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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 21, 2010

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


I've joked for years that I read only the Classics Illustrated comic book version of David Copperfield, and that gave me everything I needed to know about the book to get through graduate school.

And it's true that the comic adaptation included all the major storylines.

I actually read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and formed my opinions of Dickens's actual writing from them.

But over the years I began to suspect I was missing something important by thinking I "knew" Dickens.

My family recently went through a spate of watching BBC adaptations of Dickens's novels, and we enjoyed them very much. They were uniformly well written and well acted.

I was surprised, however, that the least effective and least moving of them was David Copperfield. Why, I wondered, is this book considered to be his masterpiece?

Skip a year or two, and I'm getting actively involved with downloading audiobooks from Audible.com. One of their offerings on an incredibly low-priced sale was the unabridged David Copperfield read by the brilliant Simon Vance.

Vance did not disappoint me -- all by himself, he covered all the accents and voices of a very large cast of characters, with never a doubt about who was talking, and with all the human personalities brought vividly to life.

Yet the power of this recording was not ascribable solely to the reader -- it never is. An excellent reader does not save a bad book from its badness. As William Goldman said in his best novel, Boys and Girls Together: "Wash garbage, it's still garbage."

David Copperfield is, to my surprise, Dickens's best work. But what makes it so excellent cannot be translated into screenplay or comic book, because the power of this story comes in large part from the narrative voice.

The novel is structured, not as a serialized work of fiction, but as a memoir. And in fact it is somewhat based on Dickens's own life, though much romanticized and sanitized (that is, Copperfield is a much better human being than Dickens).

Writing a first person story that purports to be true is extremely difficult, especially when the narrator is not just an observer but the active hero of the story.

Often the narrator becomes insufferable -- self-justifying or unlikeable because his actions are not justified; too judgmental or not judgmental enough; too inclusive so it becomes boring, or too manipulative so we feel like we're being jerked around.

And the worst offense: to be so writerly that we don't believe in the character at all.

Copperfield establishes himself early on with a voice that makes value judgments -- but they are the value judgments of the adult man, not of the child undergoing the experiences depicted. He is as likely to criticize his earlier self as not, pointing out that he should not have done what he did, or that his judgments at the time were faulty and childish.

But Dickens's most effective achievement is to succeed in having Copperfield tell us one judgment, while the story itself leads us to make a sometimes very different one. That is, his narrator is not all-knowing and invariably wise; he will tell us "I shouldn't have done that" while we are actually led by the events themselves to agree with his action completely.

It's such a delicate dance, and yet we're kept almost unaware of it all the way through. The result is that we like Copperfield better than he likes himself.

The structure of the book is messy-seeming -- like life. As we move through the book, Dickens goes back to his old reliable tricks -- no character is named who does not pop up again -- and sometimes rather too often -- later in the book.

But he makes this quite painless, since his characters are so very memorable. And while he draws them in a way that some critics call "extreme," I think he actually shows admirable restraint.

People with eccentricities have them constantly. Uriah Heep's Tourettes-like twitches and writhing seem overdone to some -- but I've known a person with the same level and kind of physical torments from Tourettes, and Dickens does not exaggerate. (However, my friend's personality was nothing like Heep's.)

We can see why the snobs look down on the lower classes, but we can see why Copperfield does not.

Dickens also does, very carefully, something that Shakespeare pioneered and the best writers must do: He is fair to all his characters. Yes, even Uriah Heep -- like Shakespeare with Shylock, Dickens shows us the hateful experiences that poisoned Heep's childhood and formed his resentments. They do not excuse his behavior, but they make it understandable.

Fools are shown to be foolish -- but can have gifts of their own. Even the most obnoxious snobs -- Steerforth and his mother -- are treated with compassion and even admiration (though it's obvious from the start that Dickens does not actually want us to admire Steerforth as much as Copperfield does).

Obnoxious and terrifying Aunt Betsy Trotwood is redeemed, but without ever actually changing her core character: She is who she is, we simply learn to love and respect what she is.

