The Mitchell Classics have had a great year as Dickens Champions. For their last word on the subject, please welcome Brian on the portrayal of the sea in David Copperfield.
The portrayal of the sea in David Copperfield is the element that most returns to haunt me when I think about the novel. It is almost as if the sea were a character in itself. Little Em’ly describes it chillingly as a malicious person:
‘Ah! but it’s cruel. I have seen it very cruel to some of our men. I have seen it tear a boat as big as our house all to pieces.’
Of course, the sea can also be placid and bountiful, and many – including some in the novel – depend on it for a living. But in the coastal scenes of this novel there is always a sense that any calm is only the kind that comes before a storm and that the sea is characteristically malevolent and wrathful.
Storms and turbulence feature in other novels by Dickens too – from ‘Heaven’s wrath’ in Martin Chuzzlewit and the ‘Devil abroad’ in The Old Curiosity Shop to the violence of the mob in Barnaby Rudge’ that ‘raged and roared’. Yet these are external to the characters’ lives in a way that the stormy sea in David Copperfield is not. Shelter from these storms can be found and they go on outside, but in David Copperfield the sea engulfs the characters it destroys and their lives are literally absorbed by it.
Critics have suggested that the novel should have ended with the climaxic storm in which Ham dies valiantly trying to save Steerforth, but this drama is not one of the Shakespearian tragedies that Dickens admired, and calm follows as well as precedes a storm. The other scale of the balance is filled with the reassuring palliative sentimentality so much enjoyed by Dickens and his audience.
Indeed, it is tempting to resort to the typical explanation of Dickens’ source of inspiration, and wonder whether his use of storm imagery was prompted not just by his interest in plays and dramatic effects but also by his memory of the vagaries of fate and the reversal of fortune that led him as a child to the blacking factory.
Thanks very much to the Mitchell Classics for letting us share their Dickens adventure. Read how Anne Marie sums it all up on Reading Groups for Everyone.