Dickens Approach To Characterisation English Literature Essay

To state that Dickens' approach to characterisation is "to first create a pigeon holeable type and then attempt humanise this individual" would be, however blinkered it may seem, quite an accurate way to read his novels. It is recorded by John R. Greenfield in his Dictionary of British Literary Characters that during his entire writing career, Dickens created 989 named characters. With this vast collection of characters there are definite "pigeon-holeable types" to which Dickens returned often and developed as characters, especially when he became more mature as an author. This can be exemplified for example by the contrast between poor little Oliver in Oliver Twist and the child David in David Copperfield. Neither child has an easy or altogether happy childhood however Oliver appears to the reader as more of a two dimensional depiction of goodness rather than a real child. On the other hand, though little David has many trials, his reactions seem truer to the reactions of a child therefore the reader can believe in him. Though both depictions of a hard and troubled childhood serve to appeal to a readers sympathies only David can truly tug at our heart strings with vindication.

This essay shall present a close examination of a common "pigeon holeable type" in Dickens; the young, pretty and childlike woman, who is unprepared for worldly realities thus illustrated in Clara Copperfield and Dora Spenlow, David's mother and first wife from David Copperfield. It will be shown that these characters are beyond doubt "types" and they can often be tedious due to their overall lack of development as characters. It will also be shown on the other hand that Dickens attempt to humanise these individuals through characterisation can create a figure with whom the reader can have a compassionate and fulfilling literary relationship.

To start first of all by showing the ways in which these "pigeon-holeable types" are just that and no more, and to first consider Clara Copperfield, who is the archetype for woman in this category. When introduced to the reader Clara is newly widowed, as well as expecting a child. Dickens describes her as, "very timid and sad" (15), he also makes much of her youthful beauty stating that her hair is, "luxuriant and beautiful"(16) as well as "pretty" (22). By making Clara's beautiful and frail physicality apparent Dickens prepares the reader for the limitations that are connected with a character like Clara, since she is a very childlike person. She gives the impression of being too young to ever have been made a wife. This is demonstrated in a number of ways . Betsy Trotwood concludes, after having only known Clara for a few minutes, that she is "a very baby"(16). Clara is clearly overwhelmed by Betsy Trotwood. She does not have the skills that come with maturity to be able to assert herself calmly with Betsy. She can do nothing except dissolve into tears. Clara's melancholy statement; "she was afraid she was but a childish widow, and would be but a childish mother if she lived" (16) shows that she is without determination of character.

Dickens utilises the character of Peggotty to expand upon the pigeon-holeable type of characterisation that is Clara. His depiction of the relationship between the two women could be compared to a mother and daughter. In David's childhood memories it is Peggotty who appears inflated as the nurturing maternal figure. Lillian E. Craton writes of the dynamic between Clara Copperfield and Peggotty stating "She rules the Copperfield household with an iron (if loving) fist […] often treating Clara like an errant child" (100). This claim is validated when Dickens writes in David's narrative, "...we were both a little afraid of Peggotty, and submitted ourselves in most things to her direction" (25). The parent-child relationship that exists between Clara and Peggotty furthered chiefly through the quarrel between the two women. In her criticism about Victorian fiction Gail Houston states that the quarrel, filtered through David's naïve narrative still serves to, "indirectly articulate [Clara's] narcissism and misjudgement."(104). Clara conforms to type by behaving pettishly in the face of Peggotty's genuine concern and displays immaturity when she cannot comprehend the implications of marrying a man whom her late husband and her son would clearly dislike and disapprove of. During her courtship and subsequent marriage to Mr Murdstone Clara displays the callowness and insensitivity that is associated with her character type. She conducts herself like a little excitable girl, "wearing all the pretty dresses she had in her drawers" (29). Dickens's descriptions of her body language when she colludes with David against Peggotty, an action which in itself illustrates her puerility, further exemplify her self-interest and lack of thought. "She knelt down playfully by the side of the bed, and laying her chin upon her hands, and laughing....and covering her face" (32). Clara's characterisation leads to her failure, as both wife, mother and Victorian woman. Clara fails to make David's happiness a priority above her own happiness. Gwendolyn B. Needham writes in her essay 'The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield' that Clara is, "incapable of understanding the child's unhappy bewilderment when he finds her remarried, she upbraids him and Peggotty for making her unhappy" (88). Dickens characterisation in this instance serves to distance Clara from the reader, dehumanising her as an individual instead of bringing her to life.

Nevertheless, having placed the argument for Clara as a mere pigeon-holeable character type it will now be shown that through her Dickens also succeeds to create an authentic and realistic depiction of human behaviour. The traditional role of a Victorian woman was to be housekeeper, mother and general auxiliary to the man of the house. Though according to Craton, Clara Copperfield is the perfect Victorian woman in appearance only, "delicate, smooth, pale and passive" (98). What endears her to a reader is how characteristically refreshing she seems in light of what was considered conventional. David's account of his early childhood years are unorthodox, but on inspection they appear to have been charming and idyllic. As previously explained Clara's role as a mother is secondary since both she and David are cared for and made pets of by the ever devotional Peggotty. This invites an exceptional relationship to bloom between Clara and David. The two behave like, equals; friends or siblings, an example of which is shown through David's remembrances, "We are playing in the winter twilight, dancing about the parlour" (25). Clara therefore may be characteristically deemed an incapable mother however her child is nurtured, just not by her. She meets his needs by becoming his playmate. Dickens's portrayal of David's early childhood home, where he and Peggotty would all sit together in the evenings while his mother read aloud to them both is also charming as it shows Clara in a further humanized capacity. Amy S Watkins writes, "This is clearly an admirable quality of Clara's, as are most of the qualities she demonstrates before the Murdstones infiltrate her home and try to change her"(128) .

