Charles Dickens's autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, published in 1850, was the author's favorite and has remained a favorite for generations of readers. In fact, Dickens is arguably England's most beloved, read, and critically acclaimed novelist. Noted scholar Harold Bloom, in his study of Dickens, praises the author's "astonishing universality, in which he nearly rivals Shakespeare and the Bible." This universality is one of the novel's celebrated qualities.
The novel is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up, that takes the protagonist from early childhood to early middle age. It is a story of the development of a writer, but it is also a portrait of Victorian England at mid-century with a host of characters designed to show various social features, for example, class structure, the penal system, the education available for poorer children, and the sundry forms of child labor and abuse. A novel of social protest, David Copperfield examines social problems while in certain particulars it relates the story of Dickens's own development into adulthood and into his life's work as a writer.
Many scholars have noted that Charles Dickens incorporated autobiographical details in David Copperfield (1850). George H. Ford, in his article on Dickens in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,
notes the similarities in manner between the author's father, John, and Mr. Micawber. His mother, Elizabeth Barrow, would become, according to Ford, the model for a character in another of her son's novels, Nicholas Nickleby.
Charles, one of eight children, was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812. His early years were spent quite contentedly in small coastal towns in southern England. His life changed radically, however, when the family moved to London, where his father was soon sent to debtors' prison. As a result, twelve-year-old Charles was forced to go to work at a boot-blacking warehouse and to live on his own in the city slums. He fictionalized this harrowing and grim existence in his descriptions of David's similar experiences in London after his mother dies. Eventually Dickens's father regained some financial stability, but Dickens never completely lost the feeling that he had been abandoned and neglected by his parents. His experiences prompted him to develop a life-long concern for the welfare of children and of the poor.
Dickens excelled at school and graduated at the top of his class, but his parents never considered sending him to university. He read voraciously and gained work as an apprentice in a law office. In 1834, he was employed as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. These two jobs taught him a great deal about the legal profession, a subject that figures in many of his novels.
While he worked as a reported, Dickens began to write sketches of London scenes and of its picturesque citizens. His first, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," was published by the Monthly Magazine in 1833 when he was twenty-one. He had several more published by the magazine and later collected them into two volumes, Sketches by Boz (1836), which publicized his pen name. The volumes sold well and earned favorable reviews. That same year he married Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had ten children. But his marriage was not a happy one. He fell in love with the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens caused a public scandal when he set up his wife at a separate London residence and lived and traveled with Ellen Ternan.
His first book, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), later known as The Pickwick Papers, became an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic. More celebrated novels followed, including Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839). For the next two decades, Dickens produced an astonishing number of novels, including David Copperfield (1850) and Bleak House (1853). The serialization of his novels, along with his work as an editor for Household Words, a successful weekly magazine, made Dickens a wealthy man. Along with his novels, he gained fame for public readings of his works, directed and acted in amateur plays, traveled widely in Canada, the United States, and Italy, and called for international copyright laws after many of his works were pirated.
On June 8, 1870, Charles Dickens died of a stroke, and his body was buried at Westminster Abbey in London. As of 2006, his novels have never been out of print.
After a digression about the predictions concerning his future at the time of his birth, David, the adult narrator of David Copperfield, notes that he was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, England, six months after his father had died. David's greataunt, Betsey Trotwood, appeared at the Copperfield home just prior to David's birth, insisting that Clara, David's mother, would have a daughter and that Betsey would become her godmother. When Clara remembered her husband's kindness to her, she became upset, which started her labor. When Betsey discovered that she had delivered a boy, she said nothing, immediately walked out and never returned, vanishing "like a discontented fairy."
One day Clara brings home Edward Murdstone, whom, David later discovers, has been courting her. David and his beloved nanny, Peggotty, immediately dislike him, and David becomes jealous of his mother's attentions toward him. Peggotty insists that Clara should not marry a man that her husband would not like, which brings Clara to tears. Murdstone brings David into town with him in an effort to try to win him over, but David, who admits that his observational powers are keen, finds the man "clever and cold" in his dealings with his business acquaintances and later, "stern and silent."
One evening, Peggotty asks David if he would like to go with her to stay with her brother and his family for two weeks at Yarmouth, a seaside village. David worries about who will take care of his mother while they are gone, but after Peggotty's assurances that she has found someone to help Clara, David agrees to go.
David and Peggotty arrive at the beached, black barge that is the Peggotty family home, and David "could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it." There he meets all of Peggotty's family: her brother Dan Peggotty; Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of Mr. Peggotty's partner; and Little Em'ly and Ham, her niece and nephew. The family warmly receives David, and he spends an idyllic two weeks playing on the beach with Em'ly, with whom he falls in love. He is quite reluctant to leave them at the end of his stay but looks forward to being reunited with his mother.
When David arrives home, he discovers that his mother has married Mr. Murdstone, which fills him with trepidation. He immediately sees a change in her as she approaches him timidly. David soon discovers that Mr. Murdstone has taken control of her as well as the household, and he is unable to look at either of them.
David is despondent about the radical changes in his home. When Clara tries to comfort her son, who feels as if no one wants him in this new family, Murdstone insists that she be firm with him. When the two are alone, Murdstone tells David that if he had an obstinate horse or dog, he would "conquer" him by beating him into submission. David recognizes this as a threat to him.
Jane Murdstone, Edward's sister, soon arrives and proves herself to be as harsh and unfeeling as her brother. In an effort to protect him, Clara tells David to try to love his new father and to obey him. Miss Murdstone begins to take control of the house just as her brother has taken control of Clara and David. When Clara tries to protest, insisting that she has never previously had any trouble running the house, Murdstone rebukes her sternly, for "everybody was to be bent to his firmness." Clara gives in, resigning herself to her loss of control.
Murdstone and his sister determine that they will educate David, forcing him to complete difficult and long daily lessons. Yet, under their stern and unforgiving eyes, he fails miserably. Miss Murdstone admonishes Clara every time she tries to slip David answers. One day, after David is unable to make any progress on his lessons, Murdstone determines that a beating will encourage him to perform more satisfactorily. When, in an effort to stop him, David bites his hand, Murdstone beats him brutally as Clara and Peggotty cry outside the door. David is then locked in his room for five days, forbidden to see anyone except Miss Murdstone.
On the fifth night, Peggotty informs him that he will be sent away to Salem House, a boarding school near London the next day. As David travels by coach to school, crying inconsolably, Peggotty appears along the side of the road and climbs in. She hugs him and crams food and money into his pockets before leaving. David determines to be brave like Roderick Random or the captain in the Royal British Navy, heroes of his father's adventure novels. He discovers a note from his mother folded around some money among the things that Peggotty has given him.
After David shares some of Peggotty's cakes with the driver, Mr. Barkis, the later inquires whether she is married and asks David to inform her that "Barkis was willin,'" his way of proposing to her, which David eventually passes on to her in a letter. David and Barkis soon stop at an inn where a waiter swindles David out of his dinner and a good portion of his money as a tip. David continues with an empty stomach to school on a new coach full of passengers who have assumed that he has eaten the large meal all by himself and so make fun of him.
David's excitement over seeing London, the city where many of his literary heroes experienced their most exciting adventures, is soon overcome by a feeling of abandonment and uncertainty about his future. Eventually, Mr. Mell, one of the teachers from the school, picks him up and takes him to his mother's house for breakfast before continuing onto Salem House.
David arrives at school, deeming it, "the most forlorn and desolate place [he] had ever seen" and finds the boys, along with Mr. Creakle, the proprietor, all gone for the holidays. Mr. Mell has been instructed to tell David that he must wear a sign on his back that reads: "Take care of him. He bites." The sign causes him great suffering during his early days at school, but he gains some support from Mr. Mell who speaks only a little but provides some company for him.
David meets the proprietor of Salem House, Mr. Creakle, a cruel man who beats the children for the slightest infraction or just to exercise his power. He then meets Tommy Traddles, a goodnatured boy who, much to David's relief, makes a game of the sign on his back. David is brought before the most powerful boy at the school, James Steerforth, who declares the sign " ‘a jolly shame,’" sparking David's undying devotion to him. The older boy convinces David to give him all of his money, claiming that he can get what ever he wants from the outside and that he will take care of him.
On the first day of school, Mr. Creakle chides David about the sign and strikes him with his cane, as he does eventually with most of the other boys, except Steerforth, due to his family's social status and wealth. David is extremely flattered by the protection and attention Steerforth offers him, yet he fails to recognize that the older boy is taking advantage of him, insisting that David hand over Peggotty's food baskets and spend half the night telling stories from his father's books. He also fails to recognize his friend's class prejudices when Steerforth tries to humiliate Mr. Mell and eventually engineers his dismissal. David's devotion to him is instead redoubled after Steerforth charms Mr. Peggotty and Ham during a visit.
David returns home during school break and finds that his mother has given birth to a boy. They all have a warm reunion since Murdstone and his sister have gone out for a visit that day. Yet, David notes that his mother looks much more tired and worn. The next morning, David apologizes to Murdstone for biting him, but while the man accepts it, it does not remove the "sinister expression in his face." David's days at home are filled with melancholy and discomfort under the Murdstones' domination. As a result of his ill treatment there, David is happy to return to school.
Two months later, he learns that his mother and brother have died and that he is now an orphan. David returns for the funerals where he is comforted by Peggotty. After Miss Murdstone fires Peggotty, she invites David to Yarmouth for a visit with her family. David is reunited with Little Em'ly who has grown more pretty and "both sly and shy at once," which captivates him "more than ever." He feels, however, a distance between them. After David and Em'ly attend Peggotty's wedding to Barkis, he swears his undying devotion to her and she allows him to kiss her.
When he returns home, he is neglected but is allowed to visit Peggotty occasionally. In an effort to get rid of him, Murdstone sends ten-year-old David to London to work in his wine bottling warehouse where he finds decayed floors, rats, and general "rottenness." David is despondent over his situation, especially since he now sees no hope of regaining his status in the world. His introduction to Mr. Micawber, however, with whom he is offered lodging, provides him with some relief from his gloom. Micawber takes him to his rather shabby home where he meets his wife and children. Although Mrs. Micawber complains that the creditors will not leave them alone, she and her husband have full confidence that their situation will soon change for the better.
- There have been several television and film versions of the novel dating from 1911. One version, available as of 2006 on DVD, was a television series produced in 2000, starring Hugh Dancy as David.
- Several abridged and unabridged audio versions are also available. Books on Tape put out a popular, full-length cassette audio version in 1977.
