Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday Classic: David Copperfield

As a weekly feature, I think it might be fun to consider classic works of literature - not as they are usually perceived*, but as I perceive them.  This is often different.

David Copperfield, full disclosure, is my favorite Dickens novel.  I know, I know, Great Expectations is the one that gets on every great books list, and it is superior in most ways.  But I read David Copperfield at a formative age, and I enjoyed it so much that it's been my favorite ever since, even after re-reading it several times.  A Tale of Two Cities comes close, partly because I'm a sucker for people getting their heads removed in just about any way or context, and partly because it has the best opening and closing lines in literature, bar none**.  It's also extensively referenced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which in my opinion gives both the book and the film a certain additional cache***.

In short, we'll proceed with the assumption that I'm prejudiced in favor of David Copperfield.  Even objectively, the book contains some of Dickens's most striking characters: Mr. Micawber, the permanently penniless shabby-genteel friend of the protagonist's, is endlessly quotable, and plotting, 'umble Uriah Heep is one of the best villains ever written.  David Copperfield was also Dickens's favorite among his own books, which he admits in the author's preface to the work, and which makes reading it somewhat more interesting if you're interested in Dickens in general.

The book's great flaw is its eponymous hero, who's a bit of a weak reed, to put it kindly.  To put it less kindly, he's kind of a spineless jerk.  And, since we're dishing out uncensored abuse here, he's also an idiot.  Many of his life decisions evoke a reaction similar to that experienced when, in a horror movie, the next one to be whacked hears the funny noise, puts down their cell phone and gun, and goes to unlock and open the door.

Since Dickens is the undisputed master of the long and convoluted plot****, I will spare myself and and you the attempt to summarize heavily.  In brief, the novel follows David from his childhood on, and he makes a career for himself, marries, and meets a wide variety of classic Dickensian types.  Since David's (many) narcissistic blunders are realistic overall - narcissism and poor judgment being common among the young - the book hangs together despite the hero's unappealing moments.  I'll give David Copperfield four stars overall, because it's truly a great novel, despite the fact that it's a classic.

* Classic works of literature are usually perceived in one of three ways: 1) as some form of Marxist/feminist/queer/colonial repression/oppression narrative, 2) as being really boring (often a justified view; keep your eyes out for a post on Steinbeck one of these days), or 3) as being great in every way because they're, you know, classics.  Any Dickens novel could easily fall under any one of the three.

** I won't insult my readers by assuming ignorance of these opening and closing lines.  I will refresh all of your memories, perhaps.  Opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ." and so on, with many other flowery "it was" constructions.  Closing line: "'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.'"  If this last line, in context, doesn't bring tears to your eyes, you are a Cylon.

*** It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing, not even classic literature, that is not improved by being related even tangentially to William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban.

**** In English.  The overall international title is held by Dostoyevsky, who earned this distinction for The Possessed.  No one will ever convince me that Dostoyevsky himself had any idea which character was which or what they were doing at any given time.  Honorable mention goes to Robert Jordan for his fantasy series The Wheel of Time; it's necessary to express the number of characters in that series in scientific notation in order to fit it on a standard sheet of letter-size paper.

1 comment:

  1. For me, it's all about Tale of Two Cities. I love that book. I will accept your reasons for being wrong, however. You are forgiven, and yes, the closing lines are a humanity test on the par of Ol' Yeller.