Shipwreck, Storm, and Narrative Disingenuity in 'David Copperfield'

February 22, 2021

Former school teacher and Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member, Wayne Batten, examines David's silences and narrative evasions as a form of self-deception in David Copperfield.



Hello, I'm Wayne Batten, a retired school teacher living in Nashville, and I'm on the board of the Dickens Universe. Today, I'd like to talk about a passage in David Copperfield during the shipwreck, when both Ham and Steerforth are killed, possibly drowning. This is chapter 55, pages 798 through 800 in the current Penguin Edition.

This passage is a good place to talk about several concepts, one being unreliability in narration, another being validity in interpretation, and the third being the rhetorical device known as aporia, A-P-O-R-I-A.

In this memorable passage, David is observing a ship breaking up a short way off the coast.

"One mast was broken short off, six or eight feet from the deck, and lay over the side, entangled in a maze of sail and rigging; and all that ruin, as the ship rolled and beat--which she did without a moment's pause, and with a violence quite inconceivable--beat the side as if it would stave it in. Some efforts were even then being made, to cut this portion of the wreck away; for, as the ship, which was broadside on, turned towards us in her rolling, I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest. 

"But a great cry, which was audible even above the wind and water, rose from the shore at this moment; the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck, made a clean breach, and carried men, spars, casks, planks, bulwarks, heaps of such toys, into the boiling surge.

"The second mast was yet standing, with the rags of a rent sail, and a wild confusion of broken cordage flapping to and fro. The ship had struck once, the same boatman hoarsely said in my ear, and then lifted in and struck again. I understood him to add that she was parting amidships, and I could readily suppose so, for the rolling and beating were too tremendous for any human work to suffer long. As he spoke, there was another great cry of pity from the beach; four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair."

Now, I'm just going to skip ahead a page, to page 800 where David again, mentions the figure on the sinking, breaking up ship.

"The wreck, even to my unpractised eye, was breaking up. I saw that she was parting in the middle, and that the life of the solitary man upon the mast hung in the thread. Still, he clung to it. He had a singular red cap on,--not like a sailor's cap, but of a finer colour; and as a few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it. I saw him do it now, and thought I was going distracted, when his action brought an old remembrance to my mind of a once dear friend."

Now, at the end of the chapter, a page later, we learn with certainty. This figure is Steerforth. So, the question becomes, at what point does David realize that the single figure there acting heroically and waving his cap is Steerforth? We're not sure.

Now, I'm indebted to John Jordan's interpretation of this passage for the possibility that Ham, who is also present at the scene, also recognizes Steerforth and swims out to the ship, possibly with the intent to murder him and then kill or drown himself. On page 799, we have a passage that points in this direction.

"I ran to him [Ham]--as well as I know, to repeat my appeal for help. But, distracted though I was, by a sight so new to me and terrible, the determination in his face, and his look out to sea--exactly the same look as I remembered in my connexion with the morning after Emily's flight --awoke me to a knowledge of his danger. I held him back with both arms; and implored the men with whom I had been speaking, not to listen to him, not to do murder, not to let him stir from off that sand!"

Then in the next paragraph, another mention of the active figure.

"Another cry arose on shore; and looking to the wreck, we saw the cruel sail, with blow on blow, beat off the lower of the two men, and fly up and triumph round the active figure left alone upon the mast."

Does the reference to murder refer to David's desire to preserve Ham's life or his hope that he can prevent Ham from doing murder?

In a case like this, we have a degree of narrative unreliability. The term "unreliable narrator" is somewhat old-fashioned, now. The best example of a narrator who gives misleading information is, of course, Odysseus in books nine through twelve of The Odyssey, when he tells the fantastic stories that everybody loves to an audience at a banquet given in his own honor, just before his final return to Ithaca. And where one of the listeners says in effect, "Stranger, you tell a very good story."

So that later on, when we hear accounts from the Muse, not from Odysseus, we notice some contradictions between one account and another, all to the effect that Odysseus is indeed a very entertaining storyteller, not always reliable as to what he tells us. Now, obviously, this kind of unreliability has to be contained in some way, as it is in The Odyssey, or the audience gets fed up. What are we supposed to believe? What is fantasy? What is not? Even if the entire story is fiction, we want to know in what way, to believe or credit what we are hearing. 

