David as hero?

Dear Charlie,

I finished David Copperfield a few days ago now, and have been waiting for a chance to write to you and tell you how much I enjoyed the novel, which has now supplanted Nicholas Nickleby as my favorite of your works. Before this project, my goal was always to get through as many books as possible in a year, so I’d consciously avoid anything of epic length. But taking several weeks to read 1,000+ pages has made me appreciate the value of getting to know and live with characters over time. I can now more fully appreciate this article on The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels. I particularly like this line:

The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back.

But in this Everest attempt at your complete works, Charlie, David Copperfield is less of a hostage situation and more of a stretch of unexpectedly gentle incline.

Mr. Micawber

But I digress.

As David grows up and marries his “child-bride,” Dora, he becomes the center of a number of whirling, intersecting plots. Uriah’s stranglehold over the Wickfields (and Mr. Micawber, and even the Strongs), Emily’s flight with Steerforth and subsequent escape, Mr. Peggoty’s lonely, heartbreaking search for her, Betsy Trotwood’s mysterious visitor, Ham’s dangerous disregard for his own safety, and even Miss Dartle’s strange behind-the-scenes scheming.

There’s a LOT going on, and how you manage to tie everything up into a more or less tidy ending is truly amazing (plus this is the first time you’ve sent the good guys to Australia) . Even though I was hoping for something a little more fitting for Uriah Heep, I suppose not everyone can be dismembered by a train. It’s interesting that both he and Littimer the unctuous butler are both imprisoned and both had designs of marriage with inappropriate partners. Was that intentional, I wonder?

But all of these stories involve David more as a spectator than participant. Indeed, he can go off to Switzerland and Italy and grieve for three years and not affect events at home a great deal (hmm, I wonder where you got the idea to have David travel to those particular locations? Art imitates life, methinks).

So, is David the hero of his own story, as he asks in the first line?

I’m sure that question has been answered in essays and books by greater minds than mine, but I haven’t read anyone else’s opinions, so I’ll be bold enough to venture my own, since I’ve been asking myself that question repeatedly over the last few days. I can’t help but draw parallels between David and Dunstan Ramsey, the main character in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. At the front of that book is the following definition:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero not Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”

-Thomas Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

Interestingly, when Davies was asked whether the book was autobiographical, he replied that if it was, it was “autobiographical, but not as young men do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield, a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much re-arranged.”

Yup. I’d want to give him a smack too.

One on hand, David’s personal story of love, loss, and eventual happiness with Agnes is definitely the kind of romantic plot arc worthy of a hero, but it so often takes such a back seat to the other, more dramatic events (I mean, c’mon, the storm at Yarmouth was insane, and David is purely a spectator to Ham and Steerforth’s not-quite-a-showdown). The only mildly heroic thing David does is to give Uriah Heep a well-deserved smack in the face, but even then he’s not the instrument of the man’s downfall the way Micawber is.

This is not to say I don’t like David, because after spending so much time with him and watchign him grow up, I really do. Maybe he can, like us, be both the fallible but well-intentioned hero of his own life and at the same time be a catalyst in the lives of others. Either way, he’s a very human character. Because he bears a little resemblance to you, and because you liked him so much yourself, I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hero he is, then.

Or have I begun sympathizing with my captor?


Affectionately yours,


What’s in a point of view? Quite a lot, actually.

Dear Charlie,

Hey! Only $5,500 and the originals could be mine!

Coming out of the 1,000+ pages of Dombey and Son, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to leap right into another epically long book and embrace a whole new cast of characters without my brain spontaneously combusting. And yet here it is a week later and I’ve already devoured the 523 pages in the first volume of David Copperfield without pausing for breath and can’t wait to crack the second. Just when I think I’m starting to get into your groove and appreciate your style you go and kick it up a notch. How the hell do you do that? Logically, there are many of the same elements here that we’ve seen in earlier novels. Like Oliver, Nicholas, Nell, Martin and Flora, David is an innocent learning to navigate a harsh world. There are a host of fabulous supporting characters here too, but all your books have those in spades. So what makes this book so darned addictive?

Poor David, trying to be all grown up.

It has to be the point of view, doesn’t it? This is the first time we’ve had a first-person narrator. It’s a small change, but that “I” makes all the difference in the world. Since you’ve put yourself (and us) firmly into David’s head, you can’t send him to America or leave him in some tidy little plot eddy while you go off and devote chapters and chapters to those interesting supporting characters you like so much. If David doesn’t see it, you don’t get to write about it. The point of view may be restrictive, but in the long run it has the effect of a) keeping the plot much more focused, and b) making your title character more human than some of your others. Can you really imagine Oliver (even a grown-up Oliver) with a hangover? Neither can I.

There’s some criticism I’ve been reading that suggests that David is the least interesting character in the book, and that may be true, but he’s certainly the most interesting of your protagonists so far. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our travels to date, but set David beside Nell or Barnaby and you have to admit he’s much more real and sympathetic. You make it so easy for us to like him – it helps that he’s definitely not perfect. We’ve all known people that make us feel young and stupid (I still can’t think of my grade 10 French teacher without forgetting every single word of French I ever knew), we’ve all had moments of behaving as if we were older than we are, we’ve all done stupid things that we regret and had impossible crushes in our youth on unattainable people (I’m looking at you, Donnie Wahlberg).

The plaque at 6 Chandos Place, London, marks the blacking factory where you worked as a child.

The other reason I think David is so appealing is that, unlike your contemporary readers, we know how closely David’s early work experience in London mirrors your own unhappy childhood working in a blacking factory. It gives us modern readers a fascinating and heartbreaking glimpse of your early years, and an appreciation of how far you rose above it. You said that David Copperfield was your favorite child, and part of that has to be because in many ways he’s a lot like you.So I’ll continue to keep David company as he grows. I can’t wait to find out what becomes of Steerforth, Uriah, the Micawbers, little Em’ly and Pegotty. And, of course, to David himself. At this pace, I shall be back ahead of schedule in no time. And of course, I remain,

Yours affectionately,


P.S. I just came across this. Apparently David Copperfield is not quite the most quintessentially you.