The flamboyant Micawber remains completely true to himself from beginning to end, including his tendency to make long, flamboyant speeches out of everything he says or writes. In fact, it's Micawber who makes the reading of Simon Vance most valuable.

If you are reading Copperfield silently to yourself, you will -- I promise you, you will -- start skimming whatever Micawber says or writes. And there are a lot of his letters in the book!

But with Vance reading them, you not only can't skim them, you don't want to! Because he reads so brilliantly that the tedious circumlocutions carry with them the hunger to be respected that drives Micawber's entire life.

He accomplishes the same thing with Miss Dartle's hesitating, self-doubting style, making it clear just how manipulative she is while seeming to say nothing at all and to disagree with no one.

Dickens shows that Copperfield really did love Dora to distraction -- even as he demonstrates the absolute silliness of his behavior during their courtship, and her absolute inability even to attempt competence in marriage.

For a long while it seems that Dora may be the stupidest human being who ever lived. But it is not so. She is really one of the most frightened people we've ever seen in literature, and is completely enslaved by her fear, making almost no effort to overcome it. She cannot get past it; the world must adapt to her if it wants to be part of her life.

The result is that the reader is perhaps a bit too anxious for her to die; yet we still believe that despite Copperfield's recognition that they have a somewhat awful marriage, and even though he realizes before she dies who it was that he should have married in the first place, his grief for her is genuine.

The negative characters -- Copperfield's stepfather and his sister, fawning and malevolent Uriah Heep and his mother, the sadistic schoolmaster, the cruel and flamboyant snob Steerforth, the love-starved and hate-ruled Miss Dartle -- are allowed to do awful things, sometimes at great length.

When Dartle gives the suffering Emily a vicious tongue-lashing while Copperfield stands by because Emily's uncle should be the one to rescue her, we're practically screaming at Copperfield: Don't just stand there, save the poor girl!

But this is actually one of Dickens's greatest virtues as a writer: the wicked are allowed to do their wickedness.

What makes up for it is that the good are also allowed to be good, without the writer ever sneering at them for being "goody-goody." The good people earn their virtue by not having easy lives.

Daniel Peggotty gives himself fully and freely to the people in his life, sacrificing everything to their needs -- but it's not as if he is rewarded for it. His beloved niece betrays all his efforts to shelter her, but without hesitation he devotes himself to finding her and, in every sense, saving her life.

Peggotty puts up for many years with the unbearably self-pitying Mrs. Gummidge, because he knows who she really is. In fact, Peggotty exemplifies Dickens's core principle: Virtuous people attempt to understand and accept even the most difficult people.

Dickens never makes anyone perfectly virtuous -- no, not even Agnes, who is so reticent and polite that she fails to protect her father or even to find out why he is collapsing before her eyes. An ounce of spunk would have changed their lives vastly for the better.

But he does affirm that virtue is real, that it makes a difference in people's lives, and that it leads to happiness even though it cannot prevent loss and pain.

Only at the very end of the book does Dickens lose his honesty. Unable to resist his vice -- never letting go of any character -- he gives us a ludicrous denouement in which the schoolteacher and two of the more memorable villains are brought back in a tour of a prison; we get an update on the life of the foolish panderer Julia Mills and her (previously invisible) husband; all in all, it's a bit of an embarrassment.

But the contrived callbacks of old jokes don't ruin what went before. Because the experience of reading every word of David Copperfield is too powerful to be taken away by a few auctorial missteps at the end.

Dickens was far from being a perfect writer, though he comes far closer than our most popular writers today. (The same can be said of Shakespeare, without damaging his position as the finest writer who ever lived.)

But in David Copperfield, Dickens comes as close as he ever does to writing the perfect novel. If you were forced to read it in school and hated it, I agree with you completely -- great literature should be read when you are the right age to read it and care about it.

For me, the right age to read Copperfield was now, and the right way to read it was with Simon Vance's impeccable voice in my ear.

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