David Copperfield: A Discrepancy between the Two Davids
"Would he," asked Mr Lorry, "be sensibly relieved if he could prevail upon himself to impart that secret brooding to any one, when it is on him?"This is an extract from A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who was, as Edmund Wilson points out, haunted by his own past,2 tried to put Mr Lorry's theory in this extract into practice. Edgar Johnson writes: It might perhaps be only through a complete ventilation of his entire past and its conflicts, only by committing it to paper and as it were casting it out of himself, that he could lay its unhappy ghost. Some such feeling probably suggested the idea of writing his autobiography, but after struggling with it for a time Dickens found it too painful and gave it up.3 What Doctor Manette (who is Mr Lorry's interlocutor in the extract from A Tale of Two Cities quoted above) says applied to Dickens himself: it was impossible for Dickens to force himself to narrate his haunting past in his autobiography. But this does not mean that he abandoned his attempt to narrate the past: just after the attempt to write an autobiography had ended in failure, he wrote an autobiographical novel, David Copperfield.4
David Copperfield takes the form of David's autobiography: it is narrated by David, who is, like Dickens, a popular writer. It seems that Charles Dickens could manage to write about his own past under the pseudonym of David Copperfield. But we must not ignore the fact that Dickens wrote Great Expectations (1860-1), his other autobiographical novel, about ten years after the publication of David Copperfield (1849- 50).5 This fact might suggest that Dickens's past was not fully described in David Copperfield. To see whether this is really the case is the purpose of this paper.
I shall focus on David's double role as character and narrator. Kate Flint says that the narrative of David the narrator, who 'utters prophetic comments in a tone of rueful hindsight,' makes it possible for 'the reader to read on in possession of more knowledge, more curiosity, and perhaps more apprehension, than the focaliser [italics in original].'6 ('The focaliser' here refers to David the character.) I do not want in any way to deny the opinion that David the narrator 'utters prophetic comments.' What I do want to deny in Flint's argument above is that the reader is in a more advantageous position than David the character. My opinion is that David the character also knows (or at least feels) what will happen in the future. In other words, David the character as well as the reader is provided with the viewpoint of David the narrator, who is omniscient.
Mr Micawber says to David: "'If you had not assured us...that D. [Dora's initial] was your favourite letter,...I should unquestionably have supposed that A. [Agnes's initial] had been so"'(630).7 David comments on these words: 'We have all some experience of a feeling...of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it!'(630). In short, David the character perfectly knows what Mr Micawber is going to say here. Significantly, David the character seems to know--perhaps vaguely rather than perfectly--what will happen in the future on other occasions as well: as will be shown, he seems to be prepared to some extent for the deaths of his mother, Ham and Steerforth.
First of all, we shall examine the death of David's mother. Here is a description of her corpse with David's half brother in her arms: 'The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom'(187). The corpse is foreseen by David the character. When he goes back to Salem House after his holidays, his mother (who is still alive) sees him off:
I was in the carrier's cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.(174-75)I feel that her "static" figure in "cold still" weather in this quotation symbolizes rigor mortis. David the character is obsessed by this figure of hers: 'So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school--a silent presence near my bed--looking at me with the same intent face--holding up her baby in her arms'(175). By seeing the figure, David the character is prepared for her death. (She dies about two months after the holidays.)
The deaths of Ham and Steerforth are closely related to each other, because their causes both lie in the elopement of Em'ly (who is Ham's fiancee) with Steerforth. It is well expressed, in the following words of David the narrator, that their deaths have been terrible blows to him:
I NOW approach an event in my life, so indelible, so awful, so bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it, in these pages, that, from the beginning of my narrative, I have seen it growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower in a plain, and throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days. (854)It is quite natural for David the narrator, who is omniscient, to connect the event in question with 'all that has preceded it.' What is unnatural and therefore significant is that David the character, before the occurrence of the event, also connects it with some events which precede it. In other words, David the character, as shown below, has a series of presentiments or vague uneasy feelings that a horrible event will happen.
