We know that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield he had not read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – published less than a decade earlier, available only in Danish – but when I reflect on one character from that novel, James Steerforth, I find it hard to believe that Dickens didn’t know the “Seducer’s Diary.” Steerforth’s seduction, abduction, and abandonment of David’s childhood love Emily (Little Em’ly, as her family call her) proceeds precisely according to the emotional sequence outlined in that diary. Johannes the Seducer and Steerforth are both perfect embodiments of what Emile Durkheim would later call anomie – a combination of amorality and unconquerable boredom, with the boredom generated by the amorality, though seducers think that by rejecting the moral laws of their societies they can make their lives more interesting.
More on anomie later. For now I want to focus not on Steerforth himself but on his family – his, and Emily’s. Dickens regularly juxtaposes Mrs. Steerforth, James’s mother, to Daniel Peggotty, Emily’s uncle and adoptive father; this juxtaposition is one of the most important elements of the book. When Steerforth sweeps Emily away, just on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Ham, and takes her to Europe, both families are devastated, but in very different ways.
When, soon after the lovers’ disappearance, Daniel Peggotty visits Mrs. Steerforth – he hopes to learn whether Steerforth is likely to marry Emily – the lady treats him to this discourse:
“My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth – to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother’s claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude – claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! Is this no injury? […]
“If he can stake his all upon the lightest object, I can stake my all upon a greater purpose. Let him go where he will, with the means that my love has secured to him! Does he think to reduce me by long absence? He knows his mother very little if he does. Let him put away his whim now, and he is welcome back. Let him not put her away now, and he never shall come near me, living or dying, while I can raise my hand to make a sign against it, unless, being rid of her forever, he comes humbly to me and begs for my forgiveness. This is my right. This is the acknowledgement I will have. This is the separation that there is between us!”
To understand this outburst fully, we need to recall that earlier in the story, Mrs. Steerforth’s companion Rosa Dartle – a shrewd and ironic young woman embittered by her hopeless love for Steerforth – had, with a malicious false ingenuousness, asked Steerforth what might happen if “you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.” To this Mrs. Steerforth replied, “My dear Rosa, … suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”
“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”
Rosa’s mock-inquiry arises from her understanding that Steerforth and his mother do not perceive their relationship in the same light: his “duty” would not, and in the end does not, prevent him from acting in what he perceives to be his interest, even when that interest is merely the avoidance of boredom. Rosa also understands that Mrs. Steerforth sees her relationship with her son contractually and legalistically: he owes her obedience and deference because, she says, he is the one “whom I have gratified from a child in every wish.” Thus her outrage at his failure to meet the terms of the contract is extreme and implacable: he is banished from her presence until he (a) abandons Emily forever and (b) begs his mother’s forgiveness. “This is the acknowledgement I will have.”
After she delivers herself of this announcement Daniel Peggotty takes his leave of her; there is no more to be said; their models of parental love are incommensurable, irreconcilable.
The vastness of the chasm between them may be seen by comparing Mrs. Steerforth’s distribe with Daniel Peggoty’s response when he learns that Emily has fled with her lover:
“I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide. If she should come home while I’m away – but ah, that ain’t like to be! – or if I should bring her back, my meaning is, that she and me shall live and die where no one can’t reproach her. If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last words I left for her was, ‘My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!’”
Call me a normie if you want, call me sentimental, what you will – I don’t know many things in all of fiction more moving than this. Let me wipe a tear from my eye and then take a moment to unpack both the explicit statements and the implications in Mr. Peggotty’s declaration.
- Emily is in need of forgiveness, for she has sinned. (Emily herself knows this perfectly well; she is nearly consumed with guilt.)
- Mr. Peggotty offers this forgiveness completely and without condition or reservation, no matter what Emily does or fails to do.
- He does not wait for her to beg forgiveness – he does not wait for her to repent or return – he’s “a-going to seek her, fur and wide.” The biblical analogue here is not the parable of the Prodigal Son, because there the son returns home on his own initiative. That story is lovely enough, with the old man seeing his son “a long way off” and, as Frederick Buechner has envisioned the scene, picking up his skirts and running as fast as his old legs will carry him to the beloved boy. But what Mr. Peggotty does calls forth something more radical still: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
- He knows that Emily will suffer for her sin; he knows that the way of the world – as exemplified, for instance, by Mrs. Steerforth – is not to forgive but rather to “reproach”; so he will do what he has to do, suffer whatever he needs to suffer, so that she will not be further wounded.
- His love for his “darling child” is “unchanged” – unchanged. Not altered in one fraction of a degree either by what she has done or what she has left undone, and never to be altered by anything in the whole wide reproaching world.
What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie flourishes. (Rosa Dartle sees all this coming, but because Steerforth does not return her love, she does nothing to avert it but merely waits for the inevitable crack-up. This may be a function of some inbuilt perversity of Rosa’s character, but I think it rather an outgrowth of her dependent status and Mrs. Steerforth’s contempt for her needs — that relationship too is contractual; it’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Steerforth having any other kind.)
What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love – because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.