David Copperfield (1850)
It's been nearly 50 years since I read David Copperfield, and with this novel so teeming with incidents and characters—and similarly lengthy Charles Dickens works I have read since—this particular episode involving the title hero, his wicked stepfather, and the latter’s only-slightly-less villainous sister had long since receded well back into my memory.
Then, about two weekends ago, as if in answer to one of my viewing prayers, TCM ran the wonderful 1935 adaptation of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic, produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. It’s a model not just of terrific casting (W.C. Fields, most prominently, as Wilkins Micawber), but of editing a sprawling novel down to its essentials in just two hours of running time.
This scene stood out for me. David’s humiliation and fear on the page are not only captured but heightened on the screen, with fast cuts among David, his anxious mother, her goading sister-in-law, the smooth suitor turned household tyrant, and the whip that the latter carries and shortly uses on his stepson.
In addition, there’s a short addition of dialogue that I think would have further pained audiences that first saw this in movie theaters.
Right after Murdstone (played by Basil Rathbone, captured here in despicable perfection with Freddie Bartholomew as David and Elizabeth Allan as Mrs. Copperfield) mentions a “halfpenny each,” he continues, “And if I sell half of them at six pence-halfpenny, twenty at five pence, and use the rest myself, do I make a profit or loss?"
“Profit or less” would have been uppermost on the minds of Depression-era youthful moviegoers. Imagine them trying to quickly do this sum in their heads, floundering, and wondering how their inadequacy with this math might have contributed to their own failure to barely stay solvent.
Even now, the scene has a kind of horror for kids today, I think—not so much for the beating David endures at the hands of Murdstone (so sadistic that an unnerved Rathbone required several takes to get it right), but for what leads to it. The question is all too close to those word problems not only in algebra tests but also in standardized math tests taken by high school students of the postwar era.
Those of us who don’t recall those word problems with a shudder chuckle at jokes we’ll occasionally come across about them. (For instance, from Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in “Peanuts”: “Only in math problems can you buy 60 cantaloupes and no one asks what the hell is wrong with you.”)
“I have in my heart of hearts," wrote Dickens of the novel closest to him, "a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield." Let nobody forget that math was among the multiple traumas endured by this beleaguered orphan—and by no means the least.
(For more about Dickens’ pungent feelings and writings about math and education in general, try Brittany Carlson’s November 2020 blogpost for the Dickens Society.)
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