“A Retrospective”: Time, Structure, and the Informal Segmentation of David Copperfield

Noah Jensen

Out of the many chapters of David Copperfield, four stand out as peculiar in name, content, and function. These are the four “Retrospect” chapters. They are perhaps the most crucial chapters in terms of the novel’s structure, as they effectively segment the novel into four distinct sections, in a manner not unlike how many novels are formally divided into several “books,” “parts,” or “phases.” The four resulting sections of David Copperfield are each extremely well defined, dealing with childhood, young adulthood, marriage, and finally widowhood, grief, and acceptance. These transitional chapters, marking important milestones and giving structure to David’s life, further set themselves apart through their relationship to time: merging past, present, and future. They make frequent references to earlier chapters, reflect on the past using the historical present tense, eliding the distance in time between events and their recording, while setting the stage for the next phase in David’s life and pointing toward future developments. Essentially, these chapters appear to exist outside of linear time and use this vantage point to better contextualise and segment the rest of the narrative.

Unlike many novels, including some of Dickens’s own, David Copperfield is not formally divided into separate sections; nevertheless, the divisions in this work are no less present. Rather than simply introducing each section as a new “book” or “volume” with a title and number, the work of segmentation is carried out by the four short chapters introduced above. This function immediately becomes apparent in the opening line of the first of these chapters, Chapter XVIII, “A Retrospect”: “My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence–the unseen, unfelt progress of my life–from childhood up to youth!” (Dickens 248; emphasis added). David the narrator could hardly be clearer in this passage about the chapter’s function as a divider between two stages of his life. Before this chapter, David is a child, and afterward, he is a young adult. This chapter marks the transition between the two in a montage-like series of short scenes. The pattern repeats in Chapter XLIII, “Another Retrospect,” wherein the second section, focusing on David as a youth, concludes in another montage of scenes from a “memorable period of [his] life,” most prominent among them being David and Dora’s wedding. Consequently, the third phase of David’s life is mainly defined by this marriage, so it is fitting that it reaches its conclusion in the parallel Chapter LIII, also titled “Another Retrospect,” in which the marriage ends through Dora’s death. This begins both a new stage in life and the last stage of the novel, wherein David the widower attempts to process his emotions and continue his life without Dora while coming to accept his feelings for Agnes. This final section ends with Chapter LXIV “A Last Retrospect,” which has many parallels with its predecessors to be discussed below. What we are left with are four distinct phases in the story of David Copperfield, giving structure to the long and often rambling narrative. The first stage, David’s childhood, establishes most of the novel’s central characters; the second, David’s youth and bachelorship, follows him as he makes his way through the professional world and falls in love; the third, chronicling David’s marriage to Dora, tells of the troubles the couple faces in their new life; and the final section of the narrative, dealing with David as a widower, is characterised by death and grief, leading to personal growth under the divine influence of Agnes.

One of the primary roles that these chapters perform as transitions is to conclude their respective section of the narrative. In this way, they must look back, as the word “retrospect” suggests, but not only in the way David Copperfield the narrator “look[s] back” (818) through his memories of one particular period; the chapters must look further to earlier parts of the sections which they conclude, in order to properly resolve said section. For instance, David compares his past relationship with Steerforth to his feelings toward Adams, “the first boy” of Dr. Strong’s school (248), and later, young David reflects on his first days at school in Canterbury (251). Yet this chapter’s most significant use of this technique can be found in the description of Agnes:

And the little girl I saw on that first day at Mr. Wickfield’s, where is she? Gone also. In her stead, the perfect likeness of the picture, a childlikeness no more, moves about the house; and Agnes, my sweet sister, as I call her in my thoughts, my counsellor and friend, the better angel of the lives of all who come within her calm, good, self-denying influence, is quite a woman. (251)

This entire chapter, in fact, the entire narrative, deals with the past as it is made up of memories, yet in this passage, David looks back at first meeting Agnes (209) from the vantage point of another slightly more recent past, all with the goal of bringing Agnes forward into the new phase of the story. This highlights both how she has grown and how she has remained the same, in her likeness to her mother and in her importance to David.

