Sunday, February 13, 2022

Lessons from David Copperfield

David Copperfield, the somewhat autobiographical work by Charles Dickens, was published serially in 1849 and 1850.  It was his favorite novel that he authored and I wonder if he purposely inverted his initials to create David’s name as a nod to their commonalities.  Narrated in first person, David describes his life from the night of his birth until his adulthood.  There is a wide cast of characters, many of whom appear and reappear during various stages of David’s maturity.  It is at times a tragic story; other moments are hilarious.    

David’s life passes through distinct periods: his happy, early childhood; abuse at the hand of his strict stepfather; a period of time in Salem House, a boy’s boarding school; laboring in a factory in London; studying and then working as a legal proctor; eventually, getting married and embarking on a writing career.  As the reader, we see his progress from a naïve little boy to a wise adult; from someone whose heart acts impulsively to one who is discerning.  Yet, through these developments, challenges, and setbacks, David still manages to maintain his innocent goodwill and kindness.  

David’s life, as is the case with any of our lives, intersects with a myriad of people.  He meets many individuals along the way, some of whom have a major impact on his life’s course and his formation, while others merely pass through without leaving an impression on him.

What is curious, however, is the “coincidental” reemergence of characters throughout the novel.  For example, while working in the London factory, David has a kind landlord named Wilkins Micawber.  They part ways, Micawber and his family moving to Plymouth.  Yet, later on in the novel, Dickens is in Canterbury, visiting an acquaintance’s home.  Who should happen to pass by the open door and spot him?  Micawber, of course!  

This is but one example of many where various people from David’s life pop up—running into each other, spotting someone at a social gathering, reading in the newspaper about a teacher from his childhood.  On the one hand, this makes for an engaging plot where the characters interweave and interact in creative ways.  At the end of the novel, Dickens leaves the reader with a strong sense of closure, with all of the characters having clear, set endings.  There are no loose ends here.

Yet, I couldn’t help but reflect to myself that, unlike this novel, life is just very messy sometimes.  I consider people in my life: classmates I knew as a child, teachers I had in school, friends from college, even family members … individuals who crossed paths with me and for a while, we walked this life together: sharing memories, trading secrets, depending on each other. But for one reason or another, our paths have diverged and we no longer communicate with each other.

I suppose I could always “look someone up” on social media, but I purposely avoid those platforms.  So that often leaves me with a big question mark.  What ever happened to so-and-so?  How is he or she doing right now?  The hardest is relationships that ended on a sour note.  What does he or she think of me now … does he harbor anger toward me?  Does she think worse of me?  

David had a close friend named Steerforth, whom he met at his boarding school.  Steerforth was someone David admired and esteemed.  

“You have no best to me, Steerforth,” said I, “and no worst. You are always equally loved, and cherished in my heart.”

Steerforth by Frank Reynolds

Then something tragic happened as young adults that separated them.  While David still appreciated Steerforth’s good qualities, he could no longer keep their friendship.  That is such a difficult part of life.  It’s a kind of death when you’ve had a friendship that brought joy and comfort … and then you have to let the friendship go and part ways.

 “I felt, as he had felt, that all was at an end between us. What his remembrances of me were, I have never known—they were light enough, perhaps, and easily dismissed—but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead.”

Messiness happens in friendship; it happens in marriage too.  David met a young woman named Dora Spenlow and fell completely in love with her, bewitched by her golden curls and the way she found her lapdog, Jip, so amusing.  

I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was—anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.”

Dora and David, by Frank Reynolds

They married after a long engagement and David couldn’t have been happier.  However, he soon found that married life with Dora presented challenges.  She was a frivolous girl, more skilled at taking care of Jip than maintaining any kind of order in their home.  Their servants stole from them.  Their meals were late and undercooked.  

Any attempt David made to form his wife’s mind and habits dissolved into tears and laments on the part of Dora, who felt undervalued and unappreciated.  She insisted on David considering her his “child-wife.”  Though Dora had a kind heart, she was far from similar-minded for the reflective, intellectual author David had become. 

 “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.'”

He couldn’t share everything in his heart with her.  I admired David’s ability to still love Dora, despite his recognition of her shortcomings and inability to be a partner on equal footing.  David treated her with devotion and affection, not with resentment—perhaps because David himself carried a piece of childlike innocence in his heart.  Even so, their marriage was undoubtedly messy.

“I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting.”

In the fictional world of Dickens’s novel, these messy relationships come to a just, clear-cut, neat ending.  The bad guys have an unhappy ending.  The good guys live happily ever after.  There are no question marks or relationships left in the shadows of uncertainty.  

But for us in the real world, life will always be messy.  When I was in college, I had a friend who was there for me when I really needed someone more than ever.  Over and over again, I depended on him as a listening ear, a sympathetic heart, a source of wise advice and counsel.  During one of our conversations he told me, “In ten years’ time, no matter where we end up, you’re the kind of friend I’ll always send a Christmas card to every year.”  I believed my friend and I treasured that sentiment, a sign of the depth and meaning of our friendship.  But I never received a card and, this year, I finally accepted the reality that our friendship was only of the past and what he said then, doesn’t hold true any longer.  


Sometimes, for any manner of reasons, you decide you have to let a friendship fade.  Someone hurt you and you wonder whether he or she would understand why you feel hurt.  Do you dare open your heart to explain, running the risk of just getting hurt even more if the person doesn’t understand?  Or do you slowly step back, answering text messages more slowly and not initiating conversation … knowingly letting the friendship slowly die, aching inside because you never wanted this but can’t see another way out.  This was someone you trusted.  You opened your heart, let this person in.  But because of the closeness, the hurt is even more painful and now the person becomes like a stranger.

Sometimes I wish I lived in the world of a Dickens novel and coincidences would reunite us, answering the question marks.  But we aren’t characters; we are human people with our frailties, vices, and faults.  We make things messy and that messiness follows us.  It isn’t always neatly resolved in this life.  I suppose, looking forward in faith, we can trust that at the Second Coming of Christ, the “good guys” will then receive their happy ending and the “bad guys” their punishment.  At that point, all the question marks will be answered.  

But until then … things are messy.

Yet I find comfort in advice that David received from his eccentric but kind-hearted aunt:

“'It's in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.”

At times my thoughts and memories stray to what used to be, but they cannot linger there.  Instead of lamenting what was, I can focus on what is: the relationships I have before me in the immediacy.  I can focus on being the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend that I can to those whom God has placed around me.  Things will sometimes be messy, but when there is unity of mind and purpose, we can pull through the messiness, growing stronger in love, affection, and understanding.  Those are the relationships that will last.

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