Discipline In Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield”

April 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

In “David Copperfield”, Charles Dickens reveals that discipline is like a weapon: those who misuse it are cruel, unjust, and a danger to everyone around them, while those who fail to use it at all endanger themselves and lower their defenses. Only those who use discipline properly can mature and live contentedly in this world. Extremists of any kind are unsuccessful, and never achieve fulfillment. As David embarks on his quest to maturity, he sees many different types of people, and learns through his experiences that balance is a necessary prerequisite for success. This need for balance and discipline can be observed in the names Dickens chooses for his characters, in his choice of wives for David, and also in his writing style.In many of his novels, Dickens suggests the personal qualities of his characters using their names. The name Micawber plays on the word “macabre”. True to his name, Mr. Micawber is “deathly” and “gloomy” as a consequence of his impoverished lifestyle. Mr. Micawber does not even show a glimmer of hope for success until the very end of the novel, when he decides to alter his lifestyle and move to the middle class. He no longer avoids creditors, and stops changing his name; finally, he finds happiness through self-discipline and responsibility. Another one of Dickens’ characters whose name reveals his significance is James Steerforth. James “steers forth” others to do his bidding in such a charming way that no one knows that his true motives are selfish. Steerforth is selfish and deceiving, but does not exhibit any discipline in his own life: he is always thinking of himself, and never about how others may be affected by his decisions. Due to Steerforth’s undisciplined manner, his is fated to meet an early death. Mr. Murdstone’s name is also significant, because it blends together the words “murder” and “stone”. Mr. Murdstone can be thought of as the cause behind Mrs. Copperfield’s death, and is a perfect example of misuse of discipline; he constantly physically abuses David as a means of disciplining him. Dickens’ strong disapproval of this violent manner of discipline is made evident in a number of his novels. However, “while Murdstone’s severity destroys the personality, spoiling children is equally destructive in failing to discipline the mind” (Glancy, 83). Dickens shows equal distaste for lack of discipline through the character of Dora Spenlow, David’s first wife, who is meant only to be “adored”. Dora “is a favorite child of nature” who has never felt anything of “mental suffering [or] trial” (504). She is a mere child, one who has not experienced discipline of the mind and is therefore very immature and defenseless; like Steerforth, she is a casualty of a lack of discipline and defense.Dickens’ choice of wives for David also reveal the effects that discipline, or the lack thereof, can have on an individual. Throughout the novel, David displays the emotions of a rather “undisciplined heart”. At one point, David thinks to himself:For I knew now that my own heart was undisciplined when it first loved Dora; and that if it had been disciplined, it never could have felt, when we were married what it had in its secret experience…I had endeavored to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora (647).David recognizes that his heart is undisciplined for loving Dora, who is so childish and undisciplined herself; however, he does nothing to remedy the situation. Because he lacks discipline, he abandons his defenses and leaves himself vulnerable to disaster. “Decidedly he is not ‘the hero of his own story'”(Gissing) and he is “blind, blind, blind” (467) because he does not have enough discipline to find someone to “sustain and improve him” (467); instead, he is married to Dora, who has “childlike beauty” (Needham, 47) and little else. Since David refuses to exhibit proper discipline, he cannot achieve contentment. He shows his discontent and misunderstanding of discipline when he thinks:This is the discipline to which I [try] to bring my heart…It made my second year much happier than my first; and what was better still, made Dora’s life all sunshine(647).However, after the doomed Dora dies because of her lack of discipline, David finds a second wife in Agnes Wickfield, who has exhibited discipline throughout her entire life. Finally, “his domestic joy [is] perfect, [he has] been married for ten happy years” (810). In choosing Agnes for a wife, David has shown great discipline and discretion, and is therefore extremely content; he has learned that “adult love is based upon a willing partnership of equal partnership” (Glancy,86) and that to find that kind of love, one’s heart must be disciplined: “the good heart must learn the nature of real truth and love in order to overcome evil and misfortune in the world” (Needham,50).Dickens’ writing style in “David Copperfield” also helps convey the theme of mental and physical discipline. He chooses to use the first person, thereby bringing readers directly into David’s mind. He utilizes a “narrative, a blending of irony, reflection, and humor as the adult narrator looks back with combined affection and dismay at his youthful follies and errors” (Glancy, 86). David constantly reviews past events from the perspective of the adult narrator, showing that he finally has true discipline in his life. He uses self-discipline to evaluate his past actions, and vows never to repeat his mistakes. Another interesting writing style that Dickens uses to show David’s transformation from an “undisciplined heart” (Needham,47) is to use the present tense in chapters called “retrospects”. Using the present tense adds “immediacy” (Glancy, 86) and allows the narrator to separate his present self from his past. In order to detach himself, David says:Once again, let me pause upon a memorable period in my life. Let me stand aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession (581).This separation in itself reveals the adult narrator’s discipline, because he can tell his story precisely as he experienced it at that point in his life without the influence of his adult opinions. In “David Copperfield”, Dickens posits that the proper use of discipline is necessary for a happy and successful life. Part of Dickens’ skill in expressing this theme comes from his willingness to utilize his own experiences. In the novel, Dickens offers elements of his own life to support his contentions: “In David Copperfield he suddenly unseals a new torrent of truth, the truth out of his own life. The impulse of the thing is autobiography; he is trying to tell all the absurd things that have happened to himself” (Chesterton). Although some of the characters in “David Copperfield” may seem either too “flat” or too extreme to have been real people in Dickens’ life (Clay), there are many coincidences that suggest that the novel is somewhat autobiographical. For example, there are strong implications that Dora Spenlow is based on one of Dickens’ first loves, Maria Beadnell, whose father, like Dora’s, tried to send her to Paris to keep her away from Dickens. Another coincidence that links Dickens’ life to David’s is their career choice, and the similar ways that they both arrive at their position. The autobiographical nature of this novel lends further credibility to Dickens’ theme; if readers understand that Dickens bases his themes on his own experiences, they are more likely to trust his contentions.WORKS CITEDChesterton, Gilbert Keith. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, reprinted at www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/66-Dickens.html. Accessed 3/11/04.Clay, George. “In Defense of Flat Characters,” printed in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol 2, 2001 at http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=3Do&d=3D5000998105Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield :Modern Library Classics. New York: Modern Library Paperbacks, 2000.Gissing, George. The Immortal Dickens, 1925, reprinted at www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/66-Dickens.html. Accessed 3/20/04Glancy, Ruth. Student Companion to Charles Dickens. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.Needham, Gwedolyn B. “The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield,” reprinted In Harold Bloom (ed) Major Literary Characters:David Copperfield. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

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