Reading David Copperfield

copperfieldI should have read this book when I was a bit younger, I concluded after finally returning Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield back to the shelf this morning. “Should” – a term riddled with possibilities, both past and future. In this case, it is another “what might have been,” that I’m pining about: I did read an abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities as a child. It was one of those small square-shaped things of more or less a hundred pages with a lot of illustrations. However, my successive attempts at reading the complete version never led me past the first few pages. Thus, for a long time, my familiarity with Dickens rested solely on the following passages:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

This sorry state changed for the better when I got hold of Dickens’s Mugby Junction, a short story collection, last September. Today David Copperfield becomes the first full-length Dickens novel that I completed reading, one that also happens to be Dickens’s favorite among his many books. And indeed, I find the big cast of characters in David Copperfield loveable. David Copperfield himself turned out to be the very hero that he wished he were at the beginning of the book. Aunt Betsey, who seemed atrocious at the beginning, turned out to have a sad story of her own. And there’s my favorite character Mr. Micawber who was always arrested for his unpaid debts. I always loved his humorously self-depreciating letters. That too changes near the end since the book concludes with a happy ending.

But some of the other characters I like the most are those who never seemed to have changed: Mrs. Micawbers, for example, who always declared, “I will never desert Mr. Micawber” (and she never did), Copperfield’s “child-wife” Dora who was rather ridiculous, and the steadfast Mr. Peggotty – always ready to exclaim “Mas’r Davy!” Even the villains are memorable. In fact, Uriah Heep and Mr. Littimmer have a funny final appearance. They remain to be the unrepentant gargoyles and trolls that they were till the end (though they revealed themselves to be quite doiled creatures).

Plodding through the 716 page novel took around a quarter of this year (I did pick up other books in between): far longer than my one-month reading of the 1,400 plus page English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (but that doesn’t seem so bad considering Dickens first released David Copperfield in 19 monthly installments in 1849). I think I find Tolstoy’s epic novel better although why that is so should be for another post (perhaps when I read War and Peace again). I confess difficulty in coming up with such explanations. Having no firm grasp of the finer points of the plot, characterization, theme, setting, and other elements of fiction yet always puts me to a disadvantage. ■

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