Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflections: David Copperfield

Why ever am I reading this book now? Isn't Charles Dickens meant to be a part of the rigor of teenage and high school years? Well, as part of indulging in a lot of unnecessary pursuits, I did manage to read "Oliver Twist" when I was thirteen. And it was then that I encountered the meaning of depression. I cried my heart out for Oliver, that by the end of the book I melted into a puddle of my own tears. In that state of agony, I took a vow never ever to read Charles Dickens again and masochistically subject myself to misery and tragedy. But Fate has his own plan. Two of his books wafted their way to me. After ignoring them for two years, I convinced myself that I'd outgrown that sappy girl and would be mature enough to appreciate the book for its literary merit.

Most people know the story of David Copperfield. Abandoned as an orphan, and treated with disdain, as a young boy, David goes through heart-wrenching perils. Ill-treated at school, and then kicked off to work as a waged-laborer, David scraps his pennies together and trudges along poverty, dreariness, and loneliness in a cruel world. But his strong-will pushes him to go in search of his aunt, who generously adopts him and tries to make a decent man of him. From then on, David remains loyal and true to his benefactor, hones his skills and education and grows into a compassionate and goodhearted man. He meets a host of interesting characters, each with their own peculiar stories of their own, all intertwining to repeatedly throw David in tumult and loss. Despite things going wrong and tragedies befalling him, David emerges unscathed in spirit and helps to resolve the problems of his friends and family.

Dickens brings in a subtle undercurrent of romance, with comedic and tragic interludes. As expected of most novels in this era, the story is centered around Victorian virtues that define honor, decorum, good and bad; especially for a lady. But it seemed to me that Dickens was making a subtle point condemning some of those - especially with the way he handled Emily's "dishonorable" act of running away with her lover when she was betrothed to another. His characters are clearly defined as black and white, good and evil, that the good is detailed as the personification of a paragon, and the bad is morphed into the Devil himself. In a way this portrays the simpler times when good and evil could be so well culled out from each other, and however weary the battle between good and evil, there is  a piercing clarity on what should happen. The relief to the reader is that all ends well, and the loose strings get tied up, arranged neatly in their places, and the book is closed with thoughtless satisfaction. A commendable aspect is that the characters are fleshed out incredibly well, with each having such unique, overpowering personalities, leaving them immortal and memorable in our minds.

Now onto the important question. Was Dickens successful in his attempt to brew all the misery in the world and make me shed tears? Yet again? Almost. But this time, my strong emotions were not towards the protagonist or the other characters. I was overwhelmed by such intense exasperation to read Dickens' ludicrously long sentences which easily crawled down to 15 lines, containing more than 90 words, a dozen punctuations to stilt the senses, and multiple redundancies reiterating the same point, that I often lost track of where, how and what the sentence originated to convey. It's an irony that being an incessant rambler myself, even I couldn't bear Dickens' meandering prose that I was ready to cry and pluck away a few hundred pages of the book, just to regain my sanity. I just don't understand why he needed to inflict so much of convolution. It's almost as if Dickens paused writing and said, "Hmm. Now that I've written half the book, let me pause and do an experiment. An interesting jugglery with grammar, if you will. I shall take a simple sentence and using the rules of grammar and the sophisticated vocabulary I know, I shall mesh together the most complicated sentence ever constructed in the history of literature. And I shall continue to do this in the pretext of perfectly describing my characters and the things that they see and feel. Let's see if my reader is smart enough to appreciate this ingenious attempt of mine." This reader unfortunately doesn't have enough stuff in her head to deeply appreciate such linguistic acrobatics. To me, it turned into a book that would never ever end, winding on like a soap-opera that one can pick up and continue watching  even after missing a dozen episodes (in this case, a liberal 20 pages at a time).

But of course, this is not to say that the whole book was filled with such meandering and wearisome prose. Quite befitting his literary fame, Dickens truly awed me in several places. The prose shone with his superior skills; of threading together eloquent sentences and tempering them with profound meaning and beautiful metaphors. Like little jewels they lie strewn across the book, sometimes buried in his turgid sentences, and never to be excavated. But if we are to hand-pick them and refurbish the story around them, not only would we save plenty of trees by cutting down a few hundred pages, but it will also turn into a book that one would want to pick up ever so often. But it is blasphemous of me to even utter such impetuous statements and corrupt the sanctity of the Classic, so I shall let it pass.


Karthik said...

;-)I've never tried Dickens before, and after reading this post, I'm pretty sure I won't in future too !;-) I myself have little patience for convoluted writing where simple sentences would convey the message just as well !

Neeraja said...

Oh don't let my rant keep you from trying Dickens! I think you should try just one book for the sake of the experience and then form your judgment :)