Version of Copperfield
Of the NOvel
Of Charles Dickens
By Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......David Copperfield was published in monthly installments between May 1849 and November 1850 as The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger. An edition in book form was published near the end of 1850.
.......The novel begins in the early nineteenth century (presumably in 1812, the year of Dickens's birth) in Blunderstone, a fictional name for a real town, Blundeston, which Dickens visited. It is in eastern England in the county of Suffolk. Other cities in which action is set are London, Canterbury, Yarmouth, Dover,
and Highgate, a suburb of London. Near the end of the novel, David visits Switzerland, and the Peggottys and Micawbers travel to Australia. (However, neither the Swiss nor the Australian locales actually appear in the novel.)
David Copperfield: The title character and protagonist of the novel. He is born six months after his father dies. His mother and her servant woman rear him lovingly. However, after his mother remarries, his stepfather treats him cruelly, then sends him to a boarding school with a sadistic schoolmaster. David's mother dies when he is still a child, and his stepfather sends him to work in a warehouse. The novel follows his life into young adulthood.
Clara Copperfield: David's mother, a kind and loving woman. However, because she is weak-willed, she is easily led by her domineering second husband. She dies giving birth to her second child; the child also dies.
Clara Peggotty: Warm-hearted, level-headed servant of Mrs. Copperfield. She helps rear David and remains his friend throughout all of his difficulties.
Edward Murdstone: Clara Copperfield's cruel second husband.
Jane Murdstone: Edward Murdstone's sister.
Aunt Betsey Trotwood: David's grand-aunt. She takes him in after he runs away from his warehouse job in London.
Daniel Peggotty: Clara Peggotty's brother, who lives with his adopted children in an upturned boat near the seacoast at Yarmouth. He is a good, humble man who becomes David's friend.
Ham: Friendly, hard-working adopted child of Daniel Peggotty.
Emily: Called Little Em'ly, she is an engaging child adopted by Daniel Peggoty.
Wilkins Micawber: Impoverished man with whom David lives while working in a warehouse. Micawber is a comic character who expresses undying optimism with the phrase "something will turn up."
Emma Micawber: Wilkins Micawber's wife.
Orfling (Orphan): Servant of the Micawbers.
Barkis: Wagon driver who courts Clara Peggotty with the simple phrase, "Barkis is willin."
James Steerforth: Handsome, self-confident schoolmate of David. He becomes David's protector at school, and he and David vacation at Yarmouth with the Peggottys. He shocks David and the Peggottys when he entices Emily to run off with him.
Tommy Traddles: Schoolmate and friend of David.
Francis Spenlow: Attorney in whose office David becomes an apprentice in the legal profession.
Dora Spenlow: Spenlow's daughter. She is a beautiful but shallow person who infatuates David. He marries her. She dies young.
Mr. Wickfield: Weak-willed attorney in whose home David lodges while attending school in Canterbury.
Agnes Wickfield: Daughter of Mr. Wickfield. She is smart, sensitive, and kind. David marries her after Dora dies.
Uriah Heep: Sinister clerk in Wickfield's office. He takes advantage of Mr. Wickfield's weaknesses and, through illegal means, becomes a partner in Wickfield's law firm.
Mick Walker, Mealy Potatoes: Boys who are David's co-workers in a wine warehouse
Mr. Dick (Richard Babley): Eccentric boarder in Betsey Trotwood's home.
Mr. Creakle: Sadistic schoolmaster at Salem House Academy. He makes life miserable for David.
Mrs. Creakle: Creakle's wife. She treats David kindly when she informs him that his mother has died.
Mrs. Gummidge: Widow who lives with Daniel Peggotty and his family.
Dr. Strong: Operator of a school at Canterbury from which David graduates.
Annie Strong: Wife of Dr. Strong.
Mrs. Markleham: Annie Strong's mother.
Adams: Student who welcomes David to the Canterbury school.
Rosa Dartle: Spiteful companion of Mrs. Steerforth. Miss Dartle loves Steerforth, but he pays little attention to her.
Janet: Aunt Betsey's servant girl.
Mrs. Crupp: David's landlady while he begins practicing law with Spenlow and Jorkins.
Mr. Chillip: Neighbor whom David visits when he lives with the Murdstones.
Mr. Quinion: Manager of the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse where David goes to work as a child.
Gregory: A foreman at the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse.
Tipp: Carman at the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse.
Boot-maker: Creditor of Wilkins Micawber.
Mr. Dolloby: Shopkeeper to whom young David, desperate for money, sells his waistcoat for ninepence.
Doorman at Salem House Academy
.......The main character, David Copperfield, tells the story in first-person point of view from the perspective of a young adult looking back over his life. Copperfield begins his story with his birth, saying, "I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously."
.......Visiting her home at the time of the birth is her late husband’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, a strong-willed woman who separated from her husband after he beat her (or so it was rumored) and threatened to throw her out of a window. After ridding herself of him, she also rid herself of his name, deciding to call herself by her maiden name once again, Miss Betsey Trotwood.
.......When Miss Betsey learns that Clara’s newborn child (her grand-nephew) is a boy instead of a girl, she leaves in a huff. Though fatherless, David thrives in the care of his loving mother and their roly-poly servant, Clara Peggotty, who dotes on the boy. Clara Peggotty is addressed by her last name so as not to confuse her with Clara Copperfield.
.......Mrs. Copperfield, who had been orphaned as a child, met her late husband while she was working as a nursery governess in the home of a house he used to visit. He treated her with kindness and respect. Although she was deficient in managing household affairs, Mr. Copperfield began teaching her the rudiments of domestic industry. Unfortunately, his death cut short the instruction, and now she wonders whether she can manage by herself. However, her husband left her a bequest of 105 pounds ayear. That sum enables her to get on in the world. So does her good looks, which attract the attention of Edward Murdstone, a gentleman with black whiskers and black eyes. He escorts her home from church one day to look at her thriving geranium, which she plucks and gives to him. David has a bad feeling about Murdstone, even when the man stops by on horseback and takes David for a ride. In time, Murdstone proposes to Mrs. Copperfield.
.......Meanwhile, Peggotty invites David to spend two weeks at Yarmouth on the North Sea with her relatives, who live placidly and comfortably in an upturned ship. David will have much to do, she says: “There's the sea; and the boats and ships; and the fishermen; and the beach . . .” (Chapter 2).
.......The head of the Yarmouth home is Daniel Peggotty, Clara Peggoty’s brother, a fisherman. Living with him in the boat-house are his orphaned niece, Little Em’ly, and nephew, Ham, both of whom he has adopted. Also residing in the house is Widow Gummidge, whose husband had been a business partner of Daniel Peggoty. The Peggottys treat David like a member of the family. Ham, a strong young fellow who builds boats, is like an older brother to David, and Emily is like a sister–although David soon takes a romantic interest in her. It is a wonderful time for David, but his fortunes change when he returns home: His mother has married Murdstone, and the house has taken on a new look–a Murdstