200-300 Level Entry
David Copperfield: Can One Prepare for Death?
Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me? They have told me so; they have told me nothing new
to my thoughts—but I am far from sure that I have taken that truth to heart. I cannot master it. I have withdrawn by myself, many times today, to weep. I have remembered Who wept for a parting between the living and the dead. I have bethought me of all that gracious and compassionate history. I have tried to resign myself, and to console myself; and that, I hope, I may have done imperfectly; but what I cannot firmly settle in my mind is, that the end will absolutely come. I hold her hand in mine, I hold her heart in mine, I see her love for me, alive in all its strength. I cannot shut out a pale lingering shadow of belief that she will be spared. (Dickens 1415)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to adulthood. The novel, written in an autobiographical style, is narrated by the character of David Copperfield. This particular passage is found near the end of the novel in the chapter titled “Another Retrospect.” At this point in the novel, David struggles with his feelings of grief, love, and hope surrounding his wife’s sickness and impending death. In this passage Dickens uses a dual-narrator, allusion, parallelism, and synecdoche to explore the idea that one can never be fully prepared for the death of a loved one, even if such a death is expected.
Dickens uses the dual narrator technique throughout David Copperfield, and it is particularly prominent in the first three sentences of this passage. Though David Copperfield is told from David’s first-person perspective, there are two narrators at work throughout the novel. One of these narrators is the present narrator. This narrator represents the David who is experiencing the events of the novel firsthand. The second narrator is the retrospective narrator, or the David who is reflecting on the events of his life as he writes them down. The first sentence of this passage is written from the perspective of the retrospective narrator. As David recounts and writes about the days leading up to Dora’s death, he wonders if he “know[s], now, that [his] child-wife will soon leave [him]?” (Dickens 1415). In this sentence David, as the retrospective narrator, wonders if his past self knew for certain that his dear wife would die (Dickens 1415). In the next two sentences Dickens switches to the perspective of the present narrator, and the reader hears from the David who is experiencing Dora’s illness firsthand. He is “far from sure that [he] has taken that truth” of her coming death “to heart” (Dickens 1415). His family and friends have told him that Dora will die, but he does not yet believe it (Dickens 1415). In this first part of the passage, Dickens intertwines the present narrator and the retrospective narrator to draw the reader into what David is experiencing. The present narrator allows the reader to feel firsthand what David is feeling firsthand, and the retrospective narrator allows the reader to see that David is still saddened by Dora’s death years later.
In the next three sentences of this passage Dickens uses allusion to further explore David’s mental and emotional state in the face of his wife’s death. David weeps for his dying wife and remembers the one “Who wept for a parting between the living and the dead” (Dickens 1415). This reference to the “Who” that weeps for the separation between life and death is an allusion to John 11. In this passage of the Bible Jesus is called to the home of his friend Lazarus, who has been gravely ill. On reaching the house and hearing the news of Lazarus’ death, Jesus weeps (John 11:35). Dickens alludes to John 11:35 to reveal that, in his time of grief, David remembers that even Jesus wept for the separation that death causes. David “remember[s] Who wept for a parting between the living and the dead. [David has] bethought [himself] of all that gracious and compassionate history” (Dickens 1415). Dickens uses this allusion to show the reader that David tries to comfort himself with the knowledge of Jesus’ grace, compassion, and understanding by remembering Jesus’ own sorrow.
Dickens uses parallelism and synecdoche in the last sentences of this passage to explore the strength of David’s hope that his wife will live. In this section David describes how he has “tried to resign [him]self, and to console [him]self” (Dickens 1415). What is surprising is that David hopes he has done this “imperfectly” (Dickens 1415). He has tried to surrender himself to the truth that Dora will die, and to comfort himself with his previously explored faith in Jesus; however, he hopes that he has failed in these endeavors because he refuses to accept the fact that his wife will die. David holds on to the hope that “she will be spared” (Dickens 1415). In the second to last sentence Dickens uses parallelism and synecdoche to impress upon the reader the depth of David’s love and hope: “I hold her hand in mine, I hold her heart in mine, I see her love for me, alive in all its strength” (Dickens 1415). The parallelism in the structure of this sentence creates an elegance that conveys the beauty of the love David has for his wife, and that his wife has for him. Dickens uses synecdoche to further this idea. In this sentence Dora’s heart represents the entirety of her love for her husband. The image of David holding Dora’s heart represents that David knows he has his wife’s love. Dora’s heart also represents her entire self, her entire being. As David describes holding his wife’s heart in his hand, he is really describing how he is holding and treasuring the very person of his wife in her final days. The beautiful images created by this parallelism and synecdoche draw the reader into the depth of David’s emotions as he grieves the coming loss of his wife. The final sentence of this passage, “I cannot shut out a pale lingering shadow of belief that she will be spared,” reveals that David cannot bear the thought of living in a world without his wife (Dickens 1415).
Dickens uses a dual narrator, allusion, parallelism, and synecdoche to bring the reader into the heart of what David is experiencing in the days leading up to Dora’s death. These techniques create an environment that allows the reader to feel David’s emotions alongside him. These techniques also explore the idea that even though one can be mentally prepared for the death of a loved one, one cannot be emotionally prepared for such a death. David knew that his wife would die, but that knowledge did not change the depth of his grief, hope, and love. His knowledge did not prepare him for the pain her death would bring, and it did not prepare him to let her go.
“bethink, v.” OED Online, Oxford UP, February 2021.
“bethought, adj.” OED Online, Oxford UP, February 2021.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Ebook, Project Gutenberg, 2016.
“John 11:1-36 – King James Version.” Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/
?search=john+11%3A1-36&version=KJV. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.
“resign, v.” OED Online, Oxford UP, February 2021.