decorative initial 'I' n Chapter III, Em'ly relates her vision of a future filled with wealth, generosity, and gentility, to which David responds, "This seemed to me to be a very satisfactory, and therefore not at all improbable, picture." The equation of the satisfactory with the probable only holds in Paradise, but this is where David seems to be for the first years of his life: a "garden at the back ... a very preserve of butterflies, as I remember it, with a high fence, and a gate and padlock; where the fruit clusters on the trees, riper and richer than fruit has ever been since, in any other garden" (II). The padlocked gate and high fence are subtle and ominous hints, of course, but they are quiet ones, and we are encouraged to imagine, with the boy, that his Eden is complete. Even crocodiles are imaginatively transformed to vegetables, and all predation and terror are banished from this happy, non-competitive world, supported throughout this section by a basically protective humour. Like other issues in this first section, however, the crocodiles become harder and harder to dismiss as the novel goes on, and this first deceptive allusion begins a chain of more and more significant references to animals, reflecting more and more closely the darker themes of the novel, and causing the initial laughter at the crocodiles to backfire. The transposition of animals and human beings suggests a basic and threatening inhumanity.

As David's position at home changes from that of a petted and much-loved only child to that of a victimized and lonely outcast, he gradually appears, both to himself and to the Murdstones, as less than human. Finally, the Murdstones complete this dehumanization by forcing on him a placard, "Take care of him. He bites." The irony packed into the word "care" emphasizes the brutality of this treatment as does David's complete acceptance of his animality. After looking for the dog that is to wear the sign and finding it is for him, he rejects utterly his own humanity and suffers a "dread" of himself (V). [167/168]

The transfer from Murdstone to Creakle does not at all change his feelings. The other boys pretend that he is a dog, and he soon looks at Creakle's school as a veritable kennel, twice referring to the boys as "miserable little dogs" (VII), who bait the poor "bull or bear", Mr. Mell, and who are harassed by a keeper who whips them, asking fit the same time, "Did it bite, hey?" (VII).

David begins to adopt this dehumanizing vocabulary himself, not, however, to attack but only to achieve comfort in a fantasy life. No doubt unconsciously but still consistently, he speaks of good people as harmless domestic animals and evil people as dangerous predatory beasts. For example, Mr. Chillip is "an amiable bird" (I); Barkis is "like a horse." (III); David's brother is "a poor lamb" (IX); Dr. Strong is like "a blind old horse" (XVI); Traddles says he is a "fretful porcupine" (XLI); Dora's aunts are "little birds" (XLI); Dora is "a Mouse" (XLIV); and Mr. Dick and Aunt Betsey are like "a shepherd's dog" and "a sheep" (LII). On the other hand, Mr. Murdstone is like a vicious dog (III); Miss Murdstone is a "Dragon" (XXXVIII); and together they are "two snakes" (IV); the Goroo man lives in a "den" and has the "claws of a great bird" (XIII); Steerforth (after his seduction of Em'ly) is "a spotted snake" (LI); Mrs. Marldelutin is "a crocodile" (XLV); Rosa Dartle is "lynx-like" and shows the "fury of a wild cat" (XXIX); and Uriah Heep is called at various times a "serpent" (XLIX), a "red headed animal" (XXV), an "Ape" (XXXV), an "eel" (XXXV), a "red fox" (XXXV), and he and his mother are likened to "two great bats" (XXXIX).

David is tempted to make his life over into a kind of fairytale, but even then a dark fantasy emerges: what chance, for instance, do the lambs and mice have against the serpents, the apes, and the wild cats ? Our first laughter at the crocodiles thus supports a comic and non-predatory world, which is ultimately seen as impossible.

The deceptive humour of the crocodiles is only one example of a technique often repeated in the first section; in many ways the very first chapter functions as a kind of reverse paradigm of the entire novel, bringing up nearly all of what will be the major threats, only to dismiss them in humour. Thus the initial Eden is a complete one, established in delight and fully [168/169] protected by our laughter. The dark life which comes later reverses the opening of the novel virtually point-by-point, insisting that we recognize explicitly the loss of the beauty and joy of the garden. Even the mild jokes on the heroic birth which open the novel are preludes to the anti-heroism of the inactive protagonist, The first extended joke, however, involves the sale, as a safeguard against drowning, of the caul with which David was born. It is bought by an old lady who never goes near the water and is nevertheless (or therefore) cited as proof of the efficacy of cauls. The joke not only brings up the key symbol of the sea, later to be identified explicitly with death (for a fuller discussion of this symbol and other image patterns in the novel see my article, "Symbol and Subversion in David Copperfield"), but also introduces the central thematic issues of prudence, delusion, and egoism, only to ask us to dismiss them in laughter. In much the same. way, Miss Betsey flounces on the scene to suggest the comic possibilities of what are later to be seen as very dark tendencies: rigidity and iron composure. Her composure, further, is clearly compensatory, and the jeweller's cotton she stuffs in her cars suggests the forcible exclusion of unpleasant threats. Her vision of young Betsey Trotwood Copperfield, who "must be well brought up, and well guarded from reposing any foolish confidences where they are not deserved" (I), foreshadows David's later disciplining of his heart; and her blunt, mad attack on Dr. Chillip prefigures all the mad and hostile clashes with which the novel is filled. Of course, all these issues are prefigured in a negative way: they are banished from serious consideration. Their later appearance, therefore, comes with greater force and poignancy.

Even at this early stage there are hints of the fall to come, primarily those connected with "The Gentleman in the Black Whiskers" who takes David off on a trip and exposes him to the first dehumanizing laughter of exclusion: the boy is "Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield's incumbrance", and he is forced to propose a toast, "Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!" (II). The characters' laughter here does not reflect the expansive, protective humour found elsewhere in this section, but hostile and aggressive impulses, More ominous still is Mr. Murdstone's failure to join in the day's general merriment. David's future [169/170] stepfather even goes so far as to reject hostility itself if it has a communal quality. He is a man who resists all notions of community and is therefore the most dangerous to a comic society.

Significantly, David is shipped off to Yarmouth while Murdstone steps in to take his place at home, thus creating the pattern of escape and retreat the boy will be tempted to follow throughout. Peggotty's boat-house is indeed the centre of a potentially comic world, where all darkness is drained off in laughter at Mrs. Gummidge, a wonderful parody of misery. David is an alien in this world, however, and instinctively sees it as a "retreat", not as a creative and burgeoning garden but as an evasion of a threat he cannot possibly fight. The magnitude of those threats and the impossibility of David's combating them have already been hinted at, then, as early as the third chapter. More important, our laughter has identified the qualities which the novel never ceases to regard as paramount and which are never seen as any less real than the values of Murdstone, just more difficult to establish. Perhaps the key joke in the whole section is a very quiet one: Murdstone, David says, asked for and received a flower from Mrs. Copperfield: "He said he would never, never, part with it any more; and I thought he must be quite a fool not to know that it would fall to pieces in a day or two" (II). David's natural realism is thrown against Murdstone's hypocritical sentimentality, forecasting not only the later union of firmness and evasion but establishing the child's perspective as clearly superior. David is completely unsentimental; his early comic world has been to him totally real and has never needed falsification to produce happiness. Our laughter is enlisted in support of the child and his values, and in opposition to the hideous Murdstone. Even after we recognize that Murdstone is not dismissable and that David's comic perspective is lost, the humour continually forces us to remember that for a brief time there was this lovely world.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010