While David is happy to live with the Micawbers, his feelings of abandonment and lack of support cause him much misery. He gradually, however, learns how to fend for himself in the city and to master the work at the warehouse, and his loneliness is eased by his growing attachment to the Micawbers. After his numerous attempts to raise money fail, Micawber is sent to debtors' prison where his family eventually joins him, leaving David, once again, on his own.
After Micawber is discharged, he decides to move out of London in an effort to improve his fortunes. David, despondent over losing the only friends he has, determines to run away from the warehouse and find his aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who lives in Devon. On the road, his trunk and money are stolen, so he must walk the entire way. He sells his coat to earn some money for food but must sleep out in the open, sometimes near rough travelers, who threaten his physical safety. By the time he arrives in Devon, he is dirty and disheveled and thoroughly exhausted.
David pours his heart out to his aunt, telling her how he has suffered and been mistreated since his mother died and begging her to take him in. After listening to his story, Aunt Betsey asks Mr. Dick, an eccentric elderly man who has been living with her, what they should do with him. They decide at that point to give him a bath and put him to bed. The next morning, Aunt Betsey tells David that she has written to Mr. Murdstone, informing him that David is with her. Upon hearing the news, David's heart sinks.
Mr. Murdstone arrives with his sister on donkeys, which Aunt Betsey tries to shoo off, not knowing who they are. When they all eventually sit down to discuss David's situation, Aunt Betsey upbraids Murdstone for treating David's mother so badly. Murdstone ignores her and offers instead an extremely negative assessment of David's character, concluding that he "is the worst boy." When Aunt Betsey asks David if he wants to return with the Murdstones, he pleads with her to not let him go, reminding her of their ill-treatment of him and his mother. After consulting with Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey tells Murdstone that she will keep David, insisting that she does not believe a word of what he has said about the boy and rebuking him for breaking Clara's heart. After she quickly dismisses the man and his sister, David thanks her and Mr. Dick heartily. Aunt Betsey determines that she will call David, Trotwood Copperfield.
David, and Mr. Dick, who have become good friends, often fly a kite together. Aunt Betsey, who now calls him Trot, decides to send David to school in nearby Canterbury, which pleases him. They stop first at the home of Mr. Wickfield, Aunt Betsey's friend and lawyer, who advises them about the best schools in the area. There, David meets Uriah Heep, a strange young man with a "cadaverous face" who works as a clerk for Mr. Wickfield, and Wickfield's lovely daughter, Agnes. Wickfield chooses a school and suggests that David stay with him until he can find other lodgings. Aunt Betsey leaves him at the Wickfields, confident that he is in good hands. After she leaves, David offers his hand to Uriah but finds it so clammy and ghostly that he is repelled by it.
David begins at the Canterbury school, which is run by Dr. Strong, although it takes him a while to adjust since he has been out for so long. David is happy to stay with the Wickfields, especially since he is quite close with Agnes, whom he trusts and respects. Uriah tells David that he is studying law and insists, "I'm a very umble person," as is, he claims, his mother.
David adapts well to Dr. Strong's school, which he finds is an excellent one, and to life at the Wickfields. One evening a party is given at the Strongs for the doctor's birthday and for Jack Maldon, who is leaving for India. Annie, Dr. Strong's young wife, appears nervous and pale during the evening, and after Jack leaves, she collapses. The guests assume that she was overcome by saying goodbye to her childhood friend.
During a visit, Mr. Dick talks to David about a mysterious man whom he has seen lurking around Aunt Betsey's house, frightening her. He has seen her give money to the man and wonders why. David goes to Uriah's home for tea, not wanting him to think that he is too proud, where he meets Uriah's mother, who has a striking similarity to her son in appearance and mannerisms. She also continually calls attention to their humbleness. During the evening, David sees Mr. Micawber pass by and invites him in but is eager for his friend to keep private many details of his past life. They soon leave to find Mrs. Micawber, who greets David warmly. David is surprised by a letter the next morning from Micawber, noting their destitute situation and the probability that they will never see each other again.
David recalls incidents during his school years, including his falling in love with first a girl and then an older woman, and fistfights with a local butcher. The love affairs turn out badly for him, but he is eventually able to best the butcher, and he is proud that he has become the top boy at school.
David is sorry to leave his school since he feels distinguished there. He tells Agnes how important she has become to him, and she informs David of her concerns about her father's welfare. Observing a tension between Annie and Mr. Wickfield, David becomes bothered by Agnes's friendship with Annie. On a trip to London, David runs into Steerforth, who has been attending school at Oxford, and accompanies him home to meet his mother and her companion, Rosa Dartle. He and Steerforth make plans to meet later at Yarmouth, where they find Em'ly engaged to Ham. David notices that Em'ly sits far away from Ham during the evening. After they leave, Steerforth criticizes Ham to David, which shocks him, but David maintains his faith in his friend.
When David finds Steerforth brooding one night in front of the fire, the latter declares, "you come upon me … like a reproachful ghost." Steerforth's mood soon passes and he admits that he sometimes suffers from depression. Later David runs into Ham, Em'ily, and a friend of hers who has been disgraced and has come for help. After the friend leaves, Em'ly breaks down, crying, "I am not as good a girl as I ought to be," and asks Ham and her aunt to help her be more thankful for what she has.
David tells his aunt that he has decided to make law his profession, which pleases her. As they are walking in town, David sees a shabbily dressed man watching them. Aunt Betsey insists that she must talk to him alone and refuses to explain who he is. David soon takes a position with Spenlow and Jorkins, and his aunt provides him with lodgings. He runs into Steerforth in the city and the two go out and get drunk. Agnes spots them and later warns David about Steerforth's character and influence. David contradicts her but listens to her judgment, which he values highly. Agnes expresses her fears that her father is in financial trouble and that Uriah has made himself indispensable to him. She concludes that Uriah's goal is to use her father to gain power and position and blames herself for putting her father in this dire position. She persuades David not to confront Uriah since she is not sure of her judgment of him and she does not want any more trouble for her father.
David sees Traddles at a dinner party and the two get reacquainted. Uriah tells David that Mr. Wickfield is facing disgrace and that Uriah is trying to help him. He also admits that he is in love with Agnes and hopes to marry her, which disgusts David. When Uriah subtly warns David not to divulge his secret or he will cause problems for her father, David determines that he has no choice but to comply.
David is invited to Mr. Spenlow's home where he meets his daughter Dora, with whom he immediately falls in love. He discovers that Dora's guardian is Miss Murdstone, who informs David that she will not bring up the past. David visits Traddles who is studying for the bar and trying to earn enough money to get married. At his rather shabby lodgings, he runs into the Micawbers. During a dinner party David gives for Traddles and the Micawbers, Steerforth's servant appears looking for his master. Later the Micawbers assure David that they are doing well financially, but David discovers that they have used Traddles' name to obtain credit.
After David's guests leave, Steerforth appears and tells David that he has been to Yarmouth and that Mr. Barkis is near death. Steerforth convinces him to spend a day with him at his mother's home before he goes to see Peggotty. At the end of the evening, he finds a letter Micawber has left behind, informing David that he does not have the money to repay Traddles. The next day, after David arrives at Mrs. Steerforth's home, Miss Dartle watches him and Steerforth intensely. She asks David why he has kept Steerforth away for so long, but David denies having spent any time with him lately and insists that he does not know where he has been. Later, Steerforth gets David to swear that he will always think the best of Steerforth.
When David arrives at Peggotty's, he greets Em'ly, who appears quite unsettled and cannot look at him. He and Peggotty go up to Barkis's room and stay with him until he dies. David later discovers that Barkis has left Peggotty and her brother a large inheritance. At Mr. Peggotty's, David discovers that Em'ly has run away with Steerforth, which has broken Ham's heart. She left a note, expressing her hope that Steerforth will marry her and so make her a lady, and her deep love for her uncle. Mr. Peggotty insists, "I'm a going to seek her. That's my dooty evermore," and bring her back home. David blames himself and curses Steerforth.
David accompanies Mr. Peggotty to Mrs. Steerforth's home. Mrs. Steerforth insists that her son cannot marry Em'ly since she is "far below him … uneducated and ignorant." Later, Miss Dartle explodes with rage against David, blaming him for Steerforth's relationship with Em'ly and calling the Peggottys a "depraved worthless set." After they leave, Mr. Peggotty reaffirms his commitment to finding Em'ly and asks David to tell her that he forgives her, if anything should happen to him.
David turns to Dora for relief from this troubled situation, and the two soon become engaged. He learns from Traddles that Mr. Micawber has changed his name to Mortimer to avoid his creditors and that all of his possessions, along with Traddles's, have been taken by the authorities. Later, Aunt Betsey, along with Mr. Dick, appears at David's lodgings with all of her things, explaining that she is financially ruined.
David is quite depressed because he thinks that his turn in fortunes will prevent him from buying Dora presents. He and his aunt visit the Wickfields where Agnes tells them that Uriah and her father are now partners and that he and his mother have moved in with them. She fears the control that Uriah has over her father and how much he has changed under it. David later accepts a position as secretary to Dr. Strong and Traddles finds transcription work for Mr. Dick. Later, David runs into Mr. Micawber, who informs him that he is now working for Uriah.
David tries to explain his financial situation to Dora, but she refuses to listen to him. She claims that she still loves him, but whenever David talks of how they will have to economize, she becomes frightened and tells him to go away. Mr. Spenlow discovers the engagement and tries to break it off, but that evening he is killed in a carriage accident. Overcome by grief, Dora refuses to see David.
Mrs. Heep hovers over David and Agnes all evening, preventing them from talking about her father. After Uriah admits later that he was afraid that David was his rival, David insists that Agnes is too far above him for him to consider marrying her. When Uriah declares his intentions in front of Mr. Wickfield, the latter becomes hysterical, blaming himself for his daughter's predicament. Later, Agnes reassures David that she will never marry Uriah.
The next day David runs into Mr. Peggotty, who has been traveling around Europe looking for Em'ly. The only contact he has had are a few letters from her, which tell him how much she loves him. Recognizing Dora's changed financial position, her aunts encourage David to see her but to proceed slowly. That evening, David finds Dr. Strong despondent in his study after Uriah has told him that Annie has feelings for Mr. Maldon. Uriah tricks Mr. Wickfield and David into admitting that they had suspected these feelings. Dr. Strong blames himself for marrying Annie when she was so young. When they are alone, David strikes Uriah for what he has done to Dr. Strong, and Uriah makes him feel guilty for doing so. David receives a letter from Mrs. Micawber complaining that her husband has changed while working for Uriah, becoming morose, severe, and estranged from his children.
David, now twenty-one, marries Dora and reports parliamentary debates and writes stories for a local newspaper. Mr. Dick discovers what Dr. Strong has been told about Annie and brings the two together to talk. Annie admits that she had feelings for Maldon in the past but realized that they were not right for each other and that she is completely devoted to her husband.