Clara's negligence in protecting David from the abuse he suffers from the Murdstones could be considered reprehensible. If she were a mere "pigeon-holeable character type" then it surely would be. However the reader cannot justifiably bear any grudge or aversion for Clara. It is clear from Dickens humanized characterisation of her that it would be against her nature to take any action against the Murdstones. Holly Hughes writes, "Clara Copperfield is too gentle to protect herself, never mind David" (24) and this is clearly proven. Clara does not turn her back on her son, Dickens shows that by this point in her characterisation her spirit has been broken. This is illustrated by the language associated with her after the Murdstones come to live at the Copperfield household; 'timidly', 'submissive', 'sorrowful', 'humble'. David's remembrance of her shows how her characterisation has been developed , "Her face was very pretty still, but it looked careworn, and too delicate; and her hand was so thin and white that it seemed to be almost transparent"(101). True to her type of characterisation Mrs Copperfield shows that she cannot overcome her nature, and as a result she cannot survive. Needham reiterates this sentiment when she writes, "no matter how loving the heart, if mind and character are weak, discipline cannot be learned"(106). Mrs Copperfield’s humanity is most evidently proven in the events that lead to her tragic death. Though she completely loses all character, in characterisation she is very human.

To further examine Dickens's approach to characterisation the second character in this study shall now be regarded and shown to be on first impression an absolute caricature, but on second judgement can be realised as a well-rounded and humanised character. Dora Spenlow becomes David's first wife and it is clear to the reader from the first meeting with her that Dora has a very similar nature to David's mother. On introduction to Dora Spenlow any reader could be excused for falling as madly in love with her as David does. That said, Dora can also seem so excessively saccharin and sentimentalised that she sometimes appears farcical and unrealistic. An example of this in the characterisation of Dora is when David comes to her before their marriage to tell her that he has no fortune and is, in his own words, a "beggar" (442). Dora's reaction is to deny that this could ever be possible and then throw herself into such a fit of fear and upset that a reader cannot help but think her completely dehumanized for all of her adorable head shaking and pouting. In between threatening to make her little lap dog bite David and stating the dog must have it's chop or "he shall die!" (443 ).

There is more to be said with regards to Dickens success in humanizing Dora through his approach to characterisation which is achieved with considerable humour and tenderness. With regards to her very human flaws, Dickens makes it difficult for the reader to fault her. Dora is a terrible housekeeper, and as illustrated by Clara before her, this should make her an utterly terrible Victorian wife. Dickens's illustrates this sentiment in a scene from Dora and David's married life;

..'I don't mean to reproach you my dear but this is not comfortable.'

'Oh you cruel, cruel boy, to say I am a disagreeable wife!' cried Dora.

'Now, my dear Dora, you must know that I never said that!'

'You said I wasn't comfortable!' said Dora

''I said the housekeeping was not comfortable'

'It's exactly the same thing!' cried Dora. And she evidently thought so,

for she wept most grievously (521) .

In this instance Dickens seems to suggest that that a wife and housekeeping are one in the same, therefore if one is disagreeable then the other must also be so by default. Characteristically though, Dora can never be disagreeable, G. K. Chesterton writes, "It is the whole business of Dickens in the world to express the fact that such people are the spice and interest of life. It is the whole point of Dickens that there is nobody more worth living with than a strong, splendid, entertaining, immortal nuisance.[...]Dora confuses the housekeeping; but we are not angry with Dora because she confuses the housekeeping. We are angry with the housekeeping because it confuses Dora." (Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Part II, Chapter XIII)

Dickens characterisation of Dora is successful because through her he creates a likeable and realistic human individual. Dora is not perfect, she has flaws like everyone. A reader could easily think of themselves or of their own partners when reading of her. Dickens places Dora beyond criticism though she proves more of a hindrance than a bolster David when she becomes his wife, for being a terrible housekeeper or for having no ability to assert herself with her maid. George Gissing, an evident admirer of Dora writes of her in his Critical Study of Charles Dickens, 'it is Dickens's prettiest bit of love, and I shall scarce find it in my heart to criticise the "Little Blossom", the gauze-winged fairy of that "insubstantial, happy, foolish time"' (159). Chesterton, made his support for Dora apparent in his essay 'On The Alleged Optimism of Dickens', he writes, "a very genuine and amusing figure; she has certainly far more force of character than Agnes. She represents the infinite and divine irrationality of the human heart" (Chapter XI).

Thus it cannot be said that Dickens created only "pigeon-holeable types" or that he failed to humanise his characters since these critics have evidently been much moved by Dora as a complete and unadulterated Dickensian character.

In closing, and to reiterate that it has been established that Dickens’ approach to characterisation is to first create a pigeon holeable type, which he does, but that he also surpasses this standard type and ultimately succeeds in creating a humanised individual.