David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (published 1850)
The opening of David Copperfield is one of my favorite openings in literature. The chapter title is “I Am Born,” and the first line is: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” (p. 13). The pages do indeed show that David Copperfield makes a lot of mistakes, but finds his true home in his marriage to Agnes.
David Copperfield is a narrative of a boy’s growing into a man. After he is sent off to school, the reader meets many characters who will influence Copperfield’s trajectory, including one of the best villains in all of Dickens: Uriah Heep. (Heep endeavors to poison a marriage, similar to the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.) Through the story, we follow David’s blunders in relationships, particularly in his romantic choices.
The action of this novel can point out a number of truths about love, marriage and family.
- Men are radically free to choose their partner in life, and they ought to do so carefully.
Women only have the power of refusal, as Jane Austen puts it (see Northanger Abbey). And sometimes, other people can see more clearly than a man who thinks himself “in love.” David Copperfield falls in love with a silly, kind-hearted woman named Dora. He marries her, despite that it is obvious to his aunt (and the reader) that Dora is no equal match for him. Betsy Trotwood, David’s aunt and caretaker, upon hearing of his engagement, exclaims, “blind, blind, blind!” and she is right. But David has to learn the hard way that beauty and goodwill in a woman are not enough to make him happy in marriage. When Dora becomes ill—an illness that leads to death— David’s wife sadly acknowledges that their marriage would not have worked for very long: “As years went on, my dear boy would have wearied of his child-wife. She would have been less and less a companion for him. He would have been more and more sensible of what was wanting in his home” (p. 762). When David married Dora, he did something unfair not only to himself but also to her. She knew that she could never be an equal partner for him, and she could never be wholly content knowing that.
In contrast, what David finds in Agnes is a steady, faithful love that began in friendship and grew through selflessness. It is of this woman that David can say, “Clasped in my embrace, I held the source of every worthy aspiration I had ever had, the centre of myself, the circle of my life, my own, my wife, my love of whom was founded on a rock!” (p. 858). The foundation of his love for Agnes is much firmer than the infatuation which led him to marry Dora.
- One who loves is sometimes called to sacrifice his or her own desires for the beloved.
Dora, silly child bride that she was, genuinely loved David. At the end of her life, Dora asked David to send for Agnes, knowing that Agnes was the truest friend that she could have, and asked Agnes to take her place one day as David’s wife. Agnes takes care of Dora with love and true affection, showing that her love for David overflows even to the person he chose over her. David, likewise, once he is able to recognize his love for Agnes, shows it by saying that he would rejoice in her happiness if she loved another man. These are signs that their love has been purified to some extent of selfishness and self-seeking.
- Love sometimes means warning the other about something, while still respecting their freedom.
Agnes sees trouble in David’s association with his friend James Steerforth; she calls Steerforth David’s “Bad Angel” (p. 372). Agnes believes that Steerforth is a “dangerous friend” for David, but notes that she does not expect David to change his mind about him just because she says so (p. 372). She simply asks him to think about it. Often, married couples can fall into one extreme or the other when it comes to the issue of helping the other avoid temptation. One extreme is to care little for the other’s temptations and what you could do to help them combat them; the other is to bring things that the other struggles with up so often that it reveals that you want to control them and do not respect that they have to choose for themselves.
What does a balanced approach to these issues look like? Are there times when it is appropriate to bring sin or temptation up and times when it is not? How does the Holy Spirit guide couples when it comes to individual temptation?