A year later, Steerforth's servant tells David that he had been with his master and Em'ly in different countries in Europe. After Steerforth grew restless and suggested that she marry his servant, she became hysterical and left the house. No one knows what has happened to her. David passes this information on to Mr. Peggotty. That evening, he finds the strange man who had been following his aunt in her house. After the man leaves, Aunt Betsey admits that he is her husband and that she has been giving him money since they separated because he has been destitute.
Six months later, David realizes that he will never be able to expand Dora's mind and resigns himself to a less than happy marriage. In the meantime, Dora's health has declined, and David has to carry her up and down the stairs. Em'ly's friend Martha contacts David and Mr. Peggotty and asks them to meet her at her home. When David arrives, he witnesses Miss Dartle's vicious, verbal attack on Em'ly before Mr. Peggotty rescues her. Later, Em'ly tells her uncle how she made her way back to London and Martha's home. Mr. Peggotty decides to take her and Mrs. Gummidge to Australia where Em'ly can start a new life.
Micawber arranges a meeting with Traddles, Aunt Betsey, Mr. Dick, and David at the Wickfields, where he insists that he will expose Uriah as a villain and a fraud. With great theatrics, Micawber confronts Uriah there with evidence of the latter's illegal activities during his partnership with Mr. Wickfield, including those that caused Aunt Betsey's financial ruin. Uriah responds violently to the accusations, immediately dropping his "umble" persona, but he calms down when Traddles threatens to call the authorities. After the confrontation, Mr. Micawber insists, "The cloud is past from my mind," and he feels restored to his old self again. Aunt Betsey suggests that he emigrate to Australia with Mr. Peggotty, which he agrees to do.
As Dora's health worsens, she tells David that he would have grown tired of "his child-wife," and so "it is better as it is." One evening soon after, Jip, Dora's beloved dog, dies at David's feet at the same time that Dora dies upstairs. Traddles has been able to recover Aunt Betsey's and Mr. Wickfield's money, and Uriah and his mother have disappeared. Mr. Peggotty and Aunt Betsey, whose husband has recently died, provide Mr. Micawber with funds to pay off his debts and to relocate to Australia.
David leaves for Yarmouth to see Ham and finds that a storm on the channel has wrecked a ship from Spain. David sees a lone man hanging on the mast that looks like Steerforth. Ham goes out to rescue him, but they both drown. When David goes to Mrs. Steerforth's to tell her that her son has died, the news strikes her dumb. Miss Dartle then launches invectives at her, insisting that she corrupted him through her "pampering of his pride and passion." She admits that she loved him and that he loved her and curses David, declaring, "It was in an evil hour that you ever came here!"
The Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, Em'ly, and her friend Martha leave for Australia, and David leaves for Switzerland, where he will spend the next few years mourning his losses and thinking about his future. At the end of this time, he realizes that he loves Agnes. After he returns, he finds that Traddles has become a successful lawyer and is happily married and that Peggotty lives with Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick in Dover. After some misunderstandings, David and Agnes profess their love for each other and are soon married. Traddles discovers that Uriah is in prison for bank robbery and that Mr. Creakle is the warden. When he and David visit the prison, Mr. Creakle shows off Uriah as his model prisoner. Ten years later, as David and Agnes sit in front of the fire with their children, Mr. Peggotty arrives and tells them that he and his family have created successful lives for themselves in Australia, as has Mr. Micawber who has become a magistrate. The novel closes with David expressing his great love for Agnes.
See Mr. Dick
Mr. Barkis, whom David meets when he drives David to his boarding school, woos Peggotty and later marries her. He is a man of few words and is quite miserly. But Peggotty has a happy life with him, and he leaves her a large inheritance after he dies. He serves mainly as a plot device, providing some comic relief in his courtship of Peggotty.
David's mother, Clara Copperfield, is loving but weak, definitely not strong enough to protect David from the cruelty of Murdstone and his sister. Clara appears quite "timid and sad" as she approaches David's birth after her husband dies, "very doubtful of ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her." She defers to everyone, including Peggotty, whom she often treats more like a mother than a servant.
Occasionally Clara shows some strength of character as when she defends her husband against Aunt Betsey's criticisms. Yet, her fear of losing Murdstone's love and protection weakens her to the point where she cannot protect her son. At one point, she tries to insist to Miss Murdstone that she is capable of running her own household, but she crumbles when Murdstone chastises her and thus relinquishes all control to him and his sister. She tries to make life easier for David by imploring him to love his new father and to obey him, and she tries to help David surreptitiously by whispering answers to his lessons. Yet she is not strong enough to intervene when Murdstone beats David or sends him off to school. Murdstone breaks her down to the point where she can only cover her ears to David's screams as Murdstone beats him, and she is afraid to show any kindness toward David for fear of offending her husband and so getting a lecture afterwards. At the end of her life, "a hard word was like a blow to her," and she ultimately could not survive under her husband's domination.
David, the narrator of the novel, chronicles his movement from innocence to experience as he traces his life from birth to middle age. As a youth, he is trusting, idealistic, and devoted to friends and family. He continually defends those he loves against others' attacks, even when it would be expedient to do otherwise, as when Aunt Betsey criticizes Peggotty, when he needs to please his aunt so she will let him stay with her.
He is also a romantic, envisioning himself as a hero, much like those he has read about in his father's adventure novels; he falls in love with every pretty girl he meets, insisting that he will kill himself if his love is not requited. In his innocence, he often trusts others too much. His forgiving nature allows him to accept his mother's abandonment of him after her marriage to Murdstone. When he matures, he recognizes that he has been blind to the true character of others, such as Steerforth, and to the workings of his own heart with regard to his choice of Dora for a bride. After Dora's death, he realizes that Agnes is a more appropriate companion for him.
The cruel proprietor of Salem House, Mr. Creakle, frightens David during his time there. When he is an adult, David discovers that Creakle has become a prison warden, who self-confidently extols the virtues of the prison system.
Rosa Dartle is a distant relative of Steerforth. Her "thinness seemed to be the effect of some wasting fire within her, which found a vent in her gaunt eyes." Rosa lives with Mrs. Steerforth as her companion. Steerforth gave her the scar on her lip when he was young during a moment of rage when he threw a hammer at her. David soon discovers that "she never said anything she wanted to say, outright; but hinted it, and made a great deal more of it by this practice." She cleverly keeps saying how ignorant she is, which tends to disarm others to the point where they give her the information she wants, often against their will. Steerforth insists that she is "dangerous," most likely due to her desire for power and her ability to get information. She shows her bigotry when she calls the Peggottys "a depraved worthless set" and insists that Em'ly should be whipped for seducing Steerforth. Her love for him becomes evident in her tirades against Em'ly and Mrs. Steerforth at the end of the book.
Aunt Betsey claims that Mr. Dick, an eccentric man who lives with her, is a "distant connexion" or relative of hers. Mr. Dick's "vacant manner, his submission to [his] aunt, and his childish delight when she praised him" causes David to "suspect him of being a little mad." David also sees evidence of mental problems in the fact that as Mr. Dick works on his autobiography he has difficulty keeping King Charles I from creeping into it. Mr. Dick later admits to David that he considers himself to have a simple mind. Aunt Betsey explains that "he has been ill-used" due to others' having bad opinions of him.
Aunt Betsey claims that he is not mad as some people think and is "the most friendly and amenable creature in existence," who gives wonderful advice. He has maintained a childhood innocence that allows him to thoroughly enjoy other people. Mr. Dick reveals his compassion and cleverness when he acknowledges that "a simpleton, a weakminded person" like himself "may do what wonderful people may not do" because he will not be blamed for his actions and thus is able to bring Dr. Strong and Annie together.
David falls in love with Little Em'ly, Peggotty's niece, when they play together as children. She is a shy child but develops a desire to move up in class and become a lady. She is aware of the class differences between her and David, even as a young girl. She is good natured and affectionate with her family, but her desire to move up in class, coupled with her feelings for Steerforth, cause her to abandon them and break her engagement to Ham. After moving to Australia with her uncle, she devotes her life to helping others.
Taken in by Mr. Peggotty after her husband, his partner, dies, Mrs. Gummidge has "rather a fretful disposition," especially when she thinks of her drowned husband. She often feels sorry for herself, as evidenced by her insistence that "everythink goes contrairy with me." She acknowledges that she irritates others because she feels more emotions and shows them. Mrs. Gummidge takes charge of the household, showing her gratefulness and compassion.
Conniving and deferential, Uriah Heep is fifteen when David first meets him. His goal is to gain power in a world that has denied him any, due to his position in the lower class.
Annie Strong's cousin, shallow, handsome, and confident Jack Maldon, serves as a plot device to complicate the Strongs' marriage, which allows Uriah an opportunity to meddle in others' affairs. His relationship with Annie also emphasizes the theme of loyalty.
Mr. Mell, David's instructor at Salem House, shows his affection for his mother who lives in a poorhouse and his humanity when he tries to deflect Creakle's cruelty. Mell also appears in the novel to provide Steerforth with an opportunity to reveal his true nature.
Fiercely loyal and supportive of her husband, Mrs. Micawber encourages Mr. Micawber through all of his misfortunes by continually extolling his virtues. Readers come to know her by her often repeated assertion, "I will never desert Mr. Micawber," which illustrates this loyalty. She has a constant belief that her husband's difficulties are only temporary, blaming his creditors for not giving him time to come up with payments. Like her husband, she is loquacious as well as kindhearted, evidenced by her treatment of David when he lives with them while working in the warehouse.
Ambitions and proud, Mr. Micawber unfortunately has no knack for making money. Yet he never lets this fact trouble him for long. Although he is often forced to dress shabbily, he always acts above his class, displaying genteel manners, confident that he will indeed rise above his often destitute situation. His home is as shabby as he is, but as David notes, it "like himself, made all the show it could."
He is good natured and amiable, always ready to give advice to help improve others' conditions, which he is confident he can do. He is even more loquacious than his wife, often trying the patience of his friends as they wait for him to get to his point, to which he never takes a direct route. Like his wife, he is generous and elastic, taking his misfortunes in stride, assured that his success will appear with the next opportunity. His debts often fill him with the profoundest misery to the point where he contemplates suicide, but an hour later, he is in high spirits again. Under the influence of Uriah, he turns sullen and distant, but he is able to regain his focus and, due to his careful planning, to expose Uriah's fraudulent activities. Mr. Micawber finally enjoys success when he is made a magistrate in Australia.
After cruel and tyrannical Edward Murdstone marries David's mother, he rules the household autocratically. He forces Clara to distance herself from her son, which eventually destroys her, and abuses David and then sends him away to fend for himself.
