Friday, March 11, 2011

Marriages in David Copperfield and Early Wordsworth

Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis once wrote a motet for forty voices: forty separate melodies all blended into a single polyphonic texture. If every theme in David Copperfield's thick texture were a melody, Dickens could claim to have come close to Tallis's achievement. I wrote recently about the theme of memory, and again about the theme of pet names. But I could have written about realism and stylization in the arts or living with loss; both themes come up many times in the novel. If I were teaching the book to a high school class (which I would love to do), I could let each student pick a theme randomly and write a little essay on the variations that theme undergoes. One student could write about first impressions and snap judgments, a second could write about obsessions, a third about finding a job, and so on. One student would get to write about penmanship and styles of writing -- from shorthand to legal script.

The first time I read David Copperfield, the theme that jumped out at me was marriage, partly because I had just been married and partly because it is one of the main themes of the book. Many weddings take place in the course of the novel; some main characters (I hate to give anything away) even go through two. Almost all the characters who don't get married during the course of the story are either wed or widowed. Dickens shows us marriages that bring joy and marriages that bring sorrow, marriages long waited for and marriages rushed into, marriages that last for decades and marriages cut short, marriages that bring one spouse's family members into the new household and marriages that alienate a spouse from parents. Even characters who occupy less than a page tell us something about marriage; one of the most poignant examples comes from a wandering alcoholic and his faithful wife, who stands behind her husband and instructs David with silently moving lips not to give her husband money.

One of the happiest marriages comes about after a written proposal of three slightly cryptic words: "Barkis is willin'." The worst marriage in the story, that of David's mother and the ominously named Mr. Murdstone, results from a deceptively romantic period of courting. The ill-starred marriage of the constantly indebted Micawbers lasts because Mrs. Micawber, as she so often must explain, refuses to leave her husband; every devoted word she speaks seems to the reader like either self-delusion or a thin front for secret shame, yet by the end of the book, her confidence in her husband proves to be the practical patient understanding of a woman who knows something about her man that no one else sees.

Through it all, Dickens gives his readers some valuable lessons on marriage (lessons learned rather too late by the author, it seems, based on the story of his life). According to an oft-repeated line in the book, a good marriage requires compatible minds and a disciplined heart. It does not require compatible ages; while Dr. Strong and his pretty young wife have a rough go of it for a while, Mr. Dick (the only one wise enough to realize that he's the only one simple enough to pull it off!) gets them back on the smooth path. A happy marriage requires sufficient funding; Dickens makes that abundantly clear. But the most important factor lending to happiness in marriage is that both spouses be good people.

I'm sure Aristotle would agree. As he reminds us in the Politics, goods fall into three classes: goods of the soul (i.e., knowledge and virtue), goods of the body (health, strength, skill and so on), and external goods (money, good friends, luck, etc.). A happy life requires some of all three, yet the most important are the goods of the soul. After all, he analogizes, an expert performance on the harp requires a good instrument, but we credit the good performance to the musician, not to the harp.

I started my Wordsworth anthology a couple of days ago, and curiously, his early poems also make frequent references to problematic marriages. But the problems he relates are worse than lack of cash or disparity of age. No, I've been reading about men who beat their wives and women who kill their children. Heavens! The editor of the anthology says Wordsworth miraculously became a good poet around 1797. I'm ready for a miracle.

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