Charles Dickens was a genius, especially in his creation of vivid characters that are simultaneously general human types and perfectly individualized human beings. He was also a genius at highlighting the evils of the conditions of life for ordinary people in his time. David Copperfield, published in 1849, contains some of the most memorable of these accomplishments, especially the portrayal of characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Uriah Heep, and David Copperfield’s nurse Peggoty. The book is famous for its penetrating treatment of issues of child welfare, exploitation, poverty, and desperation in England of that time. Along with Oliver Twist, the novel has in fact created a lasting perception of the painful realities of that era. The situations and personalities of these novels are unforgettable, an indelible part of modern culture. Both books have been turned into films and other dramatic re-creations in our time. Dickens’ deeply felt emotion at the pathos in these characters combines with satiric humor and penetrating insights into humanity to produce an unforgettable narrative. He could make a reader cry and laugh, almost at the same time.
In her new novel Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver has created modern parallels to a number of the characters from David Copperfield, as well as adopting some of the plot elements from the novel. Her invention involves a modern American setting and appropriate sociological observations of a town in western Virginia: a rural community full of victims who have been devastated by the loss of mining jobs, the decay of the community, and the lack of education or meaningful social services.
The character of Demon Copperhead obviously is channeling Dickens’ title character. Many other Dickens creations are also reproduced in modern guise, including a couple named McCobb who are just as hapless as the original Micawbers. Kingsolver creates a suitably slimy figure similar to Dickens’ really icky Uriah Heep. Murdstone, the stepfather in Dickens becomes Stoner — equally bad. Kingsolver depicts the women who are beloved by Demon Copperhead as parallels to the original Dickens women, and she includes several other modern versions of characters from the classic novel.
The American social problems that drive Kingsolver’s plot include the heartless American foster-parent system for orphaned children, as well as the utter destruction caused by the prescription drug epidemic and the drug companies and reps that pushed many people into horrific addiction. The desperation of first pain and then addiction are depicted with great sympathy and poignancy, and this substantial part of Kingsolver’s writing is truly powerful. The characters’ awareness of the greed and shamelessness of the drug companies creates a very socially conscious narrative, which is a strength of the novel.
While I have enjoyed and admired many of Kingsolver’s novels, including this one, I don’t think she was able to come anywhere near Dickens’ genius at observation of details, creation of vivid individuals, his deep feelings for the fate of the characters, or his amazing dialog that in my opinion stuns the reader with its brilliance. The comparison would be unfair, if it had not been demanded by the author.
It’s been quite a while since I reread the original novel — so I’ll say no more until I read it again and can make more apt comparisons.
Review © 2022 mae sander.