David Copperfield

Charles John Huffam Dickens - Published 1850

The most popular Victorian author in Great Britain and the United States, Charles Dickens was both gifted humorist and critic of the social evils of his time. His characters are frequently eccentric, almost caricatures. They change very little or not at all in the course of the narrative, but they are nonetheless memorable. For example, Mr. Micawber is one of the outstanding characters in David Copperfield, and remains his improvident, amiable self all through the novel until he goes to Australia. Yet he is a comic character almost in the same league as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.
Dickens was born in 1812 at Landport, near Portsmouth, England, to John Dickens, a navy payclerk, and Catherine Dickens, nee Barrow. The family moved to London in 1815 and in 1817 to Chatham, where Dickens spent the happiest years of his childhood. Neither of his parents was particularly mature in financial matters, and after returning to London in 1822, the family became destitute. In 1824 John Dickens was thrown into the Marshalsea Prison for debt. During the previous year, Charles had been taken out of school and sent to work in Warren’s Blacking factory, a warehouse managed by a relative. This was the most traumatic event in Dickens’ young life. After his father’s release from prison, Dickens returned to school briefly but his formal education ended when he was fifteen. A succession of jobs followed including work as a solicitor’s clerk, as a shorthand reporter in the law courts, and as a parliamentary reporter. In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines that were collected to form his first book, Sketches by Boz. In 1836 began the serialization of Pickwick Papers, which became immensely popular. While Pickwick was still appearing, Dickens, as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, was contributing installments of Oliver Twist to the magazine. In April 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who between 1837 and 1852 bore him ten children. Serial publication suited Dickens’ temperament, and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1843-1844), and Barnaby Rudge (1841) all appeared in this format. A visit to America in 1842 resulted in American Notes (1843), and in a lengthy episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844). The first of the five “Christmas Books,” A Christmas Carol, appeared in 1843, and became the most important Christmas story in the English language. Dombey and Son was serialized in 1846-1848, followed in 1849-1850 by the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, Dickens’ “favorite child.” Then came Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-1857). Dickens also edited and contributed to the journals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870). He bought a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Rochester in 1856. He was separated from his wife in 1858. In 1859 his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities was published. Great Expectations (1860-1861) was his third book to use a first-person narrator, and both it and the historical novel were serialized in All the Year Round. Dickens’ last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, was published in 1864-1865. Edwin Drood was left unfinished at Dickens’ death on June 9, 1870.


David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, the story of the narrator’s life from early childhood to maturity. In it Copperfield describes the obstacles he overcame and the unhappy events he lived through before becoming a successful novelist in later years. The book is an expert blend of fiction and autobiography. While Dickens was not an orphan, he felt abandoned by his parents during the harsh experiences of his early years. David Copperfield’s father has died before his birth and his mother dies when he is twelve years old. David had led a happy life with his mother and the housekeeper Peggotty until his mother’s second marriage to Murdstone, who beats David severely and whose treatment breaks his mother’s spirit and finally causes her death. Before her death, Murdstone sends David to Salem House, a school presided over by a master as cruel as Murdstone himself. It is here, however, that David meets two lifelong friends, James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles. With his wife dead, Murdstone, who hates David, sends him to his business in London. He lodges with the amiable Micawber family. David runs away from the hated warehouse and becomes the ward of his great-aunt Betsy Trotwood, who sends him to school in Canterbury, a vast improvement over Salem House. Here he lodges with the Wickfields and is attracted to Agnes Wickfield, but dislikes Uriah Heep, her father’s obsequious clerk. He studies law under Mr. Spenlow and falls in love and marries his daughter Dora. Micawber and Traddles ultimately expose Uriah Heep as a thief, and the Micawber family immigrates to Australia. David himself eventually becomes a skilled journalist, but shortly after he finds success, his wife Dora dies. After a period of wandering, David begins his career as a popular novelist and marries Agnes.


David Copperfield begins in Blunderstone Rookery, a house in rural Suffolk. The rooks no longer nested on the property, but David’s father had liked the idea of living near a rookery. This home is an ideal setting in the years before his mother’s second marriage. After she marries Murdstone, it becomes a prison with Murdstone and his equally “firm” sister as keepers.