Edward Murdstone's sister Jane is "a gloomylooking lady" who comes to live with David and his mother soon after the wedding. She carries metal boxes with her, which become a symbol of her metallic personality. As rigid as her brother, she takes control of the household after she arrives, manipulating Clara while insisting that she is helping her. David finds her arrogant with a "devil's humour" like that of her brother. Her cruelty toward David and his mother has more of an Evangelical bent than her brother's, as she proves when she determines everyone in church to be "miserable sinners," including David.
David's nanny, called Peggotty, is devoted to him and to Mrs. Copperfield and becomes a surrogate mother to both of them. She is stern but loving as she raises David, frowning at him if he does not pay attention to the Sunday sermon, but listening night after night to him read his book on crocodiles. Before Murdstone and his sister arrive, David admits that he and his mother were "both a little afraid" of her and so "submitted [themselves] in most things to her direction," yet as soon as she feels that she has been short with them, she showers them with hugs and kisses. She often speaks her mind, as when she tries to persuade Clara not to marry Murdstone, and continually tries to find a way to counteract or soften Murdstone's decrees and harsh treatment of David by slipping him food or taking him on trips to see her family. Her kindheartedness prompts her to try to ease his and his mother's suffering.
Her loyalty is evident when she refuses to leave Clara even in the face of the Murdstones' tyranny and condescension. After Clara dies, she swears her devotion to David and treats him like a son. During his most difficult times, Peggotty reassures David that he will always be welcome in her home and that she will always try to help him in any way she can.
Peggotty's brother Dan is a kind, generous, good-natured sailor who is devoted to his family. He tells David when he first meets him, "you'll find us rough, sir, but you'll find us ready." He has shown his readiness to take on responsibility when, even though he was quite poor, he took in and adopted his nephew Ham and his niece Little Em'ly, both orphans, as well as Mrs. Gummidge, the wife of a sailor who drowned. Peggotty insists he is "as good as gold and as true as steel." He shows infinite patience with and tender consideration for Mrs. Gummidge; when she gets upset and complains about her lot in life, he tries to make her as comfortable as possible and explains, "she's been thinking of the old'un," referring to her drowned husband. He proves his loyalty to his family when he devotes himself to finding Em'ly and then leaves his native England to relocate to Australia with her so that she can start a new life.
Peggotty's nephew, Ham, is kindhearted and selfless, with "a simpering boy's face and curly light hair that gave him quite a sheepish look." Ham is a skilled boat-builder who has devoted himself to Em'ly. He is devastated when she runs off with Steerforth but never condemns her for it. He begs David to tell her that he is fine in order to ease her mind and blames himself for talking her into marriage. His selflessness and courage are also evident when he drowns trying to save Steerforth.
David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, is spoiled, petulant, and immature when he first meets her. When they are engaged, thinking about running a household gives her a headache. After they marry, David becomes annoyed when others treat her like a child; he refuses at first to admit that she has never grown up. Neither is a skilled housekeeper, and servants and shopkeepers continually take advantage of them. By the end of her life, all recognize Dora's goodheartness. She shows some maturity and insight before she dies, understanding that David would have grown to regret their marriage and noting that she was too young and foolish for him to marry her.
Charming and charismatic James Steerforth is David's best friend until he runs off with Em'ly. Steerforth possesses "an inborn power of attraction" and "carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield, and which not many persons could withstand." David learns too late about the shallow, selfish nature of his friend.
Mrs. Steerforth considers her son James to be her entire life. She is a proud woman who is concerned only about the welfare of her son, but that welfare is defined along class lines. When Mr. Peggotty begs her to support his marriage to Em'ly, she claims, "Such a marriage would irretrievably blight my son's career and ruin his prospects." Miss Dartle blames her for turning her son into a shallow self-centered man.
Annie Strong takes good care of her husband and shows great affection toward him. Even though her mother persuaded her to marry him, Annie develops a strong sense of respect and love for him, which prevents her from being disloyal.
Kindhearted, amiable Dr. Strong is blind to his wife's feelings for her cousin Maldon. David claims that he is "the kindest of men; with a simple faith in him that might have touched the stone hearts of the very urns upon the wall." He displays a fatherly attitude toward his wife and never doubts her fidelity.
A good school friend of David, Traddles shows his resilience and loyalty, often taking beatings for refusing to tell on his schoolmates. For this reason, David calls him, "the merriest and most miserable of all the boys." He shows his sense of justice when he comes to Mr. Mell's defense after Steerforth tries to humiliate him. As an adult, Traddles becomes "a sober, steady-looking young man of retiring manners," shy, still good natured and generous, as he reveals when he lends money to Micawber. His success as a lawyer enables him to reclaim the money Uriah steals from Aunt Betsey and Mr. Wickfield.
David's great-aunt on his father's side, Betsey Trotwood, is tough but also kind and generous. David finds her to be a "formidable personage," who was "mortally affronted by [his father's] marriage on the ground that [[his] mother was ‘a wax doll,’" even though she had never met Clara. She takes charge of every situation, as when she arrives the day David is born, determines that Clara will have a girl, and demands that the child be called Betsey Trotwood Copperfield. Her distrust of human nature, due in part to a failed marriage, prompts her to insist that she will make sure that the child is brought up correctly, "well guarded from reposing any foolish confidences where they are not deserved." This distrust also causes her to take in young women as servants, "expressly to educate in a renouncement of mankind."
When he meets her, David notes that "there was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage … but her features were rather handsome … though unbending and austere." Yet she respects a show of strength as when David stands up to her, defending Peggotty after Aunt Betsey criticizes his nanny. Her compassion is apparent in the fact that she saved Mr. Dick from an asylum and David from a life of abuse with Mr. Murdstone, eventually becoming a surrogate mother to him. She devotes herself to those she thinks worthy, such as Mr. Dick and David, and does not suffer fools like Uriah.
Agnes Wickfield becomes David's most trusted confidant and later his wife. She is completely devoted to her father, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for her father's sake. She offers sound advice and comfort to David, even though it encourages him to marry another woman when she is in love with him. She also shows strength of character when she disagrees with him concerning his opinion of Steerforth.
Mr. Wickfield is Agnes's father and a friend and lawyer to Aunt Betsey. He is devastated when his wife dies and so lets his daughter take care of him. He is not strong enough to stand up to Uriah and thus allows the man to take control of his affairs, which almost destroys him.
Characters in the novel represent different classes and illustrate the wide gulf between the classes in Victorian England. The most damaging effect from an awareness of the separation between the lower and middle classes occurs when Em'ly runs off with Steerforth. Em'ly is quite aware of the difference between her class and David's when he first meets her. When David notes that both of them are orphans, she calls his attention to one important difference: she tells him, "your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman's daughter." By this statement, Em'ly means that her antecedents worked hard to maintain a minimal standard of living, while David's parents had some measure of inherited wealth. Even at such a young age, Em'ly understands how money can radically affect one's life. Later, when she hopes to become a lady by marrying Steerforth, she is forced to realize how entrenched economically based prejudices can be. Mrs. Steerforth blames her for the situation, insisting that any association with Em'ly would "ruin his prospects."
David is also aware of class divisions and is distressed when he faces the possibility that he will never regain entry into the middle class. When he goes to work in the warehouse with his new associates there, he reveals "the secret agony of [his] soul, claiming, "[M]y hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man [were] crushed in my bosom," and he is left broken-hearted. He does not associate with the other boys at the warehouse, thinking them beneath him. When David's fortunes change, he enjoys his status as a gentleman and is desperate to keep people from knowing how poor he had once been.
David's attitudes toward the lower class, however, are much different from the Steerforths'. Peggotty becomes his surrogate mother and the other members of her family his good friends. He even falls in love for a time with Little Em'ly, never considering that a match with her would be unacceptable. Yet he does maintain and reinforce class divisions when he never corrects Peggotty and her family when they refer to him as "Master Davy." Dickens appears to have mixed feelings about class consciousness as he has David maintain some distance from the Peggottys, but he portrays this family with an honesty and goodness of nature that is lacking in many upper-class characters. His attitude illustrates the progressive yet cautious attitude that was emerging in the more liberal circles of Victorian England: an effort to narrow the gap between the classes, but not to close it entirely.
Criticism of Social Institutions
The novel attacks social institutions Dickens viewed as unjust and cruel. The first is the boarding school system that permitted sadistic men, like Creakle, to be in charge. No one checks his power or tries to stop his cruelty; as a result, the children under his care are tormented physically and emotionally. Dickens also highlights the abusive situation that can result in the home where the man holds all power over the household, and no law or agency can be exerted on behalf of a wife or child. No one rebukes Murdstone for his tyranny over David and his savage beating of him. Even after David's mother dies, Murdstone has complete control over the boy until Aunt Betsey intervenes. There are also no child labor laws to make illegal the employment of a ten-year-old boy for long hours of work in a warehouse.
The prison system also comes under attack in the novel when David and Traddles accept an invitation from Mr. Creakle, who has become a magistrate, to see the successful results of "the only true system of prison discipline; the only unchallengeable way of making sincere and lasting converts and penitents … solitary confinement." David and Traddles find the system not so solitary, since they observe the prisoners communicating with each other. They also discover its ineffectiveness when they meet Creakle's "Model Prisoner," whom he calls "Number Twenty Seven," who turns out to be Uriah Heep. After going through the prison's system of discipline, Uriah remains still his "umble" self and swears that he has been rehabilitated and would not relapse if he were released. David sees through this façade, and so recognizes the failure of the system, when the conniving Uriah mentions David's striking him, which gains him sympathy from the prison officials. Though this scene may come across as humorous, the fact is that the penal system was subjective, biased, easily manipulated. It may be fair to say it operated much of the time on the assumption that poverty is proof of corruption.
Dickens exposes inequities but offers no solutions. The tranquil domestic scene at the end of the novel is not disturbed by the memory of what David has suffered from social injustices. Yet Dickens's realistic portrayal of them calls readers' attention to the real damage they caused in Victorian England.
David Copperfield was serialized in monthly, one-shilling installments from May 1849 to November 1850. Dickens knew that serialization affected his audience's reading experience. He carefully constructed these installments so that each part relates to other parts and constitutes a complete unit in itself. He was concerned not only with David Copperfield's installment arrangement, but also with the design of each installment's chapters, the only narrative units over which he had full control.
Topics For Further Study
- The introduction to this chapter notes the universality of the novel. Write a poem or short story in a modern setting about an element of the novel that you find universal.
- Read Dickens's Great Expectations and compare its coming-of-age theme to that of David Copperfield. Does Pip in the first novel face the same difficulties as David? What accounts for the differences? Make up a chart comparing and contrasting the two in regards to this theme.
