David Copperfield’s Self-Cultivation

  • Thomas L. Jeffers


To move from Mill, Pater, and the rest, and more particularly from Goethe’s Urbildungsroman, to Dickens’s David Copperfield is to reverse the ratio between philosophy and character. Dickens (1812–1870) listed Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meister among his books in 1844. We can’t be sure he actually read it,1 but we can confidently say that he never offers Goethe’s sort of critical disquisitions on the national theater, the freedom of the will, or the relation between pedagogy and profession. He has ideas right enough, yet (to play with William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum) for him there were no ideas but in character—and, yes, in things. As I have already twice maintained in this study, it is an allowable hyperbole to claim that in England there were more characters, if not more things, for a novelist to discover ideas in. The relative fluidity and openness of the social structure, particularly in the dense jostle of London, made it possible for Dickens to know and appreciate many more human types than Goethe could have access to, and he therefore didn’t have to philosophically prose about them so much. He could situate his hero’s growing up—placing it in relation to parents or parent substitutes, to friends and lovers of both sexes, and to the variegated neighbors, nice or not so nice, who help constitute the culture his self-culture must fit into—and fairly safely leave us to draw the proper ideational inferences. I will endeavor to draw a few such inferences here, but must first and last insist that Copperfield isn’t a “novel of ideas” in the way Wilhelm Meister or The Magic Mountain is.


Fairy Tale Ultimate Reality Blue Stone Sexual Excitation Nascent Storyteller 
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© Thomas L. Jeffers 2005

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  • Thomas L. Jeffers

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