Before this second marriage David goes with his nurse, Peggotty, to her native region, the seacoast near Yarmouth. Yarmouth, Dickens told his friend, John Forster, was “the strangest place in the wide world.” It has miles of flat coast, an even sea, and marshes reaching toward the sea. Peggotty’s brother Dan’l lives in a small house that has a roof made from the bottom of a boat. Dickens had a lifelong fascination for the sea which figures prominently in several of his books, including Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. David and Em’ly spend many hours collecting seashells and stones along that coast. During the days he spends in Yarmouth he falls innocently in love with her. The sea dominates the lives of Dan’l and his fellow fishermen, and they believe that many of their deaths will take place as the tide ebbs. David pays several visits to Yarmouth as the novel continues.

En route to his first school, Salem House Academy, David sees London for the first time. He is awestruck, but his stay there is brief. Salem House is six miles outside the city at Blackheath. He becomes thoroughly acquainted with the capital less than two years later when employed at Murdstone and Grinby, where he washes and labels wine bottles. He comes to know the streets much more intimately. Later, having apprenticed himself to Mr. Spenlow in order to train as a proctor in the Commons and also as a parliamentary reporter, his knowledge of London is further increased. Dickens, thanks to similar experiences, knew London as few writers ever succeeded in doing. Even in his maturity, while working out his plots and characters, he would walk the streets late at night. The Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse is by the Thames, but the river becomes a setting of the novel only later when the prostitute Martha Endell is saved by David and Dan’l Peggotty from committing suicide in it.

Betsy Trotwood’s cottage where David finally finds refuge is near the sea in Dover, and the novel briefly becomes a picaresque story as David walks from London to his aunt’s home. He lives for a short time only with his aunt and her protégé Mr. Dick. Aunt Betsy soon arranges for David to attend school in Canterbury, the ancient cathedral city that is to the Anglican Church what Rome is to the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the primate of the Anglican Communion, and his seat is here. Dickens captures the atmosphere of the city with its serenity and medieval beauty. The bells of the cathedral ring constantly. Even the rooks walk about as if they are an important part of the scene, as important as the towers themselves. It is a city of gardens as well, such as the one where Dr. Strong, David’s headmaster in his second school, takes daily walks while planning his dictionary.

After his education is finished, David goes back to London to establish himself in a career. Visits to Yarmouth and Canterbury occur several more times and Dickens does a masterful job of describing the great storm at Yarmouth when both Ham Peggotty and James Steerforth perish. Tolstoy believed it to be one of the finest episodes in fiction. Dickens’ flair for drama is seen at its best here.

Mourning the loss of Dora and the death of his school friend, Steerforth, Copperfield wanders in Europe, finally staying for an extended period in the Lausanne region in Switzerland. Dickens had visited Lausanne with his family in 1846, and loved the quiet town and the majestic Alps that formed its background. Here Dickens’ literary alter ego comes to terms with his losses, finds peace, and returns to England to resume his life.


The title character in David Copperfield presents himself, his life, and the people and experiences who have helped shape his personality by reconstructing them from memory. Copperfield becomes a novelist, after following a career in journalism for a number of years. Henry James insisted that a novelist is someone who forgets nothing in his lifetime. From childhood onward his mind closely observes the world about him. Every child is a close observer, Dickens also insists. Feeling that he is a mature writer, Copperfield wishes to learn how he became the unique individual he knows himself to be. David’s first statement, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else these pages must show,” seems to indicate a certain modesty and is quite different than what one might expect for a story which contains a partial autobiography of Charles Dickens. Dickens has to be considered one of the most flamboyant of English writers, a man who loved theatrical performances which he often directed and in which he played leading roles.

Copperfield’s father died before his birth. He was quite content spending his early years with his mother and the family’s beloved housekeeper, Peggotty. He was the center of their lives, but this situation was not to last. Edward Murdstone, a character akin to the stereotypical Victorian villain, woos his mother. Dickens combined the works “murder” and “stone” to form the name, and Murdstone is murderous in his attitude toward the small boy and his overly pliant mother, Clara. Upon returning from his first visit to Peggotty’s home in Yarmouth, David learns of his mother’s marriage, and Murdstone immediately takes charge of the boy. He has the firmness of stone, and firmness is the quality he expects in the people around him. The relationship between children and parents is a theme in many of Dickens’ books. David and his mother are in the hands of a sadist, of two sadists because Murdstone’s sister, who is cast in the same mold as her brother, soon joins the family. David is soon informed that any resistance to his stepfather will lead to a beating. The threat is carried out a few days later when David is whipped within an inch of his life for being slow to learn his lessons. In the process he enrages Murdstone further by biting his tormentor’s hand.

