In addition to being a Bildungsroman (a novel of education), David Copperfield is a fictional memoir, ostensibly written by David himself. However, while David is a writer by profession, he says more than once that he does not want to publish his memoir, and in fact intends it "for no eyes but [his]." This raises the question of what exactly David hopes to achieve or accomplish in penning his life story, and the answer seems to lie simply in the pleasure David takes in reliving his past. Although his life has certainly not been uniformly happy, the tone of his memoir tends toward nostalgia—particularly when it involves feelings and experiences David has had to set aside in the name of maturity. In other words, the novel's depiction of memory is in many ways at odds with its status as a coming-of-age story: the pleasures of memory compensate for some of the sacrifices associated with growing older, but clinging to the past also threatens to derail David's growth as a character.
David's recollections of his childhood home, the Rookery, are a particularly good example of the emotional pull of nostalgia. He depicts the Rookery as a kind of idyllic, lost paradise: "Now I am in the garden at the back [of the house], beyond the yard where the empty pigeon-house and dog-kennel are—a very preserve of butterflies, as I remember it, with a high fence, and a gate and padlock; where the fruit clusters on the trees, riper and richer than fruit has ever been since, in any other garden, and where my mother gathers some in a basket, while I stand by, bolting furtive gooseberries, and trying to look unmoved." David's growth into a mature and independent man requires that he leave the Rookery behind (literally and figuratively) in order to establish his own career and family. However, when David remarks that the fruit at the Rookery is “riper and richer” than anything else, there is a real sense in this passage that no adult happiness will ever match the happiness of early childhood.
Likewise, David reflects fondly on his marriage with Dora, even though the marriage stunted his maturity and personal growth due to Dora’s childlike nature. He says the following of the days immediately following his engagement to Dora: "Of all the times of mine that Time has in his grip, there is none that in one retrospection I can smile at half so much, and think of half so tenderly." Of course, David elsewhere all but calls his relationship with Dora a mistake, in the sense that it was essentially a kind of extended childhood (with Dora herself noticeably resembling David's mother, Clara). By revisiting the relationship through writing, however, David is able to experience everything that was pleasurable about it without sacrificing the maturity he has since attained. However, David also tends to give himself over entirely to his memories and the feelings they evoke, relinquishing the conscious control over himself and his life that he has worked to achieve as an adult. Even the language he uses in these moments underscores the fact that he has become a bystander to his own life: he prefaces his memories of marrying Dora, for instance, by describing himself, "stand[ing] aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by [him], accompanying the shadow of [himself], in dim procession." In this way, the novel highlights how lingering too long in one’s memories can make a person stuck in the past and unable to move forward into the future.
David hints that he may never reread the memoir he has written once it is complete, presumably because the urge to lose himself within it would be too strong to resist. In this way, what makes David's nostalgia "acceptable" is the fact that he weaves his memories into a narrative that ultimately looks forward. In fact, the novel's final image is of his angelic second wife, Agnes, guiding David "upward" to better things. As pleasurable as memory and nostalgia are, they are also a distraction from the future, which is where David's focus belongs as a man establishing a career and family.
Memory and Nostalgia ThemeTracker
Memory and Nostalgia Quotes in David Copperfield
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; 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; 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.
Ah, what a strange feeling it was to be going home when it was not home, and to find that every object I looked at, reminded me of the happy old home, which was like a dream I could never dream again! The days when my mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another, and there was no one to come between us, rose up before me so sorrowfully on the road, that I am not sure I was glad to be there.
The two things clearest in my mind were, that a remoteness had come upon the old Blunderstone life—which seemed to lie in the haze of an immeasurable distance; and that a curtain had for ever fallen on my life at Murdstone and Grinby's. No one has ever raised that curtain since. I have lifted it for a moment, even in this narrative, with a reluctant hand, and dropped it gladly.
I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us, above, I thought of that window; and that I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.
I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on.
It is no worse, because I write of it. It would be no better, if I stopped my most unwilling hand. It is done. Nothing can undo it; nothing can make it otherwise than as it was.
What an idle time! What an unsubstantial, happy, foolish time! Of all the times of mine that Time has in his grip, there is none that in one retrospection I can smile at half so much, and think of half so tenderly.
"Weak indulgence has ruined me. Indulgence in remembrance, and indulgence in forgetfulness. My natural grief for my child's mother turned to disease; my natural love for my child turned to disease. I have infected everything I touched."
And on that part of [the shore] where she and I had looked for shells, two children—on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind—among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.
And O, Agnes, even out of thy true eyes, in that same time, the spirit of my child-wife looked upon me, saying it was well; and winning me, through thee, to tenderest recollections of the Blossom that had withered in its bloom!