Remember Me at My Best: Memory and Forgiveness in David Copperfield
As many coming-of-age stories do, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield begins with a lonely child trying to find his way in the world. As a boy—lost, alone, and abused by his stepfather—David Copperfield is sent to boarding school, where he is treated no better by the children around him. Poor David is bullied mercilessly until an… The post Remember Me at My Best: Memory and Forgiveness in David Copperfield appeared first on VoegelinView.




As many coming-of-age stories do, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield begins with a lonely child trying to find his way in the world. As a boy—lost, alone, and abused by his stepfather—David Copperfield is sent to boarding school, where he is treated no better by the children around him. Poor David is bullied mercilessly until an older student named Steerforth steps in to protect him. Steerforth rescues David, treats him kindly, and draws him into a circle of friends. “I’ll take care of you,” Steerforth says.
Steerforth is mature, charming, charismatic, and everything David would like to be. David develops an intense and passionate admiration for Steerforth, who is like a friend, older brother, and father, all at once. Although David and Steerforth fall out of touch when they leave school, they eventually meet again by chance as young adults. David introduces Steerforth to a mutual friend, a beautiful young woman named Emily. Unfortunately, David fails to notice the red flags of Steerforth’s attraction to Emily.
The last time David sees Steerforth, it is a late night as they sit by the fire together. When it is time to say good night, Steerforth is reluctant to leave. He grabs David by the shoulders. “If anything should ever separate us,” he says, “you must think of me at my best, old boy. Come! Let us make that bargain. Think of me at my best, if circumstances should ever part us!” Confused, David replies, “You have no best to me, Steerforth…and no worst. You are always equally loved, and cherished in my heart.” David leaves early the next morning, and peeks into Steerforth’s room before leaving. Overcome by emotion even years later, the narrator David describes the sight:
He was fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school. The time came in its season, and that was very soon, when I almost wondered that nothing troubled his repose, as I looked at him. But he slept—let me think of him so again—as I had often seen him sleep at school; and thus, in this silent hour, I left him. —Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!
True to his word, David never sees Steerforth again. Indeed, he soon learns that Steerforth has seduced, dishonored, and run away with the young woman Emily—only to abandon her far away from her family. The next time he sees his old friend and protector, Steerforth is dead—drowned in a tragic shipwreck.
“Think of me at my best, old boy.” Remember me at my best. How could Steerforth have understood the monumental task he had asked of young David Copperfield? Did Steerforth know that despite his many sins, David would still honor this last request? What does it mean to remember someone at their best?

St. Augustine and the Time Present of Things Past

Indeed, what does it mean to remember at all? When considering the complex web that makes up the subject of memory, we would do well to take our cues from St. Augustine:
Perhaps it might be said rightly…that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.
St. Augustine defines memory as “a time present of things past.” In other words, memory is the paradoxical presence of past events that somehow still exist in the present. This is a remarkable claim. How can something from the past continue to exist in the present? Is not the past dead and gone? Perhaps, but if St. Augustine is to be trusted, then there is something about memory that resurrects the past and draws it back into the present. In other words, memory brings the past back to life.
Memory is a powerful thing. It is made more powerful by the fact that almost everyone we meet—friend, lover, colleague, teacher, student, worst enemy—will one day become a memory to us. This is the bittersweet part of living a life that is continually touched by other human beings. Right now, the people you encounter daily are living, breathing creatures. Right now, they have the power to change your perception of them with a single word or action. But sooner or later, those same human beings will live primarily in your memory, and what will you think of them then?
Imagine that you have a good friend who does something that hurts you. Perhaps you are hurt deeply. Following this action, your friend has the chance to redeem himself in your eyes. He may apologize and ask your forgiveness. He may do something to make up for his mistake. Or, instead, he may run away and leave you with no apology, no plea for forgiveness, no act of penance. At this point, there are two versions of your friend living in your mind. There is the friend who was faithful, kind, and loving to you; who laughed when you laughed; who mourned when you mourned. And then there is the friend who wounded you and abandoned you without a second thought. Both these people exist in your mind. They seem irreconcilable. If you are not careful, the incongruity may destroy you. And yet, for some reason—even though we know that in the memory of every person we meet, we may become a horrible brute or a hellish monster—somehow, we want to be remembered.