The contrast between Peggotty’s kindly family and the Murdstones is striking. Dan’l Peggotty, the housekeeper’s brother, is kindliness personified. He has adopted a young niece, Em’ly, who is David’s age, and an older nephew, Ham, who like this uncle has become a fisherman. Dan’l is an ideal father. David loves the members of this family as he does their home, a home in the shape of a boat. Dickens had carefully studied a book on the Suffolk dialect to give the Peggotty’s authentic speech. David’s own home, Blunderstone Rookery, no longer has even a trace of the gaiety and laughter he finds in Yarmouth, and used to know before with his mother and Peggotty. A child is helpless when forced to deal with malignancy and evil.

Shortly after biting Murdstone’s hand, David is sent to a school, Salem House Academy, whose headmaster, Creakle, is not only sadistic but stupid as well. Incapable of either learning or teaching, all Creakle knows how to do is wield a cane at the slightest provocation. Since Creakle speaks only in hoarse whispers, his assistant, the one-legged Tungay, roars out the headmaster’s orders. Dickens shows his usual skill in creating a duo of grotesque monsters. Why such a pair should be running a school, and with such unmitigated brutality, a modern reader might wonder. But sadistic schoolmasters have been all too common in the history of education. Saint Augustine in his Confessions tells us the fear of being beaten was a threat he had to live with during his early schools days. Dickens used this theme in Nicholas Nickleby. His own education was all too sketchy, but education was a lifelong concern for him. Salem House does not really educate David or anyone else. Cowed with fear the students profit little from their lessons. David makes two friends: Tommy Traddles, a kindly, gentle boy who is one of Creakle’s favorite victims, and James Steerforth, a young aristocrat whose presence in the school is never explained. He befriends David, and is the only student who stands up to Creakle and Tungay. He also exploits Copperfield, spending the younger boy’s money, and even when David is tired, has him read stories aloud late into the night. Only much later does David realize why Steerforth asks him if he has a sister. David sees him as a truly superior being as noble as he is handsome. But he also watches as Steerforth destroys the career of an inoffensive teacher, Mr. Mell, by an arrogant charge against him made to Creakle.

David’s mother dies as a result of the tyranny of the Murdstones, and the new baby succumbs soon afterward. After the funeral, David does not return to Salem House. Murdstone sends him to London to work in his warehouse in the lowliest job available, washing and labeling bottles. He boards with the Micawber family, Wilkens and Emma Micawber, two of the novel’s most memorable characters. The firm of Murdstone and Grimby, and Copperfield’s work there, is based on the most humiliating experience in Dickens’ life, the several months he had spent at Warren’s Blacking factory, Hungerford Stairs, London. It was menial, monotonous work Dickens neither forgot nor forgave. His parents, deep in debt, could no longer afford to keep him in school. In David Copperfield, Dickens constructed the Micawbers from certain traits of their characters. Mr. Micawber, although shabbily dressed, always projects an air of gentility. His speech patterns are heavily loaded with Latinate terms and are said to reflect John Dickens’ manner of speech. Grandiloquent sentences are always followed by “in short” a translation into everyday English. He is always expecting “something to turn up,” but nothing does. His wife Emma never doubts that her husband has many talents, and she always insists “I will never desert Mr. Micawber.” Here is a typical bit of Mr. Micawber’s conversation: “It was at Canterbury where we last met. Within the shadow, I may figuratively say, of that religious edifice, immortalized by Chaucer, which was anciently the resort of pilgrims from the remotest corners of—in short,” said Mr. Micawber, “in the immediate neighborhood of the cathedral.” The Micawbers provide some relief from the misery the young boy is experiencing.

David remembers that his mother had talked about a great-aunt who had visited Blunderstone Rookery the night he was born. Furious that he was not born a girl, she vanished like a “fairy,” and the family heard nothing more from her. Dickens liked to give some of his characters certain traits of the people in fairy tales that had been among his favorite reading as a child. Aunty Betsey Trotwood is a sort of fairy godmother. She is blunt in her speech tolerating no nonsense in anyone. The Murdstones may be seen as the cruel monsters that are also part of fairy tale tradition. David walks from London to his aunt’s cottage near Dover, and he presents himself to her. She already has one protégé, Mr. Richard Bably, usually called Mr. Dick. Essentially a very simple person, he has, according to Aunt Betsey, depths that only she can see. She consults Mr. Dick about what she should do about David. He provides practical advice, a bath, bed, and clean clothes. She writes to Murdstone that David is with her. They are willing to take David back to the life he has fled. Betsey Trotwood is more than a match for them. She unmasks Murdstone and shows that she instinctively knows him for the sadistic brute he is. He does not try to contradict her. Evil has met its match in this frail older woman. A bully can be faced down by simple goodness. Aunt Betsey decides to adopt David and makes Mr. Dick his guardian as well.

