It is a true truism that art imitates life. We might be struck anew by the freshness underlying this proverb if we consider the type of all imitation, the mimicry of a child. Children immediately fix on an animal’s salient characteristics then exaggerate them. Despite their best intentions, and the windows being up, adults will be forced to remember that a world exists outside their car, and that horses neigh. Art, by exaggerating the world before one’s eye, gives the world a fighting chance of being noticed. A similar element of surprise enables art to breach an even more forbidding rampart, that which guards our own inner life from our sight. It invites us to empathize with, to mimic the perspectives of people who do not actually exist, only to realize that their fictitious experiences echo in the deepest corners of our hearts.
At its best fiction is not opposed to or inconsistent with real life, but rather its defense and articulation. And whether by calling our attention to the varied sorts of people we already know without noticing, or by sounding out our own inner selves with whom we have neglected to become acquainted, Charles Dickens shows himself to be a high practitioner of this advocacy. And it is in David Copperfield that he reaches the height of his practice.
Dickens is an unequaled observer of people because he is an unparalleled exaggerator. The experience of a Dickens novel is first delight at the dramatic and outlandish personalities, and then surprise that they are like people we already know. Sydney Carton is a romantic character whom we would at first never imagine seeing outside of Tale of Two Cities. Nevertheless, the story of not a few college dropouts is one of innately noble souls who rejected the meaningless pursuit of status and wealth while struggling to discover the true pearl of great price. Likewise, if we’re lucky, we’ve all known men like Mr. Pickwick, who possess the same combination of geniality and vanity. With Dickens more than any other author, the green reader often concludes that the characters seem “larger-than-life.” Yet this conclusion should be taken as a sign of the reader’s ignorance of his own life. With time, however, Dickens opens a reader’s eyes to the “characters” who move and breathe among us.
David Copperfield evokes such feelings of recognition most readily. I have a friend who matches Micawber insofar as he is an eloquent scrounger without being a bad man. Women as eccentric and as warm as Betsy Trotwood are only ten or twenty pews in front of you when you go to Mass. On the sobering side, one eventually confronts people who are as devilishly cynical as Murdstone and his sister.
One reason that the book is so true to life is that Dickens put a large part of his own life into it. A brief discussion of the plot is in order to point out the similarities between C.D. and D.C. The book begins with David’s voice wryly discussing the circumstances of his birth (G. K. Chesterton seems to echo the manner of this memorable opening his own autobiography). A mysterious subplot takes off right away, in the fleeing character of an eccentric and wealthy aunt who is disappointed that Davy is not a girl. In the following pages, a cruel Presbyterian stepfather and his malicious spinster sister, a sadistic headmaster and sympathetic teacher, and a grimy worker in a London blacking factory intervene before our hero is rescued miraculously by a kind-hearted spinster who hates donkeys. His expectations improve. He disgraces himself in front of the woman who loves him and then disgraces himself in front of the father of the girl he loves. He discovers the deceit dwelling in the heart of an old school friend he idolized and grows to appreciate another schoolmate’s loyal heart.
Those who would scoff at the more marvelous aspects of the story would be scorning the truth. While Dickens himself was not an orphan, having a loving though improvident father, a great part of the book mirrors events of his own life. With his family in debtors’ prison, Charles Dickens had to fend for himself as a young boy like his protagonist. Dickens and Davy both pasted labels on shoe-polish bottles for six or seven shillings a week. Like author, like character, both master shorthand in order to record parliamentary debates, both devote late nights to developing their budding literary aspirations, both become famous authors. His own incredible experience of life explains Dickens’s ability to capture the wonder of real life we would otherwise be blind to.
His facility of observation extended to a penetrating knowledge of interior life. In David Copperfield especially he probes the human susceptibility to cynicism and suspicion. Who would not join Davy in suspecting the virtue of a young beautiful woman married to a much older man? Especially when the handsome rascal appears to have her favor? And even if we accept in an abstract way that physical appearances do not necessarily correlate with moral worth, the reader easily joins David in finding something sinister in the midget barber. The reader (like Davy) is presented with an uncomfortable truth as he learns more about the main villain of the piece: that he has shared in the same meanness of attitude in judging some of the most pure-hearted characters in the book. Hopefully, however, the reader will take the villain’s infamy as a cautionary tale, and not end up in a model prison conniving with evil menservants!
In any case, a potential chastening awaits the reader interested in Davy’s life in that he may (if I may be so bold as to imitate the style of one dear companion from the book) be accompanied by a multitude of characters, who will become sure friends, and who might even help you realize how mysterious, and lovable, your real-life friends actually are.