- Write a report on the treatment of children during the Victorian age. In your research, consider the following questions: How were orphans treated? How realistic was David's description of his harsh treatment at school? Were there any laws protecting children who were part of the labor force? Choose one of these topics to focus on for your report.
- Read a biography of Dickens and find specific parallels to incidents and people in David's life. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation of your findings.
Serial publication caused Victorian readers to pause between issues. Read aloud by fathers to their families, these installments provided home entertainment much like an ongoing television series does in the twenty-first century. Chapters in David Copperfield mark new beginnings or hindrances for David as they move the plot ahead, thus tantalizing readers. The beginning and ending of chapters become narrative stress points, crucial in emphasizing the novel's thematic messages as well as providing a cliff-hanging effect to motivate readers to buy the next installment. Dickens's use of chapter titles marks this natural stress point and presents readers with important details that foreshadow David's future experiences and suggest a way to understand them.
Often chapter titles mark important stages in David's life, such as in chapter 3, "I Have a Change," announcing his trip to Yarmouth where he meets the Peggottys who will have a crucial effect on his development. The end of chapter 2 nicely sets up this change as it shows David's apprehension over leaving his mother and going off with Peggotty to a new place. Others, such as chapter 4, not only note a new development in David's life, but also suggest the effect that it will have on him. The title announces, "I Fall Into Disgrace," announcing the upcoming change in his household as well as the change in his relationship with his mother and the end of his idyllic childhood. Dickens constructs the end of the previous chapter to anticipate this upcoming change when he ends it with David's being frightened by Murdstone's ferocious dog. Dickens's chapter construction was affected by artistic issues and finances; the author created a plot that could handle these divisions, and he knew he would make more money on affordable installments than on attempting to market the novel in one or more, much more costly volumes.
David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, a novel that tells the story of maturation, of growing up. This novel presents itself as an autobiography with the mature David Copperfield writing his life story beginning with what he has been told about his birth. He wonders in the first lines of the novel if he will prove to be the hero of his own tale, but in this novel form the central character moving through adolescence into adulthood is most certainly its hero, the protagonist. The structure of the bildungsroman involves a movement from naïve innocence and total inexperience through a series of mishaps and apprenticeships toward a more mature state of experienced knowledge about the world and self-confidence. Though David Copperfield's world is a mixture of sweetness and corruption, he is not corrupted, though he is temporarily misled, as in trusting Steerforth, for example. The mature narrator shares the adult reader's worldly view of the novel's characters, sorry for the ways in which the child David is mistreated and happy about how bad people get what they deserve, as is the case with Uriah Heep, and about how good people come along to be all right in the end, as is the case with the Peggottys and the Micawbers in their new lives in Australia. At the same time, the narrator sympathetically portrays the world from the child's point of view, drawing in youthful readers by telling a story about a hero with whom they can identify.
The Beginnings of Social Change
British society was divided at the end of the eighteenth century roughly into three classes: the aristocracy, the gentry, and the yeoman class. Yet the revolutionary fervor at end of that century, exemplified by the American and French Revolutions, was seeping into the social fabric of England. In the following several decades, class distinctions began to relax and be redefined. As people in the lower middle classes became more prosperous, they began to emulate their social betters, as did the landed gentry of the upper middle class. During the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of people rose financially through commercial work and factory production. These middle-class individuals increasingly became absorbed with a cultivation of the proper manners, dress, and décor, practiced by the gentry and lesser members of the aristocracy. Examples of this rising middle class can be seen with the Murdstones and the Steerforths in David Copperfield. David's parents, his aunt, and the Wickfields are members of the middle class, but they do not try to adopt the pretensions of the aristocracy.
The contrast between the wealthy and poorer classes, however, was evident in London during the nineteenth century. A small portion of the city was occupied by well-kept residences and shopping areas. Upper and middle-class residents stayed in these areas, predominantly in the West End, fearing to venture into the remaining threefourths of the city, especially in the rough East End, which was teeming with poverty, dense population, and corruption. The gulf between the rich and poor widened each year. New villages continually emerged, especially near the docks, but even though Londoners found work in the city's busy port, wages were not high enough to adequately provide for workers. The extreme stratification of the English urban centers was studied by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Together, they wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848), and Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), in which he describes graphically the living conditions in the center of London and Manchester and how these contrast with the wealthy residences on the outskirts. Together, they outlined the causes, effects, and political solutions to the problem of poverty which became the inspiration for the communist revolutions of the twentieth century.
Benthamism, also known as utilitarianism, became an important ideology in Victorian society, especially among the middle class. The term was associated with a philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), explained in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which was widely accepted among the Victorian middle class, affecting their habits and beliefs. By the 1820s, the philosophy gained a number of disciples who promoted Bentham's theories in debates. Supporters gained political power in the 1830s when approximately one hundred were elected to the first reform-focused Parliament in England.
At the core of this philosophy was the belief in "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," a phrase borrowed from Joseph Priestley, a late eighteenth-century Unitarian theologian, which appeared in Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick explains:
utilitarianism was … wholly hedonistic; it made no allowance for the promptings of conscience, or for … the forces of generosity, mercy, compassion, selfsacrifice, love. Benthamite ethics had nothing to do with Christian morality.
Compare & Contrast
1850s: The lower classes crowded into English urban centers and working without any labor restrictions on their behalf are pessimistic about ever rising out of poverty. No social services are available to help them.
Today: England has social programs such as national health insurance and subsidized housing that help improve the lives of those in the lower class.
1850s: Voices emerge in protest against conditions for the working class, after a huge Chartist demonstration in 1848 in London. Protestors presented a petition for working-class rights to Parliament containing over two million signatures.
Today: Protests in England during the beginning of the twenty-first century center on the war in Iraq, including anti-war marches and a movement to oust Prime Minister Tony Blair from the Labour Party for his alliance with and support of President Bush's handling of the war.
1850s: This period is the height of Victorianism in England, characterized by a devotion to strict codes among the middle and upper classes even regarding vocabulary. For example, it is considered improper to use the word, leg, in mixed company. The word, limb, is the preferred term.
Today: Various languages, including different dialects of English, are spoken in England, from "posh," which identifies the speaker as part of the upper classes, to regional dialects, to Punjabi, the predominant language of Pakistanis, who make up a large portion of England's immigrant population. Slang and profanity are an accepted part of the English language as it is used on the streets.
At the heart of this belief was the supposition that self-interest should be one's primary concern and that happiness could be attained by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, qualities that emerge in James Steerforth's character.
Another important middle-class movement in the nineteenth century was evangelicalism, a form of Protestant pietism. Evangelicalism focused less on doctrine and more on the day-to-day lives and eventual salvation of its followers. It set rigid patterns of conduct for its practitioners to follow in order that they might find atonement for their sins. Altick notes that "the Evangelical's anxious eye was forever fixed upon the ‘eternal microscope’ which searched for every moral blemish and reported every motion of the soul." Edward Murdstone and his sister's treatment of David provides good examples of this type of rigid, moralistic code.
Both utilitarian and evangelical movements, however, are also noted for their involvement in humanitarian activities during the Victorian period and especially for their calls for social reforms. Benthamites supported universal suffrage and education while the evangelicals successfully fought for amelioration of brutal prison conditions.
A Victorian Woman's Place
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women (like men) were confined to the classes in which they were born, unless their fathers or husbands moved up or down in the social hierarchy. The strict rules for each social class defined women and determined their lives. Women in the upper classes had the leisure to become educated; however, like their counterparts in the lower classes, upper-class women were not expected to think for themselves and were not often listened to when they did. Urges for independence and self-determination were suppressed in women from all classes. The strict social morality of the period demanded that middle-class women and those in classes above exhibit the standards of polite femininity, culminating in the ideals of marriage and motherhood. David Copperfield both reenforces (David's mother, Dora) and challenges (Betsey Trotwood) the period's attitudes toward women. Most female characters, however, operate within the confines of the middle class. Miss Trotwood's quick mind and independent spirit is tolerated because she is considered eccentric and is a widow.
Realism as a movement first appeared in Paris in the early 1800s as an effort to insure that art would not merely imitate life but would instead be an exact representation of it. In this sense, realistic works could be considered the literature of truth. Realism became a popular form of painting, for example in works by Gustave Courbet, and some literature in the mid-nineteenth century, for example in the novels of Gustave Flaubert. Novelists in this movement turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected idealism and the celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic social interactions.
In order to accomplish this goal, realist novels focus on the commonplace and eliminate the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism characteristic of romanticism. Novelists such as Thomas Hardy discarded traditional sentimental elements as they chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult personal and social problems. Writers who embraced realism use setting and plot details that reflect their characters' daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates as far as possible the natural speech patterns of individuals in various classes.
One realistic part of David Copperfield is Dickens's portrait of the harsh conditions in London among the lower classes. Dickens was one of the first to chronicle in his fiction the monotonous, harsh, and sordid life of this group of people. Some scholars, however, determine that the endings of his novels, including the ending of David Copperfield, follow the romantic tradition.
Charles Dickens is considered one of the great Victorian novelists, a reputation that was established soon after his novels began to be published. His first book, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), written when he was in his early twenties, became an immediate success in Britain and the United States. Soon after his death, scholars downplayed his literary significance, a pattern that continued for the next few decades. Yet in the 1950s, his reputation regained its status to the point that by the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, no other English author except Shakespeare had merited as much critical attention.
In his Irish Essays, Matthew Arnold, a contemporary of Dickens, comments on the experience of writing the review of the novel: "what a pleasure to have the opportunity of praising a work so sound, a work so rich in merit, as David Copperfield."
He finds "treasures of gaiety, invention, life" and "alertness and resource," in this "charming and instructive book." Arnold insists that "a soul of good nature and kindness govern[s] the whole!"
In his 1948 article, "The Art of ‘The Crowded Novel,’" E. K. Brown praises "the beauty of [the novel's] structure," finding "the device of contrast … admirably used in the plot." Brown explores "the subtlety with which Dickens renders the settings," giving as an example Dickens's reference to Aladdin's palace as a metaphor for Mr. Peggotty's boat: "Dickens renders perfectly not only the intimacy of the family with the sea … but what is more important to the idea of the novel, … the fairy-tale security and happiness of the family's life." In a discussion of the novel's complexity, he finds it "admirable" that such a "densely crowded" novel is "never confused" and points out how all the narrative elements come together to form the book's main ideas. Citing its universality, Brown claims, "the imagined group of characters … and the conflicts among them, after the lapse of almost a century, still seem so much a part of the streaming course of human life." Monroe Engel in his 1959 book The Maturity of Dickens agrees; he states that "David Copperfield has captured the imagination of readers for a century."