Copperfield is sent by his aunt to Dr. Strong’s school in Canterbury, a sharp contrast to Salem House Academy. The doctor is the most humane of teachers and, unlike Creakle, a distinguished scholar. David boards with Mr. Wickfield, a lawyer who manages his aunt’s finances. His housekeeper is also his daughter. Agnes Wickfield impresses David even at their first meeting as a saintly figure, as someone who might be represented in a radiant stained-glass window. Wickfield’s clerk is Uriah Heep.

Heep writhes and belittles himself constantly. He will eventually be seen as a diabolical figure with the satanic ability to insinuate himself into a position of power. A grotesque skeleton of a man, his malignancy is not immediately apparent beneath his “umble” manner. The forms that evil can assume fascinated Dickens although he cannot equal Shakespeare or even his contemporary Robert Browning in penetrating its depths. James Steerforth is another manifestation of it. He has irresistible charm and complete assurance in his own superiority. Beneath the charm is almost total egotism. Nobody has ever opposed Steerforth, and everybody easily succumbs to the spell of his personality. Uriah Heep, on the other hand, is the product of a foundation school for boys, a charitable institution that placed him at the bottom of the class system and attempted to forge his will into as abject a mold as possible. This formula could only produce a hatred of all those people who assumed they were his betters.

Mr. Wickfield, an alcoholic, allows Uriah to take over his business affairs. Heep also aspires to make Agnes his own. David instinctively loathes Uriah, who, as he constantly watches Agnes, reminds him of an “ugly and rebellious genie watching a good spirit.”

David receives an excellent education at Dr. Strong’s school. Agnes Wickfield, who seems to have attained early in life a maturity that David achieves much later, is his confidante during these years. He admires deeply her goodness and serenity. His Aunt Betsey, watching their relationship, is more aware of Agnes’ devotion to David than he is. He is too self-absorbed to notice.

Copperfield leaves Canterbury for London and decides that he wants a legal career. He is apprenticed to a Mr. Spenlow in the Commons. Spenlow has a daughter, Dora, who has been educated in France. Copperfield meets and falls in love with this beautiful little woman. “She was a fairy, a sylph.” His infatuation with her is based on Dickens’ earliest great love for Maria Beadnell, a banker’s daughter, who could not have taken seriously a youth under nineteen, a mere shorthand reporter in the law courts. But he was rapturously in love with her, and found her absolutely flawless, and David’s feelings for Dora Spenlow mirror these emotions. Maria would later dismiss Dickens as a “boy”; her fictional counterpart, Dora, lacks Maria’s malice, and she and David are finally married. Aunt Betsey, being told of her nephew’s wedding plans, comments “blind, blind, blind.” She knows whom he should marry. David continues to love Dora, but soon learns that she lacks most practical skills. She can neither cook nor manage household finances. As his career progresses she cannot share any of his intellectual interests. She dies after they have been married for only a few years.

Meeting his old school friend Tommy Traddles, David learns that Tommy lives as a lodger with the Micawbers. Traddles is such a gentle, sweet-natured person that he even looks back on Creakle with affection despite the man’s brutality. Dickens uses an alliance between Mr. Micawber and Traddles as a means of exposing Uriah Heep. Heep, a full partner with Mr. Wickfield, has hired Micawber as his clerk. Micawber, however improvident he may be, is anything but stupid and he soon learns how dishonest Heep is. He tells Tommy what he has discovered and together they reveal the total scoundrel that Heep, below his hypocritical claims of humility, really is. Micawber reads the indictment that he has written up as one of the letters he habitually writes. It is his finest hour and illustrates one of Dickens’ favorite themes: the good and the brave can triumph over treachery and cruelty.

Having taken his friend Steerforth down to Yarmouth to meet his fisherman friends, David has innocently set the Peggottys up for a tragedy. Em’ly, his childhood playmate, has become a beautiful young woman. She had said years ago that she wanted to become a lady, something that could only happen if she married someone such as Steerforth, who is in a social position much higher than hers. He plans her seduction soon after they meet. His egoism is only occasionally revealed during David’s acquaintance with him. Visiting Steerforth’s mother, David meets her companion, Rosa Dartle, whom Steerforth had disfigured in a childish rage throwing a hammer that left her mouth deeply scarred. Rosa gets Steerforth to admit his contempt for people of the lower classes. Despite everything, Rosa adores Steerforth. He knows himself, and wishes he had a father who might have helped him build a better character. He buys a boat that he renames “The Little Em’ly.” Em’ly elopes with him only to be discarded in Italy where Steerforth gives her to his valet, Mr. Littermer, who had assisted in the elopement. She eventually makes her way back to England and is rescued by her uncle from the London slum where she is living. Steerforth drowns off the Yarmouth coast as a result of one of worst storms that people on the coast can recall. Ham, trying to rescue him, perishes as well.

