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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  

PASSAGE FOR STUDY

The Nineteenth-Century Novel and the Modern Novel

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), one of the most famous and prolific nineteenth-century novelists, experienced a childhood of poverty and little formal education. His father loved to live beyond his means and eventually found himself in debtors' prison as a result. Because of the family's poor financial situation, Dickens was forced at the age of twelve to work in a boot-blacking factory twelve hours a day. This experience, although a typical one in Victorian England, affected him psychologically for the rest of his life. He felt degraded and neglected and kept his shame a secret, even from his own children, until he died.

Other aspects of Dickens's childhood, particularly his early exposure to London's slums, form an integral part of many of his works. In the hope of inspiring social reform, he portrayed the evils of industrialized society -- the brutal schools and orphanages, the cruel workhouses, and the savage slums. Many of his novels relive episodes of his own childhood by recounting the adventures of children who are born poor orphans or semi-orphans (missing one parent, usually the father) and who suffer physically and emotionally at the hands of tyrannical adults before finding success, stability, and love.

The following is from the second chapter of David Copperfield (1849-50), one of Dickens's greatest and most popular works. In this passage, the reader is introduced to the childhood of the hero, David Copperfield, and to the two important people in his life, his mother and the family servant, Peggotty. Compare this passage to the first page and a half of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

From David Copperfield, Chapter 2: I Observe

The first objects that assume a distinct presence before me, as I look far back, into the blank of my infancy, are my mother with her pretty hair and youthful shape, and Peggotty, with no shape at all, and eyes so dark that they seemed to darken their whole neighborhood in her face, and cheeks and arms so hard and red that I wondered the birds didn't peck her in preference to apples.

I believe I can remember these two at a little distance apart, dwarfed to my sight by stooping down or kneeling on the floor, and I going unsteadily from the one to the other. I have an impression on my mind which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance, of the touch of Peggotty's forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.

This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.

I might have a misgiving that I am 'meandering' in stopping to say this, but that it brings me to remark that I build these conclusions, in part upon my own experience of myself; and if it should appear from anything I may set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both of these characteristics.

Looking back, as I was saying, into the blank of my infancy, the first objects I can remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things, are my mother and Peggotty. What else do I remember? Let me see.

There comes out of the cloud, our house -- not new to me, but quite familiar, in its earliest remembrance. On the ground-floor is Peggotty's kitchen, opening into a back yard; with a pigeon-house on a pole, in the center, without any pigeons in it; a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog; and a quantity of fowls that look terribly tall to me, walking about in a menacing and ferocious manner. There is one cock who gets upon a post to crow, and seems to take particular notice of me as I look at him through the kitchen window, who makes me shiver, he is so fierce. Of the geese outside the side-gate who come waddling after me with their long necks stretched out when I go that way, I dream at night; as a man environed by wild beasts might dream of lions.

Here is a long passage -- what an enormous perspective I make of it! -- leading from Peggotty's kitchen to the front-door. A dark store-room opens out of it, and that is a place to be run past at night; for I don't know what may be among those tubs and jars and old tea-chests, when there is nobody in there with a dimly-burning light, letting a mouldy air come out at the door, in which there is the smell of soap, pickles, pepper, candles, and coffee, all at one whiff. Then there are the two parlours; the parlour in which we sit of an evening, my mother and I and Peggotty -- for Peggotty is quite our companion, when her work is done and we are alone -- and the best parlour where we sit on a Sunday; grandly, but not so comfortably. There is something of a doleful air about that room to me, for Peggotty has told me -- I don't know when, but apparently ages ago -- about my father's funeral, and the company having their black cloaks put on. One Sunday night my mother reads to Peggotty and me in there, how Lazarus was raised up from the dead. And I am so frightened that they are afterwards obliged to take me out of bed, and show me the quiet churchyard out of the bedroom window, with the dead all lying in their graves at rest, below the solemn moon.

