Review of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
By PAUL D. MILLER
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.” I immediately liked the tenor of the book from the first sentence. Dickens is very funny—I loved the witty asides—and some of the writing, in particular that chapter about the storm in which Ham is killed near the end of the book, is absolutely terrific and unforgettable.
It seems to me that Copperfield does not turn out to be his life’s hero. Mr. Peggoty tracks down and saves little Emily. Traddles and Micawber thwart Uriah Heep’s schemes. Aunt Betsey supports Copperfield throughout his life. Ham puts up with great trials and dies heroically trying to save sailors from drowning. Copperfield himself observers, learns, and is looked up to by the others because of his learning and his generosity; but the most heroic thing he does of his own initiative is to run away from the London bottle-labeling business and set out on his own.
But I think that is what makes the book so charming. It is a story full of heroes—heroes of everyday life. Copperfield is in the company of a great cloud of witnesses. The most touching parts of the book are the places where we see wonderful images of God’s love in how the characters care for each other. Mr. Peggoty’s quest to save his niece echoes Christ’s parable of seeking the lost sheep. He dedication to seek her for the rest of his days is how he lays down his life for her: he gives up home, job, family, everything to bring her back.
Agnes’ love for David is another picture of God’s love. She confesses at the end of the book that even though Copperfield never recognized it, “I have loved you all my life.” Paul writes in Romans “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and that God ordained to give us grace “before the beginning of time.” Agnes, like God, loves her beloved without his earning it, before he knows it, and without him being capable of reciprocating it; and it is precisely that love that enobles, inspires, and, indeed, saves David in the end.
Agnes is the figure or archtype of God’s love in another way. She is immutable. Copperfield says a dozen times throughout the book that Agnes’ goodness and love are unchanged. In every season of life, through the years, despite his follies and through every trial, Agnes remains Agnes: full of goodness, truth, and beauty. James writes that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Agnes is to David what Beatrice was to Dante: the earthly finger pointing to the love of God.
The book is truly great because Copperfield is not simply a sentimental record of good people doing good. Dickens shows us wickedness and fallenness too. There is a mirror image of Agnes’ love for Copperfield and Rosa Dartle’s love for Steerforth: each loved their beloved in secret all their lives, unrequited. But Rosa’s love was a grasping, selfish and self-centered thing. She loved Steerforth for the way Steerforth made her feel when he turned his charisma and charm on her. Agnes loved David despite how he sometimes made her feel. Rosa made Steerforth into an idol: the god of youth, manhood, and charm; hence her bitterness and rage when he acts more like a devil than an angel. Agnes loves David even in his faults because she knows him to be human. Perhaps Uriah and Traddles are another pair of opposites; both from humble backgrounds, both aspiring lawyers; but they make greatly different choices. Heep schemes and manipulates; Traddles is patient and hardworking. Heep’s character becomes part of his own punishment.