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  • "What is Natural in Me":David Copperfield, Faculty Psychology, and the Association of Ideas
  • Tyson Stolte, Winner of the 2009 Hamilton Prize (bio)

David Copperfield begins the narrative of his life by musing on the gifts with which he was born. In the novel's second paragraph, he jokes about the inborn ability ascribed to him by neighbourhood women on account of the time of his birth: the ability to see ghosts and spirits. In the rest of the novel, David returns often, in a more serious vein, to the claim that at least some of his mental faculties are innate. Writing of his power of observation, for instance, he contends 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" (11).1 This same inborn power of observation, moreover, provides the clue by which we learn that David's complaint about being sent to Murdstone and Grinby's is founded on the innate gifts that were thereby nearly wasted. As he explains,

It is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities, and with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made any sign in my behalf.


In other words, while critics may have found in David a rather bland Everyman, this is not how Dickens—or David—would have us see him. Instead, we sense the novel's approval of Micawber's assessment that the young David's mind "is a rich soil teeming with latent vegetation" (221): the seeds of David's future success, his substantial innate gifts, are there at birth, only waiting to burst forth.

Knowing as we do from Forster's Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74) that Dickens drew upon his own experiences at Warren's Blacking Factory for his depiction of David's suffering at Murdstone and Grinby's, it almost goes without saying that David, in insisting on his inherited gifts, sounds very much like his author. But sound like Dickens he does. Dickens's autobiographical fragment includes a passage nearly identical to the one above, also stressing innate gifts:

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into [End Page 55] the poor drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me—a child of singular abilities: quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally—to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school.

(qtd. in Forster 1: 21)

It is peculiar, then, that in the little that has been written about this novel's engagement with contemporary psychology, critics have asserted that it draws on associationism, a body of psychology that denies the existence of innate gifts.2 Such readings are problematic, not only because association psychology fails to acknowledge the inborn abilities on which both David and Dickens insist but also because the 1840s and 1850s saw associationism at the heart of passionate debate in the periodical press and popularly perceived as a threat to religious belief and to the promise of immortality.

This essay seeks to restore David Copperfield (1849-50) to its position in the midst of such psychological controversy. I assert the significance of this debate to Victorian culture at mid-century as well as its role in shaping the world imagined in the novel. Against the seeming critical consensus that this is a novel deeply indebted to associationist psychology, then, I argue for David Copperfield's immersion in the still-dominant—and spiritually informed— Scottish faculty psychology of its day, the psychology against which Victorian commentators invariably set associationism. Guided by the Victorian belief that fiction represented a viable means of contributing to scientific knowledge, I read the novel alongside and as in some ways parallel to the numerous articles on the...


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pp. 55-71
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