Copperfield himself emerges as a fully rounded character who finally comes to terms with his “undisciplined heart.” After a period during which he finds solace in the wild beauty of the Swiss Alps, he goes back to England and marries Agnes, who has loved him all of her life. Like most of the other characters in the novel, she changes little, if at all. She seems almost too good to be human. Tommy Traddles, who takes up law and finally becomes a judge, has an equally angelic personality. Most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best. Copperfield, while sharing some of Dickens’ experiences, is too mild and passive to be an exact replica of the fiery, bustling Dickens. He becomes a novelist, but the exact nature of what he writes is never given. He is writing his autobiography ten years after his marriage to Agnes, and he enjoys a serenity that Dickens himself was never to achieve.


Dickens attempted to write his autobiography, but found that some episodes in his early life were too painful to relive in an autobiographical, or confessional fashion. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized account of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in an unsurpassed psychological portrait. Copperfield obviously depends on the memory of others to give an account of his birth and baby years. Dickens was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life. David Copperfield has this quality too. Dickens’ imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptures not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lends that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield.

It is unlikely that Dickens knew the term bildungsroman but he sets up his novel along the lines of the classics in that genre. The events of an individual’s life from childhood to a successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he faced and overcame in childhood and youth form an integral part of these works. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person’s story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is the only point of view given in this novel. He suffers at the hands of the Murdstones who try to prevent him from being anything but a little wretch. Steerforth at Salem House, several years his senior, offers some protection against the terrible cruelty of Creakle. He is a boarder with the Micawber family while at Murdstone and Grimby’s warehouse. This improvident family, Mr. Micawber in particular, provides some humor to brighten what would otherwise be a totally dark period. Aunt Betsy Trotwood and her protégé Mr. Dick finally give him the security and affection expected of true parents. Aunt Betsy is masculine enough in some ways to be a substitute father in her own right. After his adoption by her, a new life begins for David. Life at Dr. Strong’s school is essentially calm and happy. He boards with the Wickfields and is immediately highly impressed with Agnes Wickfield, whom Dickens at the very offset plans to make the heroine of the novel. Future problems are foreshadowed by Mr. Wickfield’s alcoholism, and by the presence of Uriah Heep. His education completed, Copperfield must make a career for himself. He is apprenticed with the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. He meets what he believes to be his true love, Dora Spenlow. Dickens shows great skill in creating the mad raptures of young love, the total absorption in fantasy of early romance. Marriage with Dora proves to be a mistake, but David tries to make the best of it. He is moving toward his true profession when he learns shorthand and becomes a parliamentary reporter. He begins writing stories, and becomes a novelist. These episodes are a brilliant blend of Dickens’ experience and fiction. He, of course, did not marry Maria Beadnell, the woman on whom Dora’s character was based.

The villainy of Uriah Heep is revealed and his threat to Agnes removed. Dora dies, and David’s idol Steerforth, having betrayed him by eloping with little Em’ly, is drowned after he has dropped her when his passion for her ends. Copperfield is learning some painful lessons about love and the nature of his own personality. He wanders for three years in Italy and Switzerland in despair, finally coming to terms with his “undisciplined heart” in Switzerland. He returns home and finds his real love in Agnes. A happy marriage and a successful career is the situation from which he has surveyed his life. All bildungsromans do not end happily, and Dickens ten years later produces one which almost reverses the story he tells in David Copperfield.

The writing of this novel caused Dickens less difficulty than almost anything else he produced. He was at the peak of his ability as a novelist, and while some great gooks would come in the future in some respects he never surpassed David Copperfield. He had developed a mature style that was a marked improvement over that of his earlier works. His contemporary, to an extent his rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, believed that Dickens had improved his style by imitating Vanity Fair. He was “foregoing the use of fine words,” pruning some of the excesses which had characterized his early writing. This seems to be true. Dickens had mastered the art of using fewer words, especially in somber scenes in the book. The death of Dora is described without the sentimental indulgences seen in the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son and of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!
It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

Some of this chapter is almost Hemingwayesque. Dickens has not omitted all passages of tearful sentimentality from this book. The passages dealing with the prostitute Martha Endell in which she drags herself through the streets of London and threatens suicide in the Thames seem wildly exaggerated to a modern reader. Little Em’ly, after her affair with James Steerforth, writes tearful letters and proclaims herself beyond redemption. Both women go to Australia with Dan’l Peggotty and begin new lives.

