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,


One comment on “David as hero?

  1. Blair says:

    Fascinating. I’ve also heard that Davies consciously modeled Dunstan Ramsay on himself; the initials, DR, are the author’s reversed. Davies claimed this relationship between David Copperfield and Dickens’s initials.

    Thank you for mentioning Robertson Davies 🙂

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