It occurs to me that sixth grade was an important time for me. I read both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield for the first time that year. I had lots of friends, but often spent my recess time sitting on a bench or a swing with a book. I remember my best friend coming over to see how I was doing, and, upon seeing what I was reading, noting that David Copperfield was fantastic and that her father had taken her and her brother to see him live last summer. I was so confused.
The book is about David’s life from birth to mid-adulthood, and the various people he meets and obstacles he encounters along the way. Unlike some of Dickens’ other books about orphans, there’s no secret or twist to David’s life. It’s a remarkable life, yes, but he never, for instance, finds out that the kindly old man who took him in is really his uncle, or that his benefactor is that weird escaped convict he brought some bread to in a graveyard, once. There are no secret identities or doppelgängers. Though I love most of his books, the lack of fancy plot devices in this book leaves us free to simply observe the characters. Dickens is often accused of caricature, but I find it impossible not to see glimpses of people I know, and even of myself, in people like Mr. Micawber, Rosa Dartle, and Betsey Trotwood. The truth is that some people are actually like this. If you think you don’t know anyone like these people, you’re not looking at people you know the correct way. And if you really think you don’t know anyone like these people, I’m sorry for you. Please try taking public transportation some time.
It would be easy to assume that I only understood and related to David’s emotions so well because I was still a child myself, but I’ve read enough Dickens by now to know that he has the ability to make me relive emotions with every book, and sometimes even make me feel that I understand emotions I couldn’t possibly support with life experience. Dickens’ child characters, in general, are highly sympathetic because he remembers so well how violent children’s emotions are: how possessive they can feel of their parents’ affections, how fascinated they are by novelty, how intuitive they can be about people’s intentions, and how truly, hatefully angry they can be. When a child screams, “I hate you!” at a parent, he really means it, even if five minutes later, he no longer feels that way.
I relate to David in particular because he is, himself, a very ordinary sort of person who is thrust into poverty and into contact with an extensive range of human nature, as demonstrated by some very extraordinary people. It’s impossible to have this kind of childhood and not feel yourself to be somewhat eccentric, even as you may struggle to blend in. In David Copperfield, this duality is symbolized by David’s two names: David and Trotwood, and by his two wives, one of whom symbolizes his futile yearning for his youth as it could have been, and one of whom symbolizes his acceptance of his life as it is, and his real maturity.
To understand how much I love this book, or how much I love any of my favorite books that I read when still young, you have to imagine that I feel about them the way you might feel about a favorite teacher, or aunt, or someone else who provided you with a model of how to live, or taught you a way of looking at things you might not otherwise have seen. When I read a book like David Copperfield, I feel grateful, and the only way I can say thank you is to keep it with me and read it over and over again, learning from it each time.