A stylistic device in David Copperfield are the “Retrospects,” four in number, in which David interrupts his narrative and comments on the progress he and the other characters are making. He compares his life up until he has almost completed his school days with “flowing water” and he “hovers above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream.” The past in David’s memory, as he admits, sometimes has an unreal quality. Two young loves and a fight with a bully happen at that time. Looking back he sees himself as a “shadow.” The passage of time, as remembered, flows through the seasons running toward the sea. He was 21 at that point, has overcome the difficult art of shorthand and is reporting the activities of Parliament for a morning newspaper. His marriage to Dora takes place. All now seems like “phantoms.” He has become a legally adult male. Chapter LIII is “Another Retrospect.” His child-wife Dora dies with Agnes as a sort of mother confessor at her side. Death brings the passage of time to a temporary standstill. In “A Last Retrospect,” the shortest of the four, his autobiographical narrative has been finished and he gives a report on those people who have figured prominently in it. With his marriage to Agnes his life was fulfilled, his personality fully realized.

Copperfield has more than mastered shorthand: he has become a master of language. Autobiography is of necessity a verbal accomplishment. David recalls certain events with extraordinary detail, and more than one critic has noted that some parts of this novel anticipate Proust. For example, certain religious prints that David had seen in Mr. Peggotty’s boathouse have but to be seen again to bring back to mind the entire interior of that home. Again, the very name Yarmouth forever reminds him “of a certain Sunday morning on the beach, the bells ringing of church, little Em’ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones into the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist...” Peggotty is always associated with her work box with the picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on its cover. These memories are from those happy days before the Murdstones appear.

The sea is a potent symbol in all of Dickens’ novels after Dombey and Son (1846-1848). Life is seen as a river that flows to the sea, death. Mr. Barkis, Peggotty’s husband, dies when the tide ebbs, according to a local superstition. The sea is a mysterious force that is destructive at times. One of the climaxes of the novel is the great storm that smashes into Yarmouth, “Tempest.” “I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.” Both Ham and Steerforth are victims of the savage wind and water. A good young man and a wicked egoist share a common fate. Ham was to have married Little Em’ly and Steerforth seduced and eloped with her. Ham dies trying to rescue Steerforth who was clinging desperately to the mast of a founding ship. It becomes the subject of Copperfield’s nightmares for the rest of his life, and the mention of the seashore brings the memory of the fierce gale back. The storm has destroyed much that was meaningful in his past—Ham, Steerforth, even Dan’l Peggotty’s boathouse. It may be too much of a coincidence that the waves bear Steerforth ashore and that he finally lies at David’s feet. In the very posture he remembers so well, his head rests on his arm as David remembers seeing him sleeping during the days at Salem House. He still loves and even admires Steerforth although in terms of what he might have become, not the seducer that he actually is.

Dickens may have had Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in mind when he has David wander in Italy and Switzerland in such despair that he passes ancient monuments with scarcely a glance. This kind of dark period occurs in many Victorian writings—in Tennyson’s In Memorium and later in the autobiographies of John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle describes an emotional crisis that he calls the “Everlasting No,” a mood of the darkest depression. Copperfield describes his Everlasting No in the chapter entitled, “Absence.” “Listlessness to everything but brooding sorrow was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart.” Dora and Steerforth are gone, other friends are now in Australia, he is alone with bitter memories and the conviction that his life and everything associated with it is a meaningless failure. His will cannot cope with this sense of utter futility. Neither Dickens nor his hero turns to conventional religion in times of crisis. In the Swiss Alps a consciousness of their beauty mark a turning point for him. In a very Wordsworthian passage, as he descends into a valley, the voices of singing shepherds seem to speak to him. The sublimity and awe of the scenery had been working on his consciousness and now he was aware that “great Nature spoke to me...” and opens a sense of hope for his desolate spirit. This could be called another use of the pathetic fallacy resorted to by Dickens in his other novels, in Dombey and Son, for example, when little Paul hears the sea calling him. But the English Romantics believed that they could commune with Nature and that she, like a kindly nurse, could heal them. The next phase, described by Carlyle as “The Everlasting Aye” has begun. David lies on the grass and weeps “...as I had not yet wept since Dora died!”

