To say Charles Dickens was a genius is an understatement; calling David Copperfield a masterpiece is like saying that Paradise Lost isn't bad. It defies expression. Lyrical, hilarious, really heartbreaking, it's a novel about the mystery of death, the joy and sorrow and pain of life, the fear of growing up, the bizarre and outrageous and funny elements of quotidian life. His most autobiographical work, this is also one of Dickens' greatest achievements, at once a product of its time and breathtakingly universal.
Copperfield's life is what you'd expect for an orphan in the days before child labor laws. He becomes an adult, not from character or talents so much as timely assistance and luck. The horrors he encounters are between tragedy and dark comedy—Murdstone getting 8-year-old David drunk and making him sing songs a topa table, for instance. When David falls in love with Dora, sympathetic readers will find it nearly impossible not to fall in love, too....nor to weep at the couple's devastation.
Many of Dickens' most famous characters are found here: the heroic Ham, the wicked Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber, Aunt Betsey, Barkis, Tommy Traddles, Mr. Dick (always writing the same page of his Memorial), and on and on and on. Dickens didn't know how to introduce fewer than exactly a bazillion characters, but each one is so unique it's actually harder to confuse them than to keep them straight. Even the minor characters are unforgettable, like the pawn shop owner who chases a young David away waving his arms and shouting "Goroo! Goroo!"
Filled with beauty, filled with heartbreak, filled with concentrated literary genius, David Copperfield contains elements of romance, mystery, drama, comedy, even farce, without being constrained to any of them. And while length is often a reason to avoid "the classics," this is one of those rare breeds whose length is a blessing, and if there's a complaint it's that it ends. Yet the end, tender, sad and hopeful, is the perfect finish to what can legitimately be called one of the few perfect novels.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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