Bert G. Hornback in his 1968 essay on the novel echoes this sentiment in his conclusion: this is "Dickens's most ambitious undertaking; it is also his most complete, most satisfying, and most fully satisfactory achievement. To borrow a phrase from the text, if Agnes could do without it, we certainly could not."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she focuses on the darker characters in the novel and their effect on David Copperfield.
Several of the characters in David Copperfield, like Mr. Macawber and Peggotty, are so memorable because they are lovable and warm-hearted, offering support and comfort as they help David in his journey to adulthood. They also are valuable to him as they help counter the effects of the darker characters in the novel. Dickens provides a rather pessimistic view of human nature in his depiction of Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Creakle, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep, who impede David's journey to selfhood and expose him to a world of cruelty and corruption. In his portrayal of these four men, Dickens explores how character can be negatively shaped through experience, especially when restrictive social mores and unregulated social institutions are part of that experience.
David's idyllic childhood ends when his mother marries Mr. Murdstone, which introduces David to the very worst in human nature. Dickens never provides any background information about Murdstone or about Creakle that might provide clues to the formation of their characters as he does with Steerforth and Heep. Thus, he suggests, the first two men are inherently evil through some defect in their character. This defect has a devastating effect on David.
Murdstone is a controlling, brutal man who David notes, "ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog." Murdstone initially tries to hide his true self when he insists to David that he wants to be "best friends in the world" in order to persuade Clara to think that he will be a good father. But even though David has never come into contact with such evil before, he is an observant child and so is suspicious of this man who has "an eye that has no depth in it to be looked into." David understands that a kind word would have made him respect Murdstone, but his stepfather only offers platitudes before he marries Clara and gains control of the household.
Besides causing him to live in constant fear of being verbally and physically abused, Murdstone, along with his sister, denies David his childhood, first by not allowing him any free time to play at his home and then by forcing him into servitude in the London warehouse. David becomes "sullen, dull, and dogged" under Murdstone's tyranny. He escapes only through the adventure books his father left him that, he claims, "kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time."
Murdstone unleashes his cruelty on David's mother as well, taking advantage of Clara's pliant nature in order to control David and the household. He admits that his goal is to form Clara's character, along with David's. When she does not conform to his demands, he threatens to stop loving her, knowing that she could not bear this. He is unconcerned that pushing her to separate herself from her son breaks her heart along with her spirit, which leads to an early death.
Murdstone forces David to encounter another person who is as evil as he is when he sends him to boarding school. Mr. Creakle, who runs Salem House, enjoys the power he has over the boys as Murdstone enjoyed the power he had over Clara and David. Creakle gloats to David, "when I say I'll do a thing, I do it, … and when I say I will have a thing done, I will have it done." His nature is as cruel as Murdstone's. David notes that "he had a delight in cutting at the boys, which was like the satisfaction of a craving appetite." Creakle compounds David's misery until he is able to establish a sense of community with the other boys at school.
The most popular boy in that community is James Steerforth, who decides that he will accept David as a friend. Steerforth, along with Uriah Heep, are more complex characters than Murdstone and Creakle, representing Dickens's belief that environment also has a profound effect on character and that a dark nature can emerge regardless of which class has nurtured it.
Steerforth is the most charming boy at school, a quality that he retains throughout his life. David notices Steerforth because of his attractiveness and bearing, but his loyalty to his new friend is forged when Steerforth is sympathetic to David's having to wear the "I bite" sign around school. He appears just as charming when David introduces him to the Peggottys and easily makes Em'ly fall in love with him.
Steerforth's true character, however, emerges soon after he and David become friends. David is thrilled to be so privileged as to be chosen to bunk next to Steerforth, not complaining when the older boy selfishly insists that he tell adventure stories long into the night, preventing him from getting much sleep. Steerforth's cruel streak appears during an altercation with Mr. Mell, one of the teachers at Salem House. Refusing to follow Mr. Mell's direction, the arrogant Steerforth reveals his class bigotry as well as his lack of compassion when he refuses to recognize Mr. Mell as a gentleman and calls attention to the impoverished condition of his mother, which eventually gets Mr. Mell dismissed from his position at the school. David is too blinded by his devotion to Steerforth to recognize the boy's cruel treatment of Mr. Mell, but Traddles notices it and declares, "Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!"
Steerforth's bigotry emerges in his response to the Peggottys, even after he spends many evenings with them, enjoying their company. He later refers to them disparagingly as "that sort of people" and claims, "there's a pretty wide separation between them and us.… They have not very fine natures." David's lack of maturity and continued innocence cause him to assume that Steerford's words were spoken merely in jest. David's lack of a clear sense of self prompts him to overlook Steerforth's condescension toward him as well. The older boy never treats David as his equal and takes to calling him "Daisy" in London because of his obvious innocence. Agnes clearly sees that David "has made a dangerous friend," but her dear friend is still too blinded by his trusting nature to accept her warning.
As his relationship with Em'ly develops, Steerforth does show signs of guilt but quickly blames his behavior on not having been raised by a father. He fails to note that David did not have a father either, except a very cruel one. But Dickens does suggest that Steerforth's environment shapes his character when he introduces his mother who cruelly dismisses Mr. Peggotty and his obvious distress over Em'ly's situation. She shows no concern for Em'ly, only for herself and her son, who she is sure will be ruined if he marries Em'ly.
Miss Dartle presents the most compelling evidence of Mrs. Steerforth's influence on her son's character when she attacks the elderly woman after Steerforth's death. She insists that Steerforth was ruined by his mother's "pampering of his pride and passion," declaring, "from his cradle [you] reared him to be what he was, and stunted what he should have been" by encouraging his arrogance and selfishness.
When Em'ly runs off with Steerforth, David is forced to recognize his friend's damaged nature. He understands that there is something wrong with Uriah, however, as soon as he meets him. In Uriah, Dickens has created a true grotesque, whose appearance and mannerisms become an outward expression of the evil within. Initially, David tries not to judge him by his "cadaverous face" or the "snaky twistings of his throat and body," which occur "when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly." Yet Dickens turns Uriah's evil into a supernatural force that cannot be overlooked: When David first meets Uriah, he sees the boy blowing into a horse's nostrils, "as if he were putting some spell upon him."
Uriah has learned to hide his true self through a veneer of "umbleness," which, he insists, defines him and his mother. He is able to manipulate others, especially Mr. Wickfield, through careful study of their weaknesses and by pretending that he would never assume to try to move above his class, maneuvers designed to gain their trust. His subtle watchfulness even works on David, who distrusts him immediately but does not initially realize that Uriah is taking advantage of David's "juvenile frankness."
When his true character emerges after Traddles exposes his criminal activities, Uriah reveals that, as was the case with Steerforth, his experiences have shaped him. In Uriah's case, the social system that created rigid rules making it almost impossible to move above one's class taught him how to gain power over people and so take the revenge that the system fostered within his heart. Uriah explains that he and his family were taught "a deal of umbleness" and were forced "to be umble to this person, and umble to that … and always to know our place and abase ourselves before our betters." His father reinforced this behavior, thinking that it was the best way for his son to "get on." Uriah admits that this training enabled him to gain a measure of power: "I got to know what umbleness did and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite." After this admission, David acknowledges, "I had never doubted his meanness, his craft and malice; but I fully comprehended now … what a base, unrelenting and revengeful spirit, must have been engendered by this early, and this long, suppression."
Dickens's pessimistic view of human nature, as evidenced by the cruel actions of these four characters who have such a profound effect on David's life, is tempered by the goodness and compassion of his friends and family, who are often able to repair the damage that these four have accomplished. The novel also provides a forum for Dickens's views of the inherent nature of evil as well as a critique of a society that enables and shapes this darker side of humanity.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on David Copperfield, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Spilka explores and compares psychological projection in David Copperfield and Franz Kafka's work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Dickens's Great Expectations (1860-1861) focuses on the coming of age of Pip, an orphan who must face the harsh realities of life in Victorian England. The novel is available from Random House (2006).
- A remarkable form of social protest is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729), which suggests an outrageous solution to the famine in Ireland: babies should be eaten. This essay, along with other short works by Swift, is available in A Modest Proposal and Other Prose, from Barnes and Noble (2004).
- Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist, the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth- Century England (1993) examines the public and private world of the Victorians, including their customs, rituals, occupations, and living conditions.
- Sally Mitchell's Daily Life in Victorian England (1996) focuses on a variety of lifestyles during this period from country gentry to urban slum dwellers.
When we speak of psychological fiction, we generally mean the use of probing methods, like introspection or analysis; or we mean enveloping techniques, like point of view and stream of consciousness, which simulate the flow of inner conflict. But there is another kind of fiction, the projective novel, in which surface life reflects the inner self. David Copperfield belongs to that tradition. As the hero views the world, his feelings fuse with outward action, and his selection of events advances inward meaning. Franz Kafka saw this when he called Amerika his ‘Dickens novel’ in method and detail. By ‘method’ he apparently meant the dream-effects in Copperfield: the infantile perspective on a world controlled by elders, and the hero's progress through that world toward ultimate redemption. As Kafka knew, the childlike view connects unconscious tensions with the conscious scene. Because the child lacks self-awareness, and because he fails to understand his elders, his bafflement aligns two realms of feeling; and in a world of harsh repression, his need for inner growth becomes directive and informing. In his early fiction, Kafka borrowed about six stages of that growth from Copperfield, plus two regressions. These ‘imitations’ alone suggest a formal sequence for the novel; but keeping them in reserve, consider simply the method which he so admired, especially as it strengthens early chapters.
In Kafka, inner states are projected through fantastic situations, then treated in precise detail; in Dickens, outer scences are real, but are made to seem fantastic through projected feelings: in either case, the effect is of a surface charged with baffling implications. For Dickens, the creation of that surface came naturally, as part of his attempt to master childhood pain. In Copperfield he had summoned up the most anguished memories of youth: his wretched job in a blacking warehouse, his rejection by Maria Beadnell, and his earlier defeat within the home. With an artist's instinct, he had given form and texture to those episodes; and with genial and expansive humour, he had eased their pain and enlarged their meaning. Thus David's birth is to a world informed by sexual conflict— as heralded by his strident aunt, Miss Trotwood. Since her marriage to a younger man has ended badly, she has renounced the male sex and has even trained her maids to follow suit. Now she wants to train the approaching child, whose sex must be feminine and whose name must be her own: "There must be no mistakes in life and with this Betsey Trotwood. There must be no trifling with her affections". But the babe's name is David, a mistake which makes her vanish "like one of those supernatural beings" whom the boy is privileged to see by virtue of his birth on Friday midnight. From this renouncing spirit, he does see that marriage seldom works, and that the trouble seems to begin with sex in children; but her ghosthood is his own invention, and its comic form, his reaction to impending pain.
