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David Copperfield

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

Analysis: Writing Style

Descriptive, Realistic

We've mentioned that the tone of David Copperfield is often melodramatic and emotional, but the language of the novel is actually pretty realistic. There's a lot of dense description of the setting and characters of the novel, which makes it seem as though these events are happening right in front of us. However, even the most objective account of the scenery of the novel will eventually give way to commentary from our helpful narrator, David himself. As we have discussed in our section on "Narrator Point of View" nothing in this goes unframed by David's impressions and judgments. Let's take, for example, David's description of his stepfather's horrible factory:

Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse was at the waterside. [...] Modern improvements have altered the place; but it was the last house at the bottom of a narrow street, curving down hill to the river, with some stairs at the end, where people took boat. It was a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, on the mud when the tide was out, and literally overrun with rates. Its panelled rooms, discoloured with the dirt and smoke of a hundred years, I dare say; its decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars; and the dirt and rottenness of the place; are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant. (11.2)

We start with the most general of observations: the placement in of the factory in London and in relation to the river Thames, its coloring, its rats (blech). At the same time, while this may seem like an objective description, it has subtle inflections of David's own feelings about the factory. When David "dare[s]" to say that it was covered with the "dirt and smoke of a hundred years," he's saying that that's how dirty he felt it to be at the time. The "dirt and rottenness" of the place also suggests connotations of personal disgust and hatred.

But what makes it really personal is that David sees this scene in his mind "not of many years ago [...] but of the present instant." This factory is so disgusting that David can see it, as though it is in front of him now – and he shows it to the reader as though it is in front of both of us. It's like a traumatic flashback, this description of the factory. And David's depth of bad feeling colors this whole description with a sense of disgust and revulsion that is anything but objective.

As a narrator, David uses these long, wordy descriptive passages so that he can move quietly back and forth between description and commentary. But his commentary is often so subtle that it seems to be part of the description. There's no sharp line between the novel's realistic scenes and its emotional content; both types of narration seem inseparable. By combining David's feelings with descriptions of the novel's world, Dickens makes David's feelings literally a part of the world of the novel. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why everything David narrates seems moving and powerful to the reader.

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