A similar technique is used in the following retrospective chapters as well. For example, David, before his wedding, recollects his first encounter with Dora: “do I remember, now, how I loved her in such another hat when I first knew her!” (584-5). The scope of reflections on the past in the third transitional chapter, however, is arguably wider. David and Dora not only discuss their marriage (the focal point of this third segment) and whether or not it was a mistake (713), but also look further to David’s first confession of his feelings for her in the second segment (711). Even as Dora is dying upstairs, David sits below pondering the past: “I sit down by the fire, thinking with a blind remorse of all those secret feelings I have nourished since my marriage. I think of every little trifle between me and Dora, and feel the truth, that trifles make the sum of life” (714). The David in the narrative’s present is here contextualising and resolving the entirety of his married life much in the same way that David the narrator resolves phases of the story in the retrospectives.

Yet the chapter with the widest scope is the last, as it acts as a conclusion, not only for its section, but for the novel as a whole. Reference is made to Betsey Trotwood’s “disappointment” and Peggotty’s “crocodile book” from the first and second chapters respectively (819), but some of the most conspicuous references in this chapter are found in this passage:

The cheeks and arms of Peggotty, so hard and red in my childish days, when I wondered why the birds didn’t peck her in preference to apples, are shriveled now; and her eyes, that used to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face, are fainter (though they glitter still); but her rough fore-finger, which I once associated with a pocket nutmeg-grater, is just the same [. . .]. (818)

These descriptions are taken almost word for word (save the comments on her present agedness) from Chapter II. Even the novel’s final line, which will be discussed further below, references Agnes’s “pointing upward” at the end of the previous retrospect. As can be seen most clearly in the descriptions of Agnes and Peggotty, David uses these links to past events and impressions to emphasise both what has changed, and what remains constant, providing context to the sometimes-disjointed montage-style of these chapters. This technique is largely what makes these four chapters effective encapsulations and resolutions of their phases of the narrative.

However, this is far from the only technique that sets the retrospectives’ style apart and complicates their relationship with time; the portrayal of the past is also shaped by these chapters’ extensive use of the historical present. While these retrospects are far from the only chapters to utilise the present tense, they are set apart by the fact that they are told entirely in this tense (save for the references to the more distant past discussed above). Here, the use of the historical present does exactly what the term would suggest: it makes the past seem present. The effects achieved through this technique can be seen in almost any line from these chapters, but especially in emotionally charged moments: “All else grows dim, and fades away. I am again with Dora, in our cottage. I do not know how long she has been ill. I am so used to it in feeling that I cannot count the time” (710). There is an undeniable sense of vividness and immediacy in this scene that is not as keenly felt in any other emotionally resonant moment in the narrative that is told in the past tense.

Another notable feature in the above quotation is David’s confusion about time in general− almost a sense of removal from time. In a certain way, all of the moments in these four chapters are removed from linear time, as short scenes − which in reality have taken place over the span of days, months and years − proceed rapidly each one becoming present again as David recollects it. David the narrator even remarks upon the montage-like structuring of these scenes in the opening of the second retrospective: “Once again, let me pause upon a memorable period of my life. Let me stand aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession” (581). What he is describing here is the style of the retrospects which reflects an unfiltered, and less organised type of recollection: a more raw representation of memory, which is more vivid and therefore more present. If the bulk of David Copperfield is a collection of memories turned into a story, then the retrospects are simply memories.