The Longing to Be Remembered

V.E. Schwab’s thriller Vicious tells the story of two young men, Victor and Eli, who are best friends in college. They work together on a scientific experiment that gives them both extraordinary powers—but then Eli betrays Victor, getting him thrown into prison. Years later, after his release from prison, Victor tracks Eli down in a mad quest for revenge. The former best friends stop at nothing in their efforts to destroy one another. At the climax of the novel, Schwab treats us to a flashback of the two young men back in college, just before they complete their experiment. In this flashback, Eli tells Victor, “I don’t want to be forgotten.” “Tell you what,” Victor replies. “You remember me, and I’ll remember you, and that way we won’t be forgotten.”
What a chilling thing to say to a friend whom you will one day kill in cold blood.
What does it say about us that we want to be remembered, even if that memory is negative? Love us or hate us, just “don’t you forget about me,” as the song goes. But if we had a choice—and generally we do not—it is safe to say that we would choose to be remembered at our best.
If you have ever experienced some great betrayal, you may have had the thought in the aftermath of that betrayal that life is like a strange movie with a thousand different conflicts, a thousand different antagonists, and a thousand different endings. The tricky part is that the plot never changes, but the ending does. Happy or sad? It just depends on where you cut to the credits.
The first movie is a plucky, heartwarming coming-of-age film about two friends who take on the world together. It’s filled with heartfelt conversations, personal growth, and the power of teamwork. It ends with a high five and the words, “I’m proud of you.” Fade to black. The credits song is by Owl City. The second movie, on the other hand, is a drama about loss and human failing. It’s about how much our heroes influence us, and how hard our heroes fall. The online forums are full of self-made critics arguing about whether the film’s complex, bittersweet ending is satisfying or not. Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up.
At some point, all survivors of betrayal and trauma come to realize the painful choice they must make: to choose what movie they will watch. Memory is the time present of things past, both movies are sitting on the shelf, and you get to pick tonight’s feature.

David Copperfield and Forgiveness

Let us put it this way. To remember someone at their best is to choose to tell the story that redeems them. It is an act of forgiveness. It acknowledges that there is more than one story that you could tell about this person, and perhaps one of those stories is more complete, but the other is kinder. To remember someone at their best is to tell the kind story.
In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This may seem a mysterious and, frankly, absurd claim. What could it possibly mean for love to believe all things? Besides, St. Paul tells us in the same breath that love keeps no record of wrongs, which sounds equally ridiculous. All of us certainly keep a record of wrongs—perhaps many records of wrongs. But could “believing all things” mean acting against our instincts? Could “believing all things” mean choosing to think of everyone—even our enemies—at their best?
At the climax of David Copperfield, Steerforth makes a request of David. By making that request, Steerforth acknowledges that he has done things—or in this case, that he will do things—that overshadow the memory of the kind protector who saved young David all those years ago. He may commit sins that transform him from an object of love into an object of hatred. He may never repent, and if that happens, David will be forced to make a choice: Will I honor my old friend’s last request of me, even though it is difficult? Will I choose to think of him at his best?
After Steerforth drowns in a terrible storm, he washes up on the shore. Poor David is the first to find the dead body of his old friend; as the narrator, he tells us, “I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.” David sees Steerforth as he was at school—mature, good, kind, protective. At this low point, when David has every reason to hate Steerforth for ruining the life and reputation of a dear friend, he continues to think of Steerforth at his best.
The trouble is that it is much easier to remember someone at their worst, especially if they were once dear to you. It is significantly less painful to denigrate someone in your mind, to reduce all their fullness and complexity down to a single event or action, than it is to remember their best, most noble moments. It hurts to miss a real human being. But if you remember a monster, you succeed in deadening your own pain. No one misses a monster. These are the stories, however, that will make us hard and bitter when we retell them, even just to ourselves. On the other hand, there are stories that will make us richer, fuller, wiser—and more open to love. When we fail to think of others at their best, we are really marring our own souls.
At the climax of Kate DiCamillo’s beautiful children’s novel The Tale of Despereaux, the Princess Pea is faced with a choice. The novel’s antagonist is a rat named Roscuro who caused the death of the princess’s mother, manipulated her friends, and then concocted a scheme to kidnap her and leave her to die in the dark dungeon below the castle. The Princess Pea has many reasons to hate Roscuro, and very few reasons to forgive him. But as she faces the rat in the end, she comes to this striking realization:
…Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting, always, with the light. She did not like the rat. She would never like the rat, but she knew what she must do to save her own heart.
She knew what she must do to save her own heart. By forgiving Roscuro, the princess is really saving herself. By forgiving our enemies, we save ourselves.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who sinned against him, Jesus answered—as He often did—with a story. He told of a man who was forgiven a great debt by his master, but who then failed to forgive a much smaller debt that was owed to him. Angry, the master threw him in prison until he could pay his great debt. Jesus concludes by telling His disciples, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
To remember someone at their best does not necessarily mean forgetting the sins committed. That may be impossible, or even unwise. It may leave you vulnerable to being taken advantage of in the future. But even so, you can relentlessly, doggedly, choose to tell the story that redeems your enemy. You can forgive your brother from your heart.
When you think of your grandmother who passed away, do not think about that one Thanksgiving when she loudly criticized your green bean casserole in front of everyone; think about how warm and gentle her hugs were. When you think of your childhood friend, do not think about how he sided with the playground bully against you; think about the time you worked all night on that one Spanish project and laughed so hard that you cried. When you think of your ninth grade English teacher, do not think about how she failed to believe you when you explained that you lost your homework over the weekend; think about how she walked you through the complex poetry of Dante and you really believed in God for the first time. Everyone who has touched your life, everyone who contributed to the person you are today—remember them at their best. Do it to save their lives. Do it to save your own life.
And when you think of me, think of me at my best.

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