Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Happy Easter, Chums

Ah, it's nice to be back. I was good and didn't cheat on my internet fast all week, although I was dying to read Brandon's post comparing Casanova and Don Juan after Darwin mentioned it to me.

Still, I took great advantage of my copious internet-free time on Tuesday to do lots of useful stuff around the house read David Copperfield all day. Considering all the recent discussion of marriage, I found lots to chew on in David's farcial first marriage to the unbelievably childish Dora. Obviously Dickens was having a great deal of fun writing this character, both for her zany self and in contrast to the long-suffering Agnes, but Dora is perfectly calculated to make anyone's teeth ache. Dickens knows this. He knows that Dora, as he chose to write her, is not a character who is capable of participating in a marriage (or in any adult occupation, really), which is why her early death is sad but necessary in a literary sense.
The old unhappy feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were changed at all; but it was as undefined as ever. and addressed me like a strain of sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting.
...What I missed, I still regarded -- always regarded -- as something that had been a dream of youthful fancy; that was incapable of realisation; that I was now discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men do. But that it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew.
"The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart." These words of Mrs. Strong's were constantly recurring to me, at that time; were almost always present to my mind. ...For I knew, now, that my own heart was undisciplined when it first loved Dora; that if it had been disciplined, it never could have felt, when we were married, what it had felt in its secret existence.
"There can be no disparity in marriage, like unsuitability of mind and purpose." Those words I remembered too. I had endeavoured to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be happy; to bear on my own shoulders what I must, and still be happy. This was the discipline to which I tried to bring my heart, when I began to think.
What sadness in these words, and (to my mind) how much better not to marry than to live with such "disparity in marriage" as "unsuitability of mind and purpose". Dickens doesn't choose to trace the course of such a marriage through the long slog of years, but I shudder to contemplate it.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

"Dickens doesn't choose to trace the course of such a marriage through the long slog of years, but I shudder to contemplate it."

I suppose it would be like Mr. & Mrs. Bennet at best. At worst, I too shudder to think of it.

Emily J. said...

What is it with Victorians and bad marriages? Reminds me of Middlemarch. And then you have to feel guilty for being happy when someone dies... Same experience with poor Lavinia in Downton Abbey.

MrsDarwin said...

One gets the impression that many marriages, at least at a certain level of society, were contracted rather quickly. David, however, has a long stretch of time to contemplate Dora's character, as they have a fairly long engagement. However, he proposes very quickly, and though he has several chances to break it off honorably, his "undisciplined heart" overwhelms his growing knowledge of Dora's character -- or at least his constant exposure to Dora's character, since there isn't any deeper or more complex side of Dora to know.

I've been casting about for a modern analog to Dora, and failing. Her particular combination of innocent naivety, pure ignorance, and beautiful petulance is a type that's fallen (rightly) out of favor in literary circles. Perhaps the "ditzy blonde" would be our modern equivalent -- the character Amanda Seyfried played in Mean Girls comes to mind, though Dora has an essential purity and lightness of mind and manner that is more reminscent of a pre-pubescent girl. In fact, David's interactions with her, especially in the weary moments when tries to remonstrate with her or to impress upon some serious consideration ("Honey, we're gonna be poor"; "Honey, the reason the servants behave so badly is because we encourage such bad behavior with our carelessness") recall nothing so much as dealing with children. David, though, has the constraint of not being able to discipline Dora as I might discipline my children if they behaved to me in such a spoiled manner as she does with him.

I don't know why I dwell on it; Dora rubs me such the wrong way that I could go on about it, unprofitably, all day.

Julia said...

I think we all have a little Dora in us, which is why she's so incredibly irritating. And we all discover the Dora in our spouses, which is part of why they're sometimes irritating. And some of us -- whether because a spouse suffers from brain injury or chronic illness or clinical depression -- end up married for decades to people who didn't necessarily start out like Dora, but end up like her. But that's a different story, one Dickens didn't write.

MrsDarwin said...

Julia, I'm sure you're right that each of us (or at least each woman) has a bit of Dora. Perhaps that's the reason she grates so much on women who have, either through hard work or natural inclination, minimized that side of their character.

I'm intrigued by the story that Dickens didn't write: either the account of David realizing, before he married, that Agnes was his true match; or the story of David and Dora's marriage in which both spouses have to grow. David has already realized that he must adapt and mature in his marriage if it is to be happy. I would have been interested to see some of that internal growth in Dora as well, though David does start to meditate on how difficult it is to imagine a long "happily ever after" with Dora. And how natural that vision of long and happy life seems with Agnes! Everyone in love ought to contemplate, "Can I envision a long and fruitful life with this person?" Dora is a creature of a moment.

I think that with the prospect of long-term injury or ailment, there is always the consolation of the loved one's past mental acuity, or the hope of recovery. The problem with Dora is that fatal illness improves her. "Nothing became her in life like the leaving of it."

MrsDarwin said...

Actually, Dickens does give us a taste of what Dora's future could have been, in the example of David's own mother. Poor sweet widowed Mrs. Copperfield, vain and charming, was an easy mark for Mr. Murdstone. Murdstone's determination to "train" Clara Copperfield and to mould her weak character to his own standards, was such a foreshadowing of David's happily abandoned attempts to "improve" Dora, that I wonder the parallel didn't occur to David at the time of his experiment.

The comparison isn't exact, though. Mrs. Copperfield had been a governess before her marriage, which practical career was far beyond Dora's meager capabilities. Still, perhaps it's little wonder that David fell in love with someone so like his gentle mother. Despite that, I maintain that Dora's slender intelligence and childish manners (I really wondered at times if Dickens intended her to be mentally deficient) weren't enough to sustain the emotion engendered by a girl who was just like Dear Old Mom.

Enbrethiliel said...


I first read about Dora--or rather, an allusion to Dora--in Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott. One of the "little men," all grown up, tells Mother Bhaer of his new fiancee, who is also named Dora, and the older lady exclaims, "Not a Dickens Dora, I hope!"

And just last year, I learned more details about Dora in Helen Andelin's Fascinating Womanhood. LOL!

But like Emily, when I read this post, the strongest association which came to me was Rosamond from Middlemarch. It seems, however, that Lydgate is more traumatised by the scales falling from his eyes than David is.

Lauren said...

Now I know I need to read David Copperfield, because when I hear the name Dora I picture a little hispanic girl with a backpack and a talking map. I know she'd make an insipid spouse. Her cheerful one note conversations and endless adventuring to imaginary places would try the patience of any decent man.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Rosamond an Lydgate came to mind for me too. It's been a while since I read David Copperfield but I recall Dora as more sweet and innocent and less worldly than Rosamond. But Rosamond is also a "creature of the moment" and doesn't wear well at all. Lydgate, however, lacks David's strength of character and nor does he have an Agnes waiting in the wings.

I wonder if Dora's childlike innocence and naivite can even exist in the modern world except in someone who is mentally deficient.

I recall reading somewhere that David Copperfield is Dickens' most autobiographical novel. I wonder if he had a Dora in his own life.

Darwin said...

Rosamond strikes me as a fairly different type. She is terrible for the family finances, and she plays dumb at certain points, but that struck me as mostly a tactic. She's actually a fairly strong personality and she knows exactly what she wants. If anything, her problem is her inability to see that obstacles cannot be overcome by simple force of will. (For the longest time she's so sure she made a good match that if things aren't going well she's convinced it must be because they haven't made people behave properly.)

The thing with Dora that is so weird from a modern point of view is how incredibly childlike she is. Aggravatingly so, with her honest inability to grasp a lot of what it takes to make their household run, her adoring gazing at David, he getting angry at problems rather than understanding them, and most of all her "cute" behaviors: hiding her face, talking to the dog, etc. All I can think of here is that Dickens is taking a bunch of very period ideas resulting from the Victorian idealization of both women and children (and a certain equivalence between the two) and producing a synthetic character who embodies a lot of that. She just doesn't seem to me like a person who could exist.

But perhaps that's my modernity talking.