Jan 25, 11
Read from December 29, 2010 to January 16, 2011
This is the first full length Dickens that I've read as an adult--(I vaguely recall reading Great Expectations in high school but I honestly have no vivid recollections of it)--and I have to say I was quite surprised at just how engaging and lively the writing is. I had resisted Dickens for so long because of a lack of interest in what I assumed would be another stodgy, over-sentimental, Victorian era writer. I have to admit, I was both wilfully ignorant and seriously misguided in my prejudging. There is very little to carp about and so much to recommend in this novel.
First, the characters, for which Dickens is justifiably renowned for. This novel exceeds in that department: with the delightful nurse, Pegotty, the comical and deeply touching Mr and Mrs Micawber, the stubborn but eminently good hearted Betsy Trotwood, the despicable Murdstones, the charismatic but flawed Steerforth, the lovable Traddles and the ghoulish Uriah Heep-the novel is veritable who's who list of iconic fictional personalities. All are expertly drawn and each have a recognizable voice in the masterful and frequently hilarious dialogue.
The story itself is biographical and chronological in nature and therefore doesn't have the natural twists and turns that a more event based story might have. But Dickens manages to leaven the title character's evolution from helpless newborn to wise, successful author with enough conflict and surprising events that it never becomes dull or methodical. Though we know Copperfield's outcome in advance, there are many periods in the story where the obstacles seem so insurmountable that the reader truly fears for his well being. This is especially true in his fraught and difficult childhood which at times is almost unbearably miserable. (No doubt intensified by Dicken's dipping into his own personal childhood history for this section.) When Copperfield makes a critical decision early on to escape this hell--and succeeds with the help of his surprisingly big-hearted aunt--it comes as a relief to the reader, though it does lessen the intensity of the storytelling from that point on.
The story then becomes more episodic in nature as we observe the character obtain the wisdom and life experience necessary to eventually mature and thrive, while still having to stickhandle through the requisite setbacks that occur along the way. Most of the major characters introduced early on make repeated appearances throughout the story which can seem overly contrived, though it may also be pointing out that Copperfield does exist in the more rarified upper-middle class of a London much smaller than it is today.
There are other contrivances, however, that do somewhat mar the potential realism for today's reader (though no doubt they were almost a requirement in the writing of that period). When David falls for his first great love, Dora, there is no sense of why he is so besotted by this rather naive simpleton. Dickens merely tries to convince the reader with lots of repetition and exclamation marks. Most of the female characters--and especially David's love interests--are rather opaque and suggest a weakness in creating viable women who aren't necessarily eccentrics like his beloved nurse or his aunt.
Another, last quibble. The big climactic storm near the end felt very much like a deus ex machina, and the sad thing is that it wasn't even necessary. Though it does wrap up a couple of the secondary character's fates it would have been completely acceptable to leave their stories unresolved since they had little bearing on the protagonist's ultimate fortunes.
In the end the good characaters are, for the most part, rewarded and the bad characters suitably punished. I didn't mind this too much as it was achieved in, for the most, a believable fashion, with the exception of the silly storm. Overall, Dicken's vaunted humanity shines through the vivid descriptions of 19th century England and the colourful dialogue of the wondrous characters.
I guess I am now a confirmed Dickens fan--better late than never. Next up: Bleak House.