Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

David Copperfield and Marxism

Written by johnleemk on 4:40:17 am Mar 3, 2007.

It came as a surprise to me to discover not too long ago that for most people, "David Copperfield" is a magician and not a novel by Charles Dickens. Perhaps I just had a terribly dysfunctional childhood, but I had never even heard of Copperfield the magician till I was 9.

For those who are not in the know, David Copperfield is the title character of a Dickens novel about the injustices of the Victorian Era. The novel is somewhat autobiographical in nature, to the point where Copperfield actually becomes a famous novelist.

Since the theme of the novel is basically social injustice, it would not be out of place to expect some allusions to Marxist ideology, even if Marxism wasn't an ideology at the time the novel was written. When I did some cursory research, though, I found that only one or two commentators had noted some Marxist themes.

Personally, I found the novel to be a near-total embrace of Marxist and communist thought. The novel even seems to implicitly endorse the poverty that communism (as practiced in fact, not theory) engenders.

In the first place, the key characters of the novel (aside from David) are almost all from the lower classes. Although David himself is solidly middle class, his friends all hail from the bottom of the social pyramid. At a young age he associates himself with his maid, Clara Peggotty, becomes close friends with her nephew Ham, and falls in love with her niece, Emily.

When he visits the Peggottys' home, which is nothing more than dilapidated boat turned upside down for a roof and walls, he is charmed by it. Dickens takes pains to portray the life of the poor as one of simplicity and cheerfulness, even if a bunch of struggling fishermen in the Victorian Era could hardly have led such a happy and carefree life. Already, it's obvious that Dickens is encouraging a mindset that prefers poverty to wealth.

The Marxist denunciation of education as a way of preserving the bourgeouis can be seen when David goes to school. He is abused by his teachers, and manipulated by his "best friend", James Steerforth — a stereotypical rich kid.

Later, David is pulled out of school by his abusive stepfather and forced to work in his bottling firm. The way of life here is naturally presented as insufferable and horrid, but it seems that the only point of this is to point the finger at the bourgeouis, blaming them for these terrible living and working conditions.

David runs away from his job to live with his aunt Betsey. Betsey is remarkable for being one of the few positively-presented characters to not be a member of the proletariat. She seems solidly middle class, although she leads a bit of an eccentric life, and provides a home for Mr Dick, a mentally-challenged man.

David later attends school again in a rather unremarkable setting. Instead of living with his aunt, he is sent to live with her lawyer's family in town. There, he takes an apparently irrational dislike of Uriah Heep, an employee of Betsey's lawyer, Mr Wickfield.

After finishing school, David commences work as a proctor for Mr Spenlow, a lawyer. Dickens uses this as an opportunity to obliquely denounce the judicial system for maintaining the class system and supporting bourgeouis interests.

David falls in love with Mr Spenlow's daughter, Dora, and marries her. The trouble is that Dora is a spoiled rich kid, and cannot manage a household. The employed servants steal from the household belongings, and only their friends (e.g. Betsey) can be relied upon to help in running the house. This seems to be a denunciation of the capitalist system, which expects self-interest to create an efficient outcome but in reality leads to theft, and a subtle support for a more collectivist way of life.

Dora then dies of an illness, and a distraught David sees his friend Ham die while trying to (unknowingly) save Steerforth from drowning. The irony is that Steerforth had persuaded Emily, Ham's fiance, to run away with him through promises of climbing the social ladder (yet another denunciation of the class system).

Meanwhile, Mr Micawber, an old friend of David's who is perennially in debt, exposes Uriah Heep's attempt to scam Mr Wickfield and advance his social standing — another example of the evils of capitalism, apparently. As a sidenote, Micawber and his family are always presented as a rather happy family, even though their creditors keep seizing their belongings and Heep files several lawsuits against them which would keep almost anyone down in misery. Thus, Dickens continues to present a life of poverty in a positive light, while still denouncing attempts to enforce property rights.

The conclusion of the novel is not one I intend to give away, but suffice it to say that it's the usual "and they all lived happily ever after, except for the evil bourgeouisie".

I recognise that my reading of the novel is not a conventional one, and that the facts have to be strained on occasion to support my odd hypothesis. However, I think there is a strong case to suggest that the novel can be summarised as a fictionalised version of the Communist Manifesto. At the very least, all the key concepts of communist ideology can be found in David Copperfield, even if the novel itself does not directly espouse communism.

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