Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

Some books take some longer time to finish. To solve this problem I take them for a ride. In this case, as I travel by public transport (tram and train) to and from my work each day, I read while traveling. I started on David Copperfield (1849) by Charles Dickens during my vacation two months ago, but I didn’t really get into it. So now six weeks later I’ve finished it.

As the period might hint this was not a novel that grabbed me and kept me reading. It was fine reading it in small parts with daily intervals. The novel itself was originally a serialization, with a chapter published each week (so I assume). This format can lead to problems because there is little time to correct errors or to be sure of a coherent plot. Dickens circumvented it by making the chapters episodic. He wrote a sequence of events as long as he could keep it going. That’s a least how it felt to me. This was also the problem for me. We follow the main character through the episode but then it ends and Dickens moves on to a different episode, leaving open threads of the previous episode hanging for a later time. I would have liked it more if he had stuck through or kept on a certain track. Instead he kept changing tracks regularly, although he kept returning with the same characters, making the overall story a coherent whole.

The story is a narration of the main character’s life up to a certain point. As said before a number of episodes are selected. At some points he goes into detail, as others he quickly summarizes developments in his life. That would be okay if the episodes would provide some resolution or drama. Dickens rarely goes deep. Most of it remains somewhat superficial. The main character has some tough times but he usually quickly recovers or finds better prospects. Situations that seem to be a perfect setting to provide for a strong development never go through but are rather escaped and left behind.

David Copperfield is thus a story that meanders between moderate bad and good events and only occasionally provides an extreme. For a book of almost 1000 pages this is not much. As I’ve read other serialized novels from the same time period (the historical novels by Alexandre Dumas) the contrast couldn’t be bigger. While those were a tempest that kept me hooked, in this it was a breeze which gently moved me to the destination.

Another point that I want to note are the dialogues. It is nothing peculiar that they are long, which is normal for the time period, but the lack of substance bothered me most. The characters often said anything at except pleasantries or hints at their real attentions which were quite vague. Maybe it is a certain style that others would enjoy but to me they were quite boring.

Of Dickens it is said that he wrote some iconic characters (like Dumas did), but I was rather disappointed. Yes, he did manage to provide a clear characterization but they were rarely out of the ordinary. Especially as he never went into extremes with his story the characterization also remained within limited boundaries.

This is not much of a positive review. I already hinted at this in the beginning and it is my conclusion as well. The book is not bad. Dickens writing style is good to read so that didn’t slow me down. His story however remained a collection of related episodes which avoided real confrontation. It is a story that refrains from dissatisfying readers, although there is some social commentary on mid-eighteenth century English society while presenting the reader a picture of that society as well, although the general behavior seems too kind overall. It is still quite possible I will pick up another Dickens novel in the future. It did provide me with a good reading during travel and there are other novels which are supposed to be classics as well. I am just not sure Dickens’ style of writing is the thing for me. I had guessed this for some time already, as I’ve got a good instinct for books, but I still wanted to try one of his novels one day. At least I can say I have done so now.

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