“Absence” is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. Some of this is seen in the Retrospect chapters. David’s life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. The letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his great grief would become not endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases.

Many critics, however, see Agnes as one of the weaknesses of the novel. As the critic Robert R. Garnet recently suggested, her character functions more as a symbol in this book than as a believable flesh-and-blood woman. She seems to have been perfect in every way from childhood on. She resembles the image with which Goethe concluded the second half of his Faust: “The Eternal-Feminine/Lures us to perfection” (trans. Walter Kaufmann). She is a sort of English Madonna who has such a high spiritual level that David has always stood in awe of her. In reviewing her character, author George Orwell called her “the real legless angel of Victorian romance.” In fact, she is an example of Dickensian saintliness, an idealization, and a spiritual guide to Copperfield. An earlier image is the one presented by Steerforth; a model of all that David thought was noble. But Steerforth is a Byronic figure who appears to have been born skeptical and cynical. To follow his example would be disastrous. Agnes, however, helps David ascend to her level of virtue, although he has to order his “undisciplined heart” before he can make Agnes his own. Her image is always pointing upward in his imagination, as she was when she silently indicated that Dora was dead. As Chapter XL concludes, the memory of her “pointing upward” is with him again, and he hopes he may one day join her in heaven and there declare his love for her. But she also loves him, has loved him all of her life. They become married and have three children. As the novel ends, the final image he presents is of her even at the end of his life “near me, pointing upward.”

David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr. Strong’s young wife, Annie, when she confessed to her husband a brief infatuation she had had for her cousin Maldon. She describes it “...as the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart.” She did not wrong her husband, and the scene has been described by some critics as typical of the distraught sentimentality too frequent in Dickens. But David realized that his own heart was as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to the maturity that his life with Agnes has achieved, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.


Dickens in David Copperfield is not as concerned as he usually is with “the condition of England question,” Thomas Carlyle’s term for Dickens’ concern with the problems of contemporary English society. The overall tone of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations, differs very much from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Dombey and Son, which preceded David Copperfield, and from Bleak House and Little Dorrit, which came after it. The bildungsroman shows Dickens exploring his personality, tracing its origin and development. Social concerns do enter into the novel however. Salem House Academy is a school as brutal in its depiction of sadistic schoolmasters as the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby. Dr. Strong’s school in Canterbury seems to have been the exception rather than the rule in England during the first half of the 19th century. But Dickens presents Salem House and the students’ lives there without tirades against the obvious abuses of such an institution.

Dickens sees the evils of prostitution as the result of a male-dominated society. Martha Endell and Little Em’ly are victims of that society, but there is no editorializing on the evils of prostitution per se.

While reporting the activities of Parliament, Dickens developed a contemptuous attitude toward that branch of the English government and toward the legal profession generally. He satirizes Doctors’ Commons, which was abolished in 1857 and its precincts torn down. It was an amalgam of many courts including those of the Admiralty and the Prerogative Office, where wills were registered and filed, Mr. Spenlow’s specialty. Spenlow is so convinced of the importance of his profession that he makes the Commons virtually the necessary foundation of English civilization: “Touch the Commons and down goes the nation.” The satire, mostly confined to this part of the novel, is mild. Copperfield becomes amused with the proceeding in the Commons, but not indignant. His description of the frantic efforts of some lawyers to gain clients is hilarious.

Emigration was an important solution for many people of the period. It provided opportunities for many who could find none in England. Annie Strong’s cousin, Mr. Jack Maldon, goes to make his fortune in India. He returns and lives off the Doctor’s charity instead. Australia offered a haven for those who had disgraced themselves at home, women such as Martha Endell and Little Em’ly. Wilkins Micawber, who had not succeeded in making a mark for himself, despite many attempts, goes to Australia, becomes a journalist and ultimately a magistrate. This is rather surprising, and may be due to the desire to give happy endings to his characters in accordance to his love of fairy tales—“They lived happily ever after.” Dan’l Peggotty takes Martha and Em’ly to Australia and becomes a wealthy farmer there, a reward for his very virtuous life.

Possibly the sharpest satire is reserved for the model prison system based on Pentonville. Here the prisoners lived in isolation. Dickens had visited the Eastern Penitentiary near Philadelphia in March 1842, and the mental effects of solitary imprisonment had shocked him. The same Mr. Creakle, former headmaster of Salem House, administered this model prison. Creakle’s model prisoners were the two arch hypocrites, Mr. Lattimer, that highly “respectable” valet for James Steerforth, who had helped procure Little Em’ly for his employer, and Uriah Heep. Both read prepared statements that show no evidence of reform whatever, but indicate that hypocrisy can easily deceive the none too bright Creakle.