There is nothing half so green that I know anywhere, as the grass of that churchyard; nothing half so shady as its trees; nothing half so quiet as its tombstones. The sheep are feeding there, when I kneel up, early in the morning, in my little bed in a closet within my mother's room, to look out at it; and I see the red light shining on the sun-dial, and think within myself, 'Is the sun-dial glad, I wonder, that it can tell the time again?'

Here is our pew in the church. What a high-backed pew! With a window near it, out of which our house can be seen, and is seen many times during the morning's service, by Peggotty, who likes to make herself as sure as she can that it's not being robbed, or is not in flames. But though Peggotty's eye wanders, she is much offended if mine does, and frowns to me, as I stand upon the seat, that I am to look at the clergyman. But I can't always look at him -- I know him without the white thing on, and I am afraid of his wondering why I stare so, and perhaps stopping the service to inquire -- and what am I to do? It's a dreadful thing to gape, but I must do something. I look at my mother, but she pretends not see me. I look at a boy in the aisle, and he makes faces at me. I look at the sunlight coming in at the open door through the porch, and there I see a stray sheep -- I don't mean a sinner, but mutton -- half making up his mind to come into the church. I feel that if I looked at him any longer, I might be tempted to say something out loud; and what would become of me then! I look up at the monumental tablets on the wall, and try to think of Mr. Bodgers late of this parish, and what the feelings of Mrs. Bodgers must have been, when affliction sore, long time Mr. Bodgers bore, and physicians were in vain. I wonder whether they called in Mr. Chillip, and he was in vain; and if so, how he likes to be reminded of it once a week. I look from Mr. Chillip, in his Sunday neckcloth, to the pulpit; and think what a good place it would be to play in, and what a castle it would make, with another boy coming up the stairs to attack it, and having the velvet cushion with the tassels thrown down on his head. In time my eyes gradually shut up; and, from seeming to hear the clergyman singing a drowsy song in the heat, I hear nothing, until I fall off the seat with a crash, and am taken out, more dead than alive, by Peggotty.

And now I see the outside of our house, with the latticed bedroom windows standing open to let in the sweet-smelling air, and the ragged old rooks'-nests still dangling in the elmtrees at the bottom of the front garden. Now I am in the garden at the back, beyond the yard where the empty pigeon-house and dog-kennel are -- 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, and where my mother gathers some in a basket, while I stand by, bolting furtive gooseberries, and trying to look unmoved. A great wind rises, and the summer is gone in a moment. We are playing in the winter twilight, dancing about the parlour. When my mother is out of breath and rests herself in an elbow-chair, I watch her winding her bright curls round her fingers, and straightening her waist, and nobody knows better than I do that she likes to look so well, and is proud of being so pretty.

That is among my very earliest impressions. That, and a sense that we were both a little afraid of Peggotty, and submitted ourselves in most things to her direction, were among the first opinions -- if they may be so called -- that I ever derived from what I saw.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What do David Copperfield and Joyce's main character, Stephen Dedalus, remember about their infancy and childhood? In what ways are their memories similar? different? What importance is given to objects? places? people?
  2. Look at the physical descriptions of David's mother and Peggotty in the opening paragraphs. What differences in character and personality might they suggest?
  3. Now examine the description of Stephen's family. How does it compare to the way in which David's mother and Peggotty are presented?
  4. How do Dickens and Joyce organize the memories of their respective heroes? What differences or similarities do you notice?
  5. What emotions dominate the recollections of the two characters? Are these emotions communicated directly or indirectly to the reader? (If indirectly, explain how the author does this.)
  6. From what point of view is each passage told? Are David and Stephen speaking as adults or children? How can you tell? Do the authors speak in their own voice at any time?
  7. From your answers to the above questions, what conclusions can you draw about the style of a nineteenth-century novelist and that of a modern, twentieth-century writer?

 

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The 19th Century Novel and the Modern Novel
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