He has a first presentiment of something fearful ahead when he, who is still a child, is having a walk with Em'ly at Yarmouth:
She started from my side, and ran along a jagged timber which protruded from the place we stood upon, and overhung the deep water at some height, without the least defence. The incident so impressed on my remembrance, that if I were a draughtsman I could draw its form here, I dare say, accurately as it was that day, and little Em'ly springing forward to her destruction (as it appeared to me), with a look that I have never forgotten, directed far out to sea.The presentiment refers, I admit, not to the event in question (in which Ham and Steerforth die) but to Em'ly's elopement with Steerforth. But we must bear in mind that the elopement leads, as mentioned above, to the deaths of Ham and Steerforth. David the narrator inserts this passage so as to prepare the reader for Em'ly's reckless deed. But this is not the only reason for his inserting the passage: he inserts it also because, as is manifested in the quotation above, the incident has made a strong impression on David the character.
David the character has another presentiment of something fearful ahead when he, Ham and Mr Peggotty are walking on the beach at Yarmouth soon after Em'ly's elopement with Steerforth: 'I happened to glance at Ham, then looking out to sea upon the distant light, and a frightful thought came into my mind...that if ever he encountered Steerforth, he would kill him'(517). David the narrator adds that the 'remembrance of this [walk]. ..haunted [David the character] at intervals, even until the inexorable end came at its appointed time'(519). 'The inexorable end' does not exactly come according to David the character's presentiment: Ham does not kill Steerforth. But Steerforth does die when he encounters Ham.
David the character has another feeling that something dreadful is about to happen just before the event in which Steerforth and Ham are drowned. The situation before the event is as follows: on the tempestuous night, David cannot find Ham anywhere at Yarmouth; David learns at the yard where Ham works that he is at Lowestoft and that he is coming back to Yarmouth on the following morning; David is 'very much depressed in spirits; very solitary; and [feels] an uneasiness in Ham's not being [at Yarmouth], disproportionate to the occasion '(859); at last David has 'an apprehension of [Ham's] returning from Lowestoft by sea, and being lost'(860). The apprehension appears to be groundless: '[The boat-builder] said there was no fear; no man in his senses, or out of them, would put off in such a gale of wind, least of all Ham Peggotty, who had been born to seafaring'(860). The truth is, however, that the apprehension proves the extraordinariness of David the character's ability to foresee the future. Although Ham does not return by sea, he is drowned anyway.
As seen above, the deaths of the three characters are more or less foreseen by David the character. In other words, David the character is provided with David the narrator's viewpoint in such scenes as those above. David Copperfield is David's autobiography. But it is also Dickens's fiction. And it is Dickens who provides David the character with David the narrator's viewpoint. Thus, Dickens prepares David the character for the shocks he must undergo at the deaths of the three characters.
David the narrator calls David Copperfield his 'written memory' (758). Chapter 64 entitled "A Last Retrospect," the final chapter of the written memory, begins with the following passage: 'And now my written story ends. I look back, once more--for the last time--before I close these leaves'(946). As is manifested here, David the narrator is, at the present time, reviewing his past in retrospect. David the character is, on the other hand, one of the characters in the written memory: he exists only in the past. It would follow therefore that, by providing David the character with David the narrator's viewpoint, Dickens provides the past David with the viewpoint of the present David. In this sense, the boundary between the past and the present is blurred: Dickens makes the present affect the past. Is the past, then, modified in David Copperfield? If this were the case, Dickens could never have managed to write about his past in the novel; in other words, he could never have liberated himself from his past. In order to examine the validity of this supposition, I will, in the foliowing section, take a closer look at the relations between the past and the present, examining, this time, not the effect of the present on the past but that of the past on the present.
Dickens's manual labour at Warren's Blacking warehouse and his father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea prison are said to be the two major traumatic experiences he had in his childhood.8 Dickens portrays the two experiences in David Copperfield: the former corresponds to David's manual labour at Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse, and the latter to Mr Micawber's imprisonment in the King's Bench prison.9 A close examination of David's work and of Mr Micawber's imprisonment may enable us to assess how far Dickens really achieved his aim of narrating his past under the pseudonym of David Copperfield. (David's labour and Mr Micawber's imprisonment are in fact part of a single situation: they are part of the hardships undergone by David in London. We shall call this situation, to use David's own expression, "David's life at Murdstone and Grinby's.")