In Chapter 2 the pain begins. His first memories are of his mother and nurse Peggotty, as loving protectors. A fierce cock makes him shiver, and he dreams at night of geese with stretching necks, as a man might dream of threatening lions. There are two parlours in the house: in one he sits with Peggotty and his mother, in complete security; in the other he feels doleful, for Peggotty has told him of his father's funeral there. When his mother reads to them, in the second parlour, "how Lazarus was raised up from the dead", the boy becomes frightened; they are forced to quiet him, that night, by showing him the churchyard from his window, "with the dead all lying in their graves at rest, below the solemn moon". His father lies in one of those graves, and David fears his resurrection. Another night he suddenly asks about marriage: "if you marry a person, and the person dies, why then you may marry another person, mayn't you, Peggotty?" He is worried about the man who walks his mother home from church. When she returns that night, the man is with her, and the boy is jealous of his touch. His name is Murdstone, which David's aunt compares with Murderer, to fit his surface rôle; but Murdstone also means the murdered man beneath his gravestone, who has risen now to assert his rights—and Dickens makes the tie with conscious skill. One day the boy agrees to a ride with Murdstone. Seated before him on his horse, he looks up at his face and thinks him handsome, especially in his mother's eyes. Then they come to the hotel where Murdstone's friends are waiting:
They both rolled on to their feet, in an untidy sort of manner, when we came in, and said, "Halloa, Murdstone! We thought you were dead!"
"Not yet," siad Mr. Murdstone.
"And who's this shaver?" said one of the gentlemen, taking hold of me.
"That's Davy", returned Mr. Murdstone.…
"What! Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield's incumbrance?" cried the gentleman. "The pretty little widow?"
"Quinion", said Mr. Murdstone, "take care, if you please. Somebody's sharp".
"Who is?" asked the gentleman, laughing.…
"Only Brooks of Sheffield", said Mr. Murdstone.
I was quite relieved to find that it was only Brooks of Sheffield, for, at first, I really thought it was I.…
"And what is the opinion of Brooks of Sheffield, in reference to the projected business?"
"Why, I don't know that Brooks understands much about it at present", replied Mr. Murdstone; "but he is not generally favourable, I believe."
There was more laughter at this, and Mr. Quinion said he would ring the bell for some sherry in which to drink to Brooks. This he did; and when the wine came, he made me have a little, with a biscuit, and, before I drank it, stand up and say, "Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!" The toast was received with great applause, and such hearty laughter that it made me laugh too; at which they laughed the more. In short, we quite enjoyed ourselves.
David is indeed confused by Murdstone's friends. That night he tells his mother of their talk, which pleases her immensely. Later, kneeling playfully by his bed, she makes him repeat their words, "Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield" and "pretty little widow". Again she responds with pleasure, and though she kisses him repeatedly, the scene conveys his bafflement at powers which keep her out of range, in areas where Murdstone is decidedly ‘not dead’.
The next memory is of a trip to Yarmouth, arranged with special mystery. He meets Peggotty's family there, and the comedy turns on Mrs. Gummidge, the "lone lorn creetur" who exploits her husband's death for sympathy. With the orphan, little Em'ly, David soon achieves the security of childhood love, with no "provision for growing older", and with greater purity and disinterestedness "than can enter into the best love of a later time of life." His ideal, then, is sexless love with Em'ly or his mother; he even indicates that Em'ly should have toppled into the sea one day, and joined her father beneath the waves, to avoid her sinful future. Thus Yarmouth scenes advance the major conflict: beneath the peaceful surface and light comedy, pain and loss continue, and on the return trip home, they erupt with sudden force. His nurse becomes so ill at ease, on nearing home, that David calls in fear for his mother. He believes she too is dead, but Peggotty cries No! and tries to explain her agitation:
"Master Davy", said Peggotty, untying her bonnet with a shaking hand, and speaking in a breathless sort of way. "What do you think? You have got a Pa!"
I trembled, and turned white. Something—I don't know what or how—connected with the grave in the churchyard, and the raising of the dead, seemed to strike me like an unwholesome wind.
"A new one", said Peggotty.
"A new one?" I repeated.
Peggotty gave a gasp, as if she were swallowing something that was very hard, and putting out her hand, said:
"Come and see him".
"I don't want to see him".
The shock jars loose his graveyard fears. He now shakes hands with Lazarus and greets his mother, but he cannot face them. The house seems altered. Later, when he roams into the yard, his feelings suffer full projection: "I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog—deep-mounthed and black-browed like Him—and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get me".
This is brilliant psychological fiction. Murdstone has become the risen and revengeful father; his powers involve the mysteries of sex, and somehow pull the mother out of range. In the meantime, the boy's hostility and fear suffuse the outward scene. The projective artistry is unmatched, and most of it seems conscious; in Chapter IV, moreover, it comes to full dramatic focus in a scene which Kafka found intriguing. Kept uninformed by nurse and mother, David has suffered deeply from the news of marriage. The shock might have been lessened, if Murdstone had responded with encouragement. Instead he offers ‘firmness’ and distrust. Idyllic spelling lessons, once directed by the mother, become drudgery under Murdstone and his sister. David stumbles in their presence, and when Murdstone brings cane to help his memory, the boy goes blank. In the struggle which follows, he bites the hand which touched his mother; he is beaten then with a vengeance and locked inside his room, where he rages helplessly upon the floor. Outside the wild household commotion is stilled. In the unnatural quiet, David crawls to the mirror and sees his face in the glass, "so swollen, red, and ugly that it almost frightened me. My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been the most atrocious criminal".
This spectacle of a son locked in his room, shut off from his mother, and guilty of a crime against the father, appealed to Kafka; he used it in The Metamorphosis for his central situation, reshaping it to suit his needs—as the events themselves attest. Thus David lies by the window now, his head upon the sill, when Miss Murdstone brings in "bread and meat and milk". She glares at him with exemplary firmness, then locks him in again. His imprisonment lasts five days, which "occupy the place of years" in his remembrance. He listens to the household sounds of day, confuses time at night, and feels weighed down on awakening "by the stale and dismal oppression of remembrance". He is ashamed to show himself at the window, lest the boys outside should see him. During evening prayers he is allowed to stand alone, near the parlour doors, and look out on the averted faces of the family. On the last night of his restraint, he hears his name repeated in a whisper. The voice is Peggotty's; it reaches him through the keyhole, to which he puts his own lips in response, so that a mouth-to-ear communication begins on David's future (at one point, mouth-to-mouth). Then both fall to kissing and patting the keyhole, and David feels within him an indefinable love for Peggotty. She has reached him, he asserts, with "as much feeling and earnestness as a keyhole has ever been the medium of communicating". Kafka seems to challenge his assumption with key-manipulations by his giant insect, whose shape derives from Dostoevsky, but whose crime and punishment begin with Dickens. The strange ordeal of Gregor Samsa, an older and certainly a more regressive outcast, repeats the intensities of guilt, exclusion and frustration which Daivd undergoes; and the comparison affirms the unexpected depth of Dickens' ‘method’.
After shock, whipping and exclusion, some kind of psychic damage seems inevitable, and the next ten chapters show its form. At Salem House, an older student, Steerforth, becomes the boy's protector. David loves and admires him, and serves him by reciting stories, "like the Sultana Scheherezade". Steerforth seems to like this girlish adoration. "If you had a sister", he tells him, "I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her". David's only ‘sister’, at this stage, is Em'ly; he will later bring these two together, and speak of his ‘unconscious part’ in their elopement. At the moment her budding womanhood disturbs him, and he is afraid to mention her. Steerforth's manhood is another matter; he admires him for his poise and charm, for powers which conquer elders. When Steerforth badgers Mr. Mell, the master (Creakle) promptly fires his helper—and David cheers his hero. In Kafka's novel, Amerika, Steerforth's counterpart is Mr. Mack, a sophisticated, patronizing figure who attracts and baffles young Karl Rossmann. Karl's attraction is an adolescent crush, like David's, but the sexual note has been enhanced by "sharper lights … from the times", which show Mack in collusion with his elders. Still, the lights in Copperfield seem sharp enough: Steerforth later joins the fathers, as sadist and destroyer, and is now an adolescent sultan.
From Steerforth David seeks vicarious confidence, knowledge and seductive power; in the future, he will even blind himself to get them. But the projective paths to mother-love are varied. On his return from school, for instance, his route is more direct. Hearing his mother sing in the parlour, he remembers how she sang to him in infancy. When he finds her there with Murdstone's baby, she puts his head upon her bosom, "near the little creature that was nestling there", and David longs for blissful death. He identifies himself with Murdstone's child, and with nurse and mother beside him, it seems "as if the old days were come back". Then the Murdstones return and break the spell. When he leaves for school again, his mother stands at the gate alone, holding the babe before her; and afterwards, in his sleep at Salem House, he sees her near his bed, "looking at [him] with the same intent face—holding up her baby in her arms". Her gesture seems to affirm his infant love, to fix it permanently in his mind. Thus, when mother and baby die, he remembers only "the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour.… The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom". In harsher terms, David has just appeased his guilt.
His projections take a comic turn with Barkis, the laconic carrier, who wants to marry Peggotty. When the boy first goes to school, Barkis waits in silence as the nurse embraces David and loads him down with pastry. Her buttons pop with every squeeze, and she leaves "without a solitary button on her gown"; but Barkis, like a grownup child, is more concerned with cakes than sex. They have roused his marital appetite, and with David as protective agent, he can risk the cryptic message: "Barkis is willing". So too is David willing. In a later chapter, he waits outside with Em'ly, in vicarious embrace, while Barkis and the nurse are married. He dreams that night about dragons, and wakens, in the morning, with Peggotty calling from below, as if Barkis were a dream "from first to last". Such proxy dealings might have appealed to Kafka. In "Wedding Preparations in the Country", young Eduard Raban wants to send his body ahead to meet his country sweetheart; in the meantime, he will rest in bed, as he had always done in childhood "in matters that were dangerous". Barkis too avoids the risks of courtship, like a frightened child; he also clings to boxes with the insecurity of Raban and Karl Rossmann, who seem to seek emotional support from baggage. Of course, he acts from slighter motives; but in marrying David's nurse, and in clinging to internal burdens, he reveals the boy's vicarious urges. In this sense, his death resembles that of Murdstone's child: it fixes David's attitude toward his nurse, just as Steerforth's death will fix his love for Em'ly. In each case, these characters die in their own right; but some of David's guilt dies with them, since they have allowed him to ‘possess’ his mother, nurse and 'sister'—all objects of the sexless love of childhood, with its hidden sexual base. Thus, as Barkis dies, he rests mutely on his box, which gives his form its only meaning; but at the last his mind begins to wander, as if under "the mysterious influence" of David's presence: he talks of driving him to school, and then speaks his comic phrase, "Barkis is willin' ", which carries hidden weight.