The idea that these scenes are not only removed from the flow of time, but also from the rest of the narrative, is supported by David’s language. In the above quotation, for instance, he says “let me pause,” words which are echoed in the opening of the next retrospect (710). However, most clear are his concluding remarks from the second retrospect, which mirror the above-quoted opening: “I have stood aside to see the phantoms of those days go by me. They are gone, and I resume the journey of my story” (588; emphasis added). While the events of David’s growing up, his and Dora’s wedding, the latter’s death, and the conclusion of the novel would conventionally be considered defining moments of the story, they are rather detours away from the story in the actual narrative. While this fact may seem counterintuitive, it begins to make sense when considered in the context of these chapters’ role of segmenting the novel; there is perhaps no better way to emphasise the divisions in a story than by intentionally disrupting the flow of the narrative and time itself.

Any discussion of the retrospective chapters’ relationship with time would be incomplete without mentioning the future. The main way in which David Copperfield interacts with the future is through foreshadowing. This device is used very frequently throughout the novel, and often foreshadowing focuses on one distinct event, varying from subtle hints best observed on a second reading, such as Steerforth’s telling the story of a shipwreck (294), to more obvious cases such as David the narrator’s musing on Emily’s future troubles as she stands precariously over the water (35-6). The type of foreshadowing used in the retrospects is different altogether; it establishes which general topics and motifs will be prominent in the coming section. This foreshadowing is of structural importance as these chapters (save for the last) are as much beginnings of the coming segments as they are conclusions to the previous. This foreshadowing is clearly exemplified in the first of these transitions, in which David falls in love twice, with Miss Shepherd and the eldest Miss Larkins. David delves deeply into his feelings for both of them, arguably not because they themselves are important in the narrative, but rather because he is beginning the stage in his life characterised by his devotion to his first great love, Dora. His words pertaining to both short-lived romances are striking; for instance, he calls Miss Shepherd “the one pervading theme and vision of [his] life” (249), and later says that he “worship[s] the eldest Miss Larkins” (251). Aside from the names, any of the descriptions of either of these loves are essentially interchangeable with any passage about Dora. In a similar manner, Dora asks David in the retrospective chapter on their wedding whether he likes her (585) and later if he is happy or regrets their marriage (588), prefiguring their marital issues and incompatibility.

The final two retrospectives’ view of the future, however, are closely linked as they both use the same recurring image of Agnes. The ending of the third retrospect uses the imagery to foreshadow developments to come, as Agnes, grieving, points up to heaven after Dora has died (714). In the coming chapters, Agnes’s heavenly influence is more important than ever, helping David overcome grief, and culminating in their marriage. David later sees the image of her “pointing upward” as representative of this good influence (786-7). The final retrospect looks back to this moment in the novel’s closing lines:
Oh Agnes, Oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed! so may I, when my realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward! (821)
While this line obviously cannot serve to foreshadow subsequent events in the narrative, as the novel is now over, it nevertheless looks to the future (David’s eventual death). This closing line’s relationship with time is both complex and representative of the retrospects’ style: David, looking at Agnes in the present moment of writing, links her image back to her appearance after Dora’s death many years ago, while projecting her image into the future, making the image of Agnes timeless. In this moment, the younger David, whose future had been the narrator’s past, converges with the narrator, whose future is yet to be determined.

The four retrospects essentially perform the same function of segmentation that can easily be accomplished by a header announcing the beginning of a new section. Dickens’s choice, then, to use this much more complicated technique for such a simple purpose may seem odd, but the use of transitional chapters does more than simply announce the beginning of a new phase in the narrative; the transitions make the reader feel the narrative’s divisions through their widely divergent style and consequent sense of separation from the rest of the novel. The frequent references to previous chapters, the extensive use of the historical present, and the subtle use of foreshadowing all have the effect of bringing the events of the chapters out of their own place in linear time, into the realm of memory where perception of time is more subjective and relative. Therefore, the retrospectives become pauses from which to contextualise and compartmentalise the major stages of the narrative. However, the question of which stages the retrospects belong to, the previous or the proceeding, is complicated, as the answer is at once both and neither: both as the chapters serve as conclusions and beginnings simultaneously, and neither as they are removed from the flow of time and the story itself.

Work Cited

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Modern Library, 2000.


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