Mr. Murdstone and Uriah Heep are both villains (with great names!), but they are uniquely wicked in their own ways. Murdstone is a rigid man who’s hypocritical adherence to religion and rules literally destroys those around him. Heep on the other hand is a slimy man, who puts on a face of humility while abusing the weaknesses of others and going out of his way to make everyone as unhappy as he is. The characters are so vividly drawn and observed by both David’s that the reader actually wants to know just what is going to happen next.

And that is pretty much what happened. I was engrossed in the story and enjoyed reading the weighty tome to its conclusion. David Copperfield himself is a rather bland fellow, reminding me a great deal of Pip from “Great Expectations”, but he’s basically a good soul who finds himself in all kinds of situations. But the reader is entertained by the supporting characters and the situations that Dickens comes up with. I have to admit that I chocked up quite a bit during the last few chapters – to me that’s a solid testament to the skill of the writer. For a book that long, I think Dickens did an excellent job.

What do you think of “David Copperfield” or Dickens in general? Do you think his approach to characters is a valid one, or do you consider it a cheat? What is the longest book that you’ve tackled, and why did it work (or not)?

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