During the early phase, emotional growth is blocked by further punishment. At Salem House, David is forced to wear the placard, "Take care of him. He bites", and the master whips him freshly for his crime. Mr. Creakle is another Murdstone: he turns his son out for protesting cruelty in the school and "usage of his mother". He prides himself on firmness, tweaks ears to make his point, and bursts from his chair like Murdstone's dog. With the zest of a "craving appetite", he delights in beating chubby boys like David. In London, David later works for Quinion, the manager of Murdstone's warehouse, who still refers to him as ‘Brooks’ and jokes about his sharpness. Through Creakle and Quinion, then, the father's power extends to realms beyond the home. This principle must have excited Kafka. In Amerika he joins David's ‘menial labour’ with his life at school, to create "The Hotel Occidental". Here Rossmann works for harsh parental figures, and sleeps in a dorm with other liftboys. His ultimate dismissal resembles Mr. Mell's: for, in line with Dickens, the social scene repeats the indignities of childhood; the world belongs to fathers, and each phase of youth is an attempt to get beyond them.
This section of the novel ends with David's flight to Dover, a flight which seems to summarize his past. His trunk is stolen by a youth who calls him a "pollis case" and threatens to expose him; he sleeps behind his school and dreams of Steerforth; an old-clothes dealer seizes him, with wild "goroos", like Creakle gone berserk; and a tinker steals his kerchief, then beats a kindly wife, as if the world were full of Murdstones. Throughout the journey, he keeps before him an image of his mother "in her youth and beauty"; but when he reaches Dover, where he hopes to find security with his aunt, the image disappears. In Amerika Karl Rossmann has troubles with his box, and with two unruly mechanics, on the road to Rameses. According to one critic, "Karl's inner world determines the character of his experiences", while David's world is "full of things and persons … essentially separate from his inward self, only temporarily and accidentally related to it". Kafka's ‘imitation’ tells us otherwise: to integrate this journey, he drew from Dickens "the story of the trunk" (involving David's fear of further confinement), the clothes-exchange (involving bestial treatment), a schoolroom scene (suggesting Creakle and Steerforth), the stolen kerchief (involving Murdstone and Clara), and the image of the mother (involving infancy), which disappears with an older woman's kindness (suggesting inner peace). In other words, he followed Dickens' scheme of psychic integration, which is neither accidental nor temporary, but part of the sustained method from which these fourteen chapters draw direction, power, depth and meaning: the method, in short, which yields a truly brilliant stretch of psychological fiction.
Admittedly, the stretch abruptly ends with David's "new beginning"—and for the next five chapters, the novel seems to flounder. In his diaries, Kafka writes of "passages of awful insipidity" in which Dickens wearily repeats achieved effects; he speaks of "heartlessness" behind his sentimental style, and of rude characterizations which obstruct the story. The indictment is severe, but such chapters seem to confirm it. Thin characters like Mr. Dick and Dr. Strong, whose childlike traits are overpraised, suggest a form of fake emotion; and the repetitious effects are surely there. It seems more pertinent, however, that Dickens loses power when the projective method stops: for in these five chapters David reaches psychic rest; his inner troubles cease, and his connections with the outward scene are casual; at best, they extend the breadth of the novel, as he puzzles over the marriage of an old man and a young woman, a father's too-intense devotion to his daughter, a scapegrace husband, and a badly treated sister. These problems are thematic, but they leave him unengaged, and the novel seems impeded by their weight. Still, the expansive quality of David's style, his use of double perspective to forgive as parent while he errs as child, allows for excess baggage. Light comedy is in order: there is room for the Micawbers' economic dance, and for gargoyles like Uriah Heep. The trouble is, the comedy thrives upon the original psychic thrust, and Dickens' readers often miss the force behind it. One critic says the story happens around the hero, not within him. But the projective method shows otherwise: it provides the novel with its basic strength, and sustains even the excess baggage—apt, crude, fresh, insipid—if only by extended force.
Plainly the major plots relate to David's inner life. With Steerforth, for instance, he is again obsessed with self-distrust. Before their reunion, he is forced to yield his coach-seat to an older gentleman;
he passes by the lane where the ‘goroo’ man seized him; he passes Salem House, where Creakle "laid about him with a heavy hand". As on his first trip to school, a waiter treats him poorly. But with Steerforth's appearance, the waiter knows his place. The hero has returned in all his glory: hence David's shame at being beardless, his rechristening as ‘Daisy’, and his regressions with the servant Littimer, who makes him feel "about eight years old". At Steerforth's home, these hints are clarified through Rosa Dartle, whose scarred lip signals rage, and whose rage is based on sheer frustration. Brought up with Steerforth, and jealously in love with him, she bears the hammermark of his rejection. Once she strikes him, "with the fury of a wildcat", when he coaxes her to play the harp, then taunts her with the hope of future love. Her scar pursues David to his bed, now, and even invades his dreams, though he tries to escape it. Kafka's wildcat in Amerika is the amorous Clara Pollunder, who pursues Karl Rossmann to his bedroom, throws him down on the sofa, and nearly chokes him. Karl even calls her a wildcat, in his rage and shame. Later he plays the piano, when suddenly Mr. Mack cajoles him from a nearby room, where he waits for Clara in his nightshirt. Like David, Karl is immersed in sexual ambiguity and violence, which fascinate and repel him—and highlight his incompetence. For David too is sexually inadequate: repelled by violence, and blinded by vicarious desire, he can only follow Steerforth to the shoreline at Yarmouth, where he links his childhood love for Em'ly with the hero's death. His long pursuit may run to melodramatic claptrap; but projection lends it strength and point.
Indulgent humour marks the Dora plot. Through the double perspective, David's folly is accepted and forgiven. The doll-like Dora, the child-wife of the nineteenth century, is taken as a delightful hoax, a toy which breaks with possession, a sweet impossibility; and David's love is called "the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart". But again the plot goes deeper. As critics often note, the girl resembles David's mother; her father, David's employer, is a businessman like Murdstone; and her paid companion is Miss Murdstone—as if Dickens had deliberately regrouped his early cast. In courting Dora, then, David reenacts the terms of childhood tension. When Miss Murdstone intercepts his letters, she shows them to the employer-father. As with the early spelling lessons, these figures disapprove of David's words and cut him off from his beloved. By David's own confession: "Miss Murdstone … looked so exactly as she used to look … in our parlour at Blunderstone, that I could have fancied I had been breaking down in my spelling lessons again, and that the dead weight on my mind was that horrible old spelling-book with oval woodcuts". Here Dora joins the mother, nurse and sister as objects of forbidden love. David's folly, his blindness to her incompetence, begins with spelling lessons at Blunderstone, and ends with a disastrous marriage and another death. Kafka seems to have caught these implications. In Amerika Rossmann travels with a businessman, Mr. Pollunder, to meet his daughter Clara. Clara herself resembles Rosa Dartle; but her sexual charade with Karl compares with David's country courtship. In each case, commercial bondage is expressed through sexual means; the fathers' powers have interfused, and the sons remain in double servitude.
In Amerika this theme extends to a later chapter, where Karl is trapped in an apartment drawn from Dickens' tenements. In the closing scene, however, he seems to find an escape from childhood. At the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, he is accepted without question, just as David is received by Agnes Wickfield. Both endings seem unreal, and Kafka himself complains of Dickens' formal ‘senselessness’. But his borrowed scenes belie him: they reveal projective loves and deaths which unify the novel and insure its progress. From his mother's death, through those of Barkis, Steerforth and Dora, David moves steadily away from childhood loves; and seems to reach maturity with Agnes. Dickens' authority here is weak, but so is Kafka's, in Amerika, when Rossmann seems to near adulthood. Significantly, both authors move toward darker novels. Pip, Richard Carstone and Arthur Clennam, Joseph K. and K., are older Karls and Davids whom the world imprisons. Here Dickens joins with other pioneer novelists, like Stendhal and Dostoevsky, for whom moral and spiritual maturity seem thwarted by the world's deficient fathers. One psychological critic undercuts this kinship; he holds that Copperfield "is never a hero of a modern novel, never a Raskolnikov, nor a … Julien Sorel". But as Kafka shows, David is another kind of modern hero—an Eduard Raban or Karl Rossmann, a younger Gregor Samsa; and Dickens' novel is one of our first and best examples of projective fiction. The wealth of comic action, the nostalgic tone, the author's great humour, have made the novel unpopular; but like David's progress, they all relate to childhood anguish and help to ease its pain.
Source: Mark Spilka, "David Copperfield as Psychological Fiction," in "David Copperfield": A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome Hamilton Buckley, W. W. Norton, 1990, pp. 817-26.
Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, Norton, 1973, pp. 117, 166.
Arnold, Matthew, "Mr. Creakle and the Irish," in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, pp. 783, 784, 785; originally published in Irish Essays, Smith Elder, 1882.
Bloom, Harold, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Warner Books, 2002, pp. 776, 777.
Brown, E. K., "The Art of ‘The Crowded Novel,’" in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, pp. 790, 791, 792, 793, 794; originally published in Yale Review, N.S. 37, 1948.
Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1990.
Engel, Monroe, "The Theme of David Copperfield," in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, p. 808; originally published in The Maturity of Dickens, Harvard University Press, 1959.
Hornback, Bert G., "David's Vocation as Novelist: Frustration and Resolution in David Copperfield," in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, p. 836; originally published in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 8, 1968.
Kaplan, Fred, Dickens: A Biography, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
This highly praised biography examines the relationships between Dickens's personal life and his art, especially the experiences of his youth. Kaplan also focuses on Dickens's view of himself and how he was seen by others as an artist and social reformer.
Myers, Margaret, "The Lost Self: Gender in David Copperfield," in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986, pp. 120-32.
In this essay, Myers claims that David is able to establish a firm sense of self only after allowing the feminine to integrate with the masculine in his personality.
Needham, Gwendolyn B., "The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, September 1954, pp. 81-107.
Needham explores the emotional development of David's character and its relationship to the novel's theme and structure.
Stone, Harry, "Fairy Tales and Ogres: Dickens' Imagination and David Copperfield," in Criticism, Vol. 6, 1954, pp. 324-30.
Stone examines Dickens's imaginative use of fairy tales in the novel, including the development of Betsey Trotwood's character in the clothes shop scene, highlighting the complexity of David's responses to his experiences.