1. Is David Copperfield’s childhood at all like that of American children in the 19th century?

2. Could an Edward Murdstone exploit today a young naive woman like Clara Copperfield? How has human nature and the legal system in England or America changed since 1850?

3. Dan’l Peggotty and his family are lower class English people. Has Dickens presented them realistically?

4. While England, even in 1850, was a democracy to an extent, it still had a rigid class system. How has Dickens presented this in David Copperfield?

5. Dickens is noted for his ability to create character in his fiction. How typically does he present minor characters in David Copperfield?

6. The very name, Little Em’ly, is rather sentimental. She is called this all through the novel. Does the reader ever see her as a realistic human being?

7. Is Dickens more skilled in presenting men than women? How has his experience influenced his views on human personalities?

8. How is London seen in David Copperfield? It was the world’s largest city in 1850.

9. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is the model Dickens had in mind when he created James Steerforth. Is his character accurately depicted in David’s friend?

10. Wilkins Micawber is usually regarded as one of the supreme comic characters in English literature. By what standards is he comic? Have our views of what constitutes humor changed since Dickens’ time?

11. Except in rigidly religious circles, the term “fallen woman” seems rather absurd today. Do we actually now value the feminine personality higher than most Victorians did?

12. Some critics prefer the “child bride” Dora to Agnes Wickfield. Why?

13. Uriah Heep is an arch hypocrite. Is he also comic?

14. Comment on David’s friend Tommy Traddles. What is his function in the novel?

15. Comment on Aunt Betsy Trotwood. In one sense she is as eccentric as many other of Dickens’ characters, but she is also a stable person with a wisdom unmatched by other characters in the novel with the possible exception of Agnes Wickfield. Is she, despite Dickens’ intentions, as much a heroine as Agnes?


1. Freud admired Dickens both as a writer and for his insights into the mystery of the human personality. David Copperfield was his favorite novel by Dickens. A Freudian critic, Lawrence Frank, sees in certain passages of the novel material that matches Freud’s “The Wolf Man,” From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, and Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis. Is he right? Compare these writings.

2. Dickens was always careful to make certain that the speech patterns of his characters were accurate, whether they were Suffolk fishermen or London Cockneys. Comment on the speech patterns in David Copperfield.

3. Dickens obviously had great sympathy for women who had become prostitutes. For many years he advised Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had founded a Home for Homeless Women. He also helped her run this charity. How is this experience in his life reflected in David Copperfield?

4. Dickens’ own education was meager, but education was a life-long concern for him. Compare his treatment of this theme in Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times versus David Copperfield.

5. Dickens respected the working people of England and insisted that their dignity should be protected. Is this born out in his writing? Compare his portraits of Dan’l Peggotty and Steven Blackpool in Hard Times, and, possibly, workers in other Dickens’ novels.

6. It has been said that Dickens does not portray upper-class English people as well as the lower- or middle-class people among his characters. Is this true?

7. The Kings Bench Prison in David Copperfield is really the Marshalsea Prison where Dickens’ father was sent. The Marshalsea itself figures prominently in his later novel, Little Dorritt, which Bernard Shaw called a more seditious book than Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Compare the satires on prisons in these two novels.


Ten years after completing David Copperfield Dickens wrote his second bildungsroman, Great Expectations (1860-1861). There is little optimism despite the title in this work, and its hero, Pip (Phillip Pirrip) has a character that is much more like Dickens than David Copperfield. Unlike David Pip is not patient and easy-going. He also becomes a snob who is embarrassed that his benefactor, Magwitch, is an escaped criminal. Another orphan character created by Dickens is Oliver Twist, and his story forms Dickens’ third novel about a child caught in the underworld of London. Most of the characters in the major novels are either orphans or children who grow up in a single parent home like Steerforth in David Copperfield.

A film version of David Copperfield was made by MGM in 1935 with an all-star cast including Lionel Barrymore, W. C. Fields, Edna May Oliver and Basil Rathbone. Fields is outstanding as Wilkins Micawber, a role he was born to play. A made-for-television version was shot in England in 1970, but does not match in quality the earlier film. In 1999 the BBC made another production for Masterpiece Theater.

Another more recent bildungsroman is E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, which portrays a street kid in New York during the 1930s. Billy becomes associated with Dutch Schultz, the prohibition-era gang leader. A film version appeared in 1991 that is excellent, with Dustin Hoffman playing Schultz.

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