David Copperfield by Charles Dickens must be, for me, one of the hardest books to read. And not because it was about 800 pages long or had plenty of words I had to look up in the dictionary, but because it was so heartbreaking.
This novel tells the story of David Copperfield from the time he was born until he reached adulthood. David has led a difficult life, especially when he was a boy, and what makes it sadder is that it is autobiographical and narrated in the first person in the perspective of a child. I’m not sure how much of the book is autobiographical, but still it shows the abusive treatment children have suffered in the Victorian era.
David had a good relationship with his mother until she remarried. When Mr. Murdstone, the new husband, and Ms. Murdstone, his sister, moved in to David’s home, everything changed. Suddenly, David was being scolded, beaten and locked up badly bruised (he narrates, “I had been lying, for the most part, with my head upon the sill, by turns crying, dozing, and looking listlessly out”), his easily manipulated mother Clara never doing anything to protect him (or not having the power to). Things got much worse when his mother died, after which he was forced by his stepfather to move out and work in a factory to earn his own money. He “had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone,” and he suffered in secret.
David, because of the circumstances, grew closer to his nurse Peggotty. It was a relief to know there was at least one person in the world who was not only kind but also affectionate toward him. One day, David decided to run away to his Aunt Betsey (whom he never met but only heard of), and just when I thought things couldn’t get any more dreadful, someone hits him on the chin, and the money he borrowed from Peggotty and his box of things get stolen. His travel expenses taken away, he walked instead—for several days without food and lodging. People started to dislike his appearance as it got more obvious he was a homeless child, and he sold his clothes one by one so he could have something to eat.
I felt so anxious for David as he travelled to meet his aunt. Would she like him? Would he even find her? After all, he didn’t have a specific address, he was just asking for directions, and not to mention he was dead tired. On top of that, Aunt Betsey seemed to be a cranky woman who was difficult to live with based on previous descriptions about her from Clara’s and Peggotty’s points of view. It would be so frustrating to travel this far only to be rejected and go back. But in Chapter 13, he meets his aunt, who takes him in, and David finally gets his well-deserved rest. Thank goodness!
Of course, his story doesn’t end here. Many more trials come in every aspect of David’s life, such as in his school, career, finances, friendships, family and marriage. It makes me realize how much of life is running into problems, then overcoming them, over and over again. But out of all the hardships that David had endured, it was the ones from his childhood that moved me and broke my heart the most, which were, as he reflected later on, “fraught with so much pain … with so much mental suffering and want of hope.” This year my family and I have been going through trial after trial, but it’s stories like David’s that put our problems into perspective and help me see that things are not as bad as they seem. Trials are temporary, and the overcoming or redemption part will always come.
One important character I’d like to mention is Mr. Dick from upstairs, who takes things one step at a time. Most people see him as crazy and foolish, but to Aunt Betsey (and to me), he is the wisest and has the most common sense of all. When Aunt Betsey asked him for advice on what to do with David, he simply said she must give him a bath. Sometimes it’s better to do the next right thing instead of worrying about the big picture or the end goal.
Because of all the sorrows and painful experiences throughout David’s life, overall I feel relieved that the novel ended on a happy note. I’m glad that he was still alive when he became a famous author—that he witnessed his success—and that his new wife, his “love of whom was founded on a rock,” is finally by his side, which gives me the confidence that, despite the new trials that will come his way for sure (as such is life), all the worst days are over, and things are going to get much better.
“I do not hold one natural gift, I dare say, that I have not abused. My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”