Charles Dickens - David Copperfield Essay
Meta-fictional Identity and Marriage in David Copperfield
David Copperfield presents an inquiry into the self as a meta-fictional construct. Dickens uses a double child and adult point of view and the process of cognition and perception to make identity a dynamic question in David Copperfield. Present ‘self’ re-invents ‘impossible memory’ as ‘past’ to show ‘self’ as a self-creation: David’s identity is built through his telling of his own ‘personal history’. Marriage in David Copperfield acts as an extension of this question of identity – the different marriages of the book are both based on each character’s different understandings of themselves and result in a shift in relations with themselves and with others.
Dickens uses point of view to question the construction of identity from the very first as we are presented with the moral and social question of David as the ‘hero of [his] own life’. Graham Storey correctly identifies David Copperfield as a ‘blending of truth and fiction' (Storey, David Copperfield: Interweaving Truth and Fiction, 1991). However, this blending goes beyond the combined fictional and autobiographical elements of the novel that he sees and is present in David’s character as he consciously creates a shifting picture of himself where he ‘lays claim to […] characteristics’ - the ‘personal history’ is demythologised as a story of a dynamically changing ‘own experience of myself’ from the adult David looking back. A dynamic mixture of past, present and future tenses are modulated through David Copperfield’s development. Time structure appears objectively stable moving from age ten towards adulthood but inside this the narrative is subjective. ‘Jump-cuts’ forward and from the present back are used to disrupt the stable appearance of external cause-effect with dramatic ironies, foreshadowing and deja vu’s to dislocate and functionally disconnect David’s ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’ versions of self as either ‘hero’ or Agnes as heroine. The adult narrative interruptions of the child point of view demonstrate David’s conscious storytelling as disrupted time is used to call attention to breaks in the narrative:
‘When my mother is out of breath and rests herself in an elbow-chair,
I watch her winding her bright curls round her fingers, and straitening
her waist, and nobody knows better than I do that she likes to look so well,
and is proud of being so pretty.’
Here David moves from his earlier past tense recollection of his mother that is tinged with the possibility of being solely ‘fancy’ to a vivid present tense imagining where the childish perspective is layered alongside the adult. These shifting temporal ‘lenses’ overlay a strong first person eye-I as narrator constructing a present ‘story’ from memory as ‘reality’ which is both ‘mask’ and ‘truth’ - truth becomes a construct containing false selves. If there is no ‘self’ but as a meta-fictional construct the socio-political corollary is that identity is total myth. This perspective produces instability and ‘chaos’ as explored in Steerforth as total self indulgence, Ham as total self sacrifice and Murdstone as total tyranny of the ‘other’.
The different names David gathers present different versions of his self as a potential fate that could become permanent at any point, caught as a ten year old in the warehouse experiencing the ‘agony of the soul’:
‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul […] cannot be written’
Past, present and future tenses are combined to remove hope ‘now’ and create an image of despair that both David and Dickens ‘cannot write’. This has moral implications – for example, Steerforth’s blindness to others while David displays his own blindness by exposing Em’ly and misreading empathy as total indifference:
‘I know that there is not a joy or sorrow, not an emotion, of such people
that can be indifferent to you. And I admire you and love you for it.’
Steerforth only understands feelings mentally, his hollowness is that of the closing Sahara society image.
The lens of character extends the question of self-creation from personal story to societal shaping. Setting shifts from Yarmouth to Canterbury to Dover to London give a landscape portrait of 1850s England and society as shared values impacting and forming the individual self of David Copperfield in both positive and negative terms. - e.g. Murdstone ‘religion’ vs Agnes, Salem vs Mr Strong, Micawber and Copperfield and Trotwood family models vs threats of self. Social judgement changes David’s view of himself, he is as impressionable as the copper of his name. David is named in contrast to Mr Pegotty who is ‘as good as gold and as true as steel’. As copper David is a common coin and not at all ‘good’ and ‘true’. Instead the open ‘field’ suggests a nature that can be ‘coined’ or imprinted with external circumstance - for example, David imagines that everyone sees the sign on his back and assumes him an animal until he internalises the perceived social expectation:
‘I recollect that I positively began to have a dread of misery myself,
as a kind of wild boy who did bite’
If Dickens uses David to construct and question the nature of identity then David’s marriages can be seen as expansions on different versions of David. Instead of ‘a novel of divorce' (Hager, Estranging David Copperfield: Reading the Novel of Divorce, 1996) marriage becomes a component of identity and relation in David Copperfield. David journeys from broken home and weak child mother in Clara to new child wife in Dora as a dream of marriage turning empty and twisted by Dickens into a deathbed melodrama of confession/absolution for a new and better wife in Agnes. Davids looses his self in falling in love with Dora:
‘I was sensible of a mist of love and beauty about Dora, but nothing else.
He stood up […] and asked me what I thought of the prospect […] but it
was all Dora to me. The sun shone Dora and the birds sang Dora.’
The language of perspective reflects the emotional state as a vision of ‘mist’ that puns on missed to suggest insensibility. David treats Dora as a ‘plaything’ - a doll wife in looks without content while he views Agnes as the provider of his ‘tranquillity’ in the ironic question:
‘How could I, when, blended with it all, was her dear self, the better angel of my life?’
The Clara-Murdstone, Annie-Dr Strong and David-Dora marriages are all false forms of patriarchy failing to maintain civil order in relations between inner emotional needs and outer social appearances. Micawber’s financial disorder is also part of poor ‘government’ cured by Agnes as female governess. David seems to disappear as a self subsumed by Agnes -
‘one face shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects,
is above and beyond them all...’
The David-Agnes marriage offers, then, a possible movement from child to adult and a possible change for patriarchy to matriarchy as his relation to Agnes is more adult and involved than his desire for the form of marriage through Dora yet her selflessness suggests that perhaps David only wishes narcissistic self-veneration through marriage. The Christian imagery is similarly ambivalent as the nature of David’s identity is held between spiritual realisation and bitter irony at the novel’s end:
‘O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so
may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now
dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!’
The resolution suggests a spiritual dimension of soul beyond meta-fictional tricks of identity that polarises ambivalently against the irony of this form of identity, can also be self-consciously described as a fictional construct of myth akin to every other identity David claims throughout the book.