Now, another unreliability has to do with withholding information. And this passage here that I've read is one of the few incidents where David as narrator really may be withholding information.

And then another type of unreliability has to do with the judgments that the narrator makes or implies about what he is telling us or writing to us. If we generally agree with his judgment, his evaluation, or interpretation of events being narrated, we tend to see her or him as reliable. If we disagree too much, we may actually not enjoy the narration. That is if it offends our sense of morality, particularly, we may put the book down. 

In the case of David Copperfield, the unreliability seems to be mostly contained with his misjudgment of Steerforth. And so it's particularly interesting that here in this wonderfully described storm, the two kinds of unreliability meet up: possibly information withheld, and certainly misjudgment on the part of the narrator.

Now, I would like to recall an old tactic I used with young students, ninth graders, to discourage space alien interpretations of literature. Sometimes, I think, this habit got started maybe in middle school--I'm not sure--but these invalid inferences are based on nothing in the text, although there may be nothing to contradict them.

So, the protagonist was kidnapped and brainwashed by space aliens. That explains what happens in a scene. In this case, during the storm, we could say that David can't quite recognize Steerforth, not only because of the distance and the conditions, but David by now has become myopic and should be wearing glasses, but he's too vain. And therefore, because of his near-sightedness, he only recognizes Steerforth when he's brought up to the beach and onto the ruins of the Peggotty house. Space alien interpretation or inference. 

However, if we consider that David is not quite sure at first that the figure is Steerforth, we do have a possibility and a valid inference, although we can't with certainty in a legal sense, say beyond any possible doubt. 

However, there are other reasons, of course, that David may be withholding or delaying information. One may be to protect Ham. That is, if David suspects that Ham went out to the boat with the intent to drown Steerforth, then he may withhold or delay the identity of that figure on the boat. 

Something similar may happen when David overhears Rosa Dartle excoriating Little Emily for having run off with Steerforth, blaming her cruelly. David says nothing. Here, we again have unreliability of judgment, but also a possibility that here David is protecting himself, that he, too, is really angry at Emily but will not allow himself to express--maybe even fully to feel--that anger. He may be jealous of Emily.

Now, the rhetorical term aporia originally meant the introduction of doubt on the part of the speaker. The postmodernists use the word to mean a contradiction or a silence in the text, which exposes the strain behind it that maybe cannot be resolved. Either way, we look at the word, we have to ask why introduce doubt?

Well, I've suggested a possible reason: that David is in denial and therefore may not allow himself to recognize Steerforth. David certainly does not want to admit that he recognizes Steerforth-- and may have a reason to delay the knowledge so as to exculpate Ham, to whatever extent that he can. We can only say that there is some possibility that Ham intentionally swims to the boat in order to drown Steerforth and possibly then kill himself. It's a valid interpretation.

Looking back at the device of aporia, we have to see how effective it can be. It can open up the reader or the audience to thinking for themselves. But if done judiciously or artistically, it increases the credibility of the narrator or speaker because, in fact, we don't always know. We're not always entirely sure. And if there are times when our own desires and fears block our own understanding, that it is beneficial, as we can here, to look back at them, and realize that we are limited creatures.



Photo of Wayne BattenBorn in Beaverlodge, Alberta, Wayne Batten immigrated with his parents in 1950 and attended public schools in Fort Washakie and Douglas, Wyoming. He served first as assistant and then as head organist at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie from 1969 until 1973. Wayne holds degrees from the University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University. After a two-year postdoctoral appointment at Vanderbilt, when his time on the reservation earned him the sobriquet “One Feather,” he taught English (regular, honors, and AP) at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys preparatory school in Nashville, for thirty years. During this time, he directed the school’s art-and-literary magazine, Archives, and sponsored the Philosophy Club.  He has attended the Dickens Universe almost yearly since 1995. Since retiring from teaching in 2015, he has been researching and writing full time, largely in nineteenth-century literature. He has published articles on Kate Chopin, Jesse Hill Ford, Charles Dickens, and pornographic tragedy.  He resides with his partner, Chuck Sullivan, in the forest of West Meade, Nashville, where they have raised a small herd of wild deer.


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