As far as we can judge from the following words of David the narrator, the life at Murdstone and Grinby's has become his trauma: 'I now approach a period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything: and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times'(205). But he does not narrate in his autobiography how "the ghost" has actually haunted him. In other words, we do not find David the character suffering from the memories of his traumatic experiences: '[At Doctor Strong's] I went to work very hard, both in play and in earnest, and gained great commendation. And, in a very little while, the Murdstone and Grinby life became so strange to me that I hardly believed in it...'(293); '...I felt devoutly thankful for the miseries of my younger days...'(829). Here we find a discrepancy between David the narrator and David the character: David the narrator is, if we believe his words, still suffering from the memories of his traumatic experiences, whereas David the character does not suffer from the same memories. To discuss this discrepancy in detail, I shall more closey examine the fact that David the character does not suffer from the memories.
It is significant that Mr Dick10 is, like David, writing his own history: 'Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he laboured, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside, and another one begun'(272). According to the interpretation of David's great-aunt, Mr Dick's King Charles the First is "'his allegorical way of expressing"'(261) his past horrible experiences, "'the recollection of [which] is oppressive to him even now"'(260). In short, Mr Dick's obsession with King Charles the First signifies that he is suffering from the memories of his traumatic experiences.
David the character, on the other hand, does not suffer from the memories of his traumatic experiences. To be precise, he avoids suffering from them. To discuss this, I shall focus on Chapter 52 entitled "I assist at an Explosion." David the character indeed "assists at the explosion" which takes the form of an accusation against Heep--but only a little. David the character passionately says at the beginning of the explosion: "'Mr Micawber,...there is a sudden change in this fellow [Heep], in more respects than the extraordinary one of his speaking the truth in one particular, which assures me that he is brought to bay. Deal with him as he deserves!"'(816). Significantly, however, after uttering these passionate words, David the character remains silent till the end of the explosion, despite Heep's tenacious effort to make him speak. I think that the reason for David the character's reticence in this scene largely lies in Heep's allusion to his life at Murdstone and Grinby's which is made just after his passionate words quoted above. Heep is good at 'worm[ing] things out of [David] that [he has] no desire to tell'(314); by not speaking with Heep, David the character prevents himself from speaking about the life in question. Thus he avoids facing the memories of his traumatic experiences.
Those whose presence is annoying to David tend to vanish from David Copperfield. (Of course, it is not David but Dickens that drives them out of it.) For example, Mr Spenlow, who is opposed to his daughter's marriage to David, is killed in a traffic accident. Likewise, Heep is removed: he is exiled from his country. Not only Heep but also Mr Micawber, who has informed Heep of David's life at Murdstone and Grinby's, is removed: he emigrates to Australia. Mr Micawber, the very person with whom David shares hard times during his life at Murdstone and Grinby's, can be seen as the personification of David's traumatic experiences. We could take Heep too as the personification of the same experiences. This is because he is, like David, an upstart.11 Heep's stress on his own humble origins or his existence itself should remind David of his life at Murdstone and Grinby's. Through the removal of Mr Micawber and Heep, the personifications of David's traumatic experiences, the crucial part of David's past is buried forever.
I said in the first section that the present affects the past. The
past seems to affect the present as well: David the narrator states, as
quoted above, that his life at Murdstone and Grinby's has become his
trauma. But the trauma is not traumatic at all: we do not find David the
character suffering from it; and, at the end of the novel, David the
character is described as a self-satisfied man without a shadow. In this
sense, David the character is not a fair portrait of David the narrator,
who, in his own words, is supposed to be still suffering from his trauma.
Furthermore, David the character is not at all like Dickens, who we know
suffered from the memories of his London childhood. It is Dickens who
created this discrepancy between David the character and David the narrator
(or Dickens himself). This means that Dickens failed, in David Copperfield,
to portray his own past: to be accurate, Dickens could manage to write about his
traumatic experiences, but failed to write about their effects on him, this being
one of the
reasons why we cannot sympathize with David after he has fled from his life at
Grinby's. It is clear, therefore, that the writing of David Copperfield did
not enable Dickens to liberate himself from his haunting past.