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The Gentleman's True Name: David Copperfield and the Philosophy of Naming

Joseph Bottum
Nineteenth-Century Literature
Vol. 49, No. 4 (Mar., 1995), pp. 435-455
DOI: 10.2307/2933728
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933728
Page Count: 21
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The Gentleman's True Name: David Copperfield and the Philosophy of Naming
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Abstract

No one has ever accused Dickens of being a philosopher. But David Copperfield offers an opportunity for thinking philosophically about naming. Unlike the characters unconscious of their satirical names in Dickens's earlier novels, the characters in David Copperfield feel the tension of naming and explore with the author what their names are for. They find, of course, that the order of names-the hierarchy of terms by which they refer to and address one another-betrays rank and sentiment, power and desire. But they find more than that a name expresses and enforces the will of the namer. Names in David Copperfield have a way of coming true, and the possibility of names coming true requires there be such a thing as truth. David as he grows must find in falsity and failure the possibility of truth and reform. Dickens always believed in truth. Beneath the jokes and abused language, there is for Dickens an intelligible order of reality that is finally moral and true. No reformed Scrooge or Chuzzlewit comes to fix the broken lives at the end of David Copperfield, but truth wells up in the novel, nonetheless. After Dora and Steerforth die, David reaches at last an adult understanding of names beyond the childish assumption of meaning and the adolescent assumption of emptiness.

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