Charles Dickens, David Copperfield: Ch. 2

[+] | [-] | reset

I Observed

The first objects that assume a distinct presence before me, as I look far back, into the blank of my infancy, are my mother with her pretty hair and youthful shape, and Peggotty with no shape at all, and eyes so dark that they seemed to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face, and cheeks and arms so hard and red that I wondered the birds didn't peck her in preference to apples.

I believe I can remember these two at a little distance apart, dwarfed to my sight by stooping down or kneeling on the floor, and I going unsteadily from the one to the other. I have an impression on my mind which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance,d of the touch of Peggotty's forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.

This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose;d just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it;d the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.d

I might have a misgiving that I am 'meandering' in stopping to say this, but that it brings me to remark that I build these conclusions, in part upon my own experience of myself; and if it should appear from anything I may set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both of these characteristics.

Looking back, as I was saying, into the blank of my infancy, the first objects I can remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things, are my mother and Peggotty. What else do I remember? Let me see.d

There comes out of the cloud, our house—not new to me, but quite familiar, in its earliest remembrance. On the ground-floor is Peggotty's kitchen, opening into a back yard; with a pigeon-house on a pole, in the centre, without any pigeons in it; a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog; and a quantity of fowls that look terribly tall to me, walking about, in a menacing and ferocious manner. There is one cock who gets upon a post to crow, and seems to take particular notice of me as I look at him through the kitchen window, who makes me shiver, he is so fierce. Of the geese outside the side-gate who come waddling after me with their long necks stretched out when I go that way, I dream at night: as a man environed by wild beasts might dream of lions.

Here is a long passage—what an enormous perspective I make of it!—leading from Peggotty's kitchen to the front door. A dark store-room opens out of it, and that is a place to be run past at night; for I don't know what may be among those tubs and jars and old tea-chests, when there is nobody in there with a dimly-burning light, letting a mouldy air come out of the door, in which there is the smell of soap, pickles, pepper, candles, and coffee, all at one whiff. Then there are the two parlours: the parlour in which we sit of an evening, my mother and I and Peggotty—for Peggotty is quite our companion, when her work is done and we are alone—and the best parlour where we sit on a Sunday; grandly, but not so comfortably. There is something of a dolefulw air about that room to me, for Peggotty has told me—I don't know when, but apparently ages ago—about my father's funeral, and the company having their black cloaks put on. One Sunday night my mother reads to Peggotty and me in there, how Lazarus was raised up from the dead.h And I am so frightened that they are afterwards obliged to take me out of bed, and show me the quiet churchyard out of the bedroom window, with the dead all lying in their graves at rest, below the solemn moon.

X [d] I Observe

Writing & Reading

In Chapter II David recaptures his child's-eye perspective on his world.  The narrative slows down while the camera pans across the whole environment to linger on the "first objects that assume a distinct presence before me" in contrast with "the shadowy world" he had come from.

The Introduction notes that Dickens's own eyes' were likely his most outstanding physical feature, confirmation, it seemed, of his uncanny powers of observation.  

X [d] which I cannot distinguish from actual rememb…


A candid and for the time advanced view of the unreliability of memory. In effect David is saying that autobiography, unavoidably enriched by the imagination, is part fiction, just as Dickens would say of this and other novels of his that fiction is part autobiography. The opening of the next paragraph develops the idea.

X [d] This may be fancy, though I think the memory …

Writing & Reading

Dickens had a phenomenal memory, in part because his command of visual associations was so powerful that they illuminated all he saw with emotional coloration. But here, specifically, he is addressing all of our memories and their capacity to tunnel back into the deep past. I believe that he is right and suggest an experiment. Take a comfortable seat in a darkened room; close your …

(read more)

X [d] I think that most grown men who are remarkabl…


The Wordsworthian paragraph grounds the novel. Children, Dickens writes, have nearly preternatural powers of observation. The adult in whom these persist is fortunate, for observation of this kind, Dickens maintains, is not learned, certainly not in adulthood. Qualities such as freshness, gentleness, and delight are "an inheritance...preserved from...childhood."

X [d] which are also an inheritance they have prese…

Writing & Reading

A crucial Romantic idea—that the more of the child which remains in the man, the more of that sensibility and imagination, with the resulting freshness and wonder with which we continue to observe the world—the morally better we are as adults. We have the poets principally, Blake, Wordsworth especially, and Coleridge, to thank for the accounts of childhood ways of being that suppor…

(read more)

X [d] What else do I remember? Let me see.

Writing & Reading

The question prompts the answer, "Let me see." We say that routinely, as in "Let me see about that," as also in "look into." Dickens wants that meaning but he wants more to return us to the  actual act of the memory and imagination, let me see.

X [w] doleful

Sad, mournful.

X [h] One Sunday night my mother reads to Peggotty …

Writing & Reading

It was common on Sundays for the head of a middle-class household to read aloud from the Bible to family and servants. The idea of a figurative return from the dead and rebirth is central to the novel yet just now terrifying for little David, whose father lies in the churchyard beneath the white stone. Jesus raised Lazarus after "he had lain in the grave four days already" (John 11).