Introduction and questions for discussion
The first monthly number, of course, is the one in which David tells us about his idyllic early childhood, shattered in the second by the reality of his mother’s second marriage. Not that it’s anything like so straightforward. There are plenty of dark forebodings as early as Chapter 2, and Dickens makes sure we notice them. When David sees the new man in his mother’s life for the first time, it’s his ‘beautiful black hair and whiskers’ that the young child notices. But, only a few sentences later, already ‘I didn’t like him or his deep voice,’ and by the end of the sentence we know why: ‘I was jealous that his hand should touch my mother’s in touching me—which it did. I put it away, as well as I could.’ David’s six- or seven-year-old self might not understand what’s going on with the arrival of the appalling Murdstone, but he hates the man’s invasion of their space. And in the middle of the anecdote comes this reminder: ‘my later understanding comes, I am sensible, to my aid here.’
This second chapter is ‘I Observe’ and, for me, its opening paragraphs are a tour de force. Dickens makes the most of the new form he’s trying out, the first-person narrative. He is at pains to have David remind us that he is writing this as an adult, presenting the child’s-eye-view as he remembers it. The adult David—and we can be sure that the adult Dickens is in full agreement—believes that in their observations of the world, some lucky children are fully-formed. At the beginning of the chapter David describes his very earliest memories, when his widowed mother is no more than ‘her pretty hair and youthful shape,’ and Peggotty is ‘no shape at all.’ Another sense, to go with sight, is touch, as of ‘Peggotty’s forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.’ That last little image, perfectly tactile as it is, draws together the child and the man. Tactile early memory, tactile adult simile.
When David is whisked away to stay with Peggotty’s family in Chapter 3, the visit is book-ended by forebodings before and by shock on his return. Peggoty’s hesitancy at suggesting the trip—‘opening her mouth as if she were going to speak, without doing it’—and her evasiveness when David asks what his mother will do while he’s away, both signal to the reader what the child misses. It feels like some near relative of dramatic irony to have the adult author and the reader understand what the boy does not…. The shock on his return from Yarmouth is, of course, the merciless negation of everything he remembers of home. The last page or two of the first monthly number are full of horror heaped upon horror. David has just come to realise, as he approaches his home, that ‘it was my nest, and that my mother was my comforter and friend.’ But from just after that moment it is made all too clear to him that nothing will ever be the same. It ends with that ‘great dog—deep mouthed and black-haired like Him—and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me.’
The title of Chapter 4, which opens the second number, tells it all: ‘I Fall into Disgrace.’ Does he fall, or is he pushed? We know even before David tells us. Murdstone, one of the best-named of all Dickens’ characters, goes for what he calls ‘firmness.’ The adult David translates this for us as ‘tyranny’. Murdstone is as tyrannical to his new wife as he is to David, and—how quickly do we realise that this is a definite policy of subjugation for his own ends? We remember that odd little scene, back in Chapter 2, when David had accompanied Murdstone on a trip to a hotel, ‘where two gentlemen were smoking cigars in a room by themselves.’ Young David understands nothing of what happens. One of the men asks about him, ‘What! Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield’s encumbrance? … The pretty little widow?’ Murdstone warns him, ‘take care, if you please. Somebody’s sharp.’ Poor young David doesn’t get it. He looks up, seeking out this somebody, ‘being curious to know.’
Murdstone has an ally in the form of his sister, as metallic as he is stony – her accoutrements are ‘fetters and rivets’ – and they terrorise both David and his poor mother. Soon David is reduced to such a state of terror by the daily round of tests that, under the basilisk stare of the Murdstones, he can remember nothing. The rote learning they favour serves its purpose. It drums out of the ‘sharp’ little boy, to use Murdstone’s own word, all the love of learning we saw in the early chapters. It’s easy for Murdstone to pretend this is proof of disobedience, and David is so terrorised by the very idea of the ritualistic punishment he is about to receive— Murdstone has made for himself a cruel-looking new cane—that he bites his stepfather. The mauling he receives must be so appalling that David has to be hidden away for five days.
Not that it’s enough. Alongside the physical abuse comes the psychological torture. How best to ‘break’ a child’s spirit? First, keep him locked up, separated from the mother he loves, then send him away entirely. It’s taken only a single chapter for this point to have been reached, and there’s more misery to come. But… that isn’t all there is. David’s handkerchief is soaked through with tears as he leaves his village on a cart—and who should appear but the ever-loving Peggotty? Popping out from behind a hedge carrying ‘paper bags of cakes which she crammed into my pockets, and a purse which she put into my hand,’ she is a vision of something better.
Before this, incarcerated in his room, David had been having even greater visions, brought about by his reading of a well-stocked bookshelf Murdstone seems not to have noticed. Is this second monthly number a kind of mirror-image of the first? The first three chapters present the idyll of David’s early childhood, but laced through with darkness—including that fortnight spent with the Peggotty family, with its strange prefiguring of some terrible future for Emily. Now, it seems as though it’s all darkness. There’s the appalling coach journey, with other passengers so thoughtless of a young boy’s needs he has no sleep at all. There’s a waiter who swindles him not only out of a good proportion of the money in Peggotty’s purse, but his dinner too—then makes such a joke of how much David has eaten he is offered no more food before London….
Is it knockabout fun? Or the adult David remembering the point of view of a child brought low by misery? Whatever, there is some light too. Poor Mr Mell treats him with kindness, and we get that happy vision of the way he plays his tuneless flute to the appreciative old woman he looks after. There’s Creakle, yes, and the humiliating sign for his back—Murdstone making sure his doleful influence is felt even at this distance—and then of course, there’s Steerforth. Within a day of meeting him, David has no money left at all… but it isn’t all bad news, is it? Steerforth is offering David a proper welcome, isn’t he? And hadn’t Steerforth sympathised with him over the ‘He bites’ sign? Wasn’t it, according to him, ‘a jolly shame?’ It was, ‘for which I became bound to him ever afterwards.’ It’s going to be complicated with Steerforth.
Questions for discussion
- Does Dickens genuinely appear to be engaging with the nature of memory in these early chapters? And do his references to memory go further, serving to establish the reality of the remembered world he describes?
- The cruelty in these chapters is sometimes extreme, especially in Chapter 4. Is the relentlessness of it overdone, or is Dickens justified in describing something that is all too real?
- There are five female characters in these chapters, of greater or lesser importance. To what extent is Dickens simply presenting a child’s-eye-view of them in these chapters? To what extent does a more adult, authorial influence make itself felt in his presentation of them?