Dickens. Tolstoy. Twain. Dead white men sit at the helm of literary esteem and their novels have dominated the lists of classics taught in schools around the globe. The merit of these works cannot be overstated, and so it is surprising that they are becoming more frequently (and sadly) dismissed. With the newfound emphasis of celebrating diversity and modern innovation, these dead white men are locked in dusty storage rooms or donated like misfits to local libraries. Much to the detriment of society, classic literature (of the DWM sort) is being pronounced inaccessible and irrelevant to today’s youth (who could stand to internalize the morality presented in these mighty books, as they endeavor to exert some control over their dwindling capacity to engage solely in a prolonged task – because “multi-tasking” is not a thing).
In the case of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens explores themes of morality and justice through the experiences of the protagonist and narrator, whose goodness and naiveté make him a target for abuse and exploitation (those same qualities also draw the most noble and generous characters who support him through all trials).
After his father’s death, young Copperfield’s mother, Clara, remarries. She is still a beauty and is taken by Mr. Murdstone, a duplicitous, cruel, scoundrel. He intimidates and beats David, and ultimately sends him away to boarding school to be beaten some more, all the while enabling his sister to take control of the Copperfield estate and whittling away at Clara’s spirit until she dies from the insidious, underhanded abuse. David bears witness to all and is tormented more by his inability to act than the physical assaults he endures.
With Clara gone, Murdstone rids himself of David, sending the boy to fend for himself. In London, David works in a bottling factory and survives on scant wages, barely able to afford his own daily bread and rented room. Yet, during this hard time, Copperfield befriends the Micawbers, a family in dire circumstances and constant debt. They treat David with kindness and open their hearts to him, and he to them. As he reflects on these times, Copperfield acknowledges that Mr. Micawber never took advantage of him, though well he could have.
At age 10, David decides that he must improve his circumstances and risks running away. Determined to find his father’s sister, Betsey Trotwood, David sets out. He is robbed and bullied along the way, but ultimately arrives at his aunt’s home. After meeting the repulsive Murdstone, Miss Trotwood adopts David and under her care, he thrives. David is nurtured by loving individuals and develops these relationships through the years. The connections he forges with these kind people helps to offset the betrayal and malevolence of others for, throughout the book, David’s good nature blinds him to the dangers of humankind – to the capacity for greed, manipulation, and malice.
Classic literature fosters this awareness and forces us to confront the issue of evil, and requires that we account for ways of exacting justice. In David Copperfield, rather than presenting a caricature of angelic and demonic forces, Charles Dickens offers beautifully depicted, and realistically despicable characters to entertain, educate, and elevate* us.
Like Dickens, many of these DWM (whom we now substitute for younger, darker pigmented writers – remarkable and skillful in their own right) were innovators in their days. They upset the system in a most singular way, which is why they remain relevant today. It is partly through their efforts that our children can enjoy a breadth of multicultural literature. Mark Twain criticized the morality of slavery and racial prejudice in his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Leo Tolstoy similarly has been lauded for his consistent efforts to crusade for social justice. The men are gone, but the issues remain. And who better to condemn the injustice, abasement, and abuse than white men who, because of a higher moral conscious, are determined to change the system that has afforded them the power?
*Entertain, Educate, Elevate was something I heard on the Tim Ferriss podcast. His guest was recounting an interview with Mel Gibson.
**Featured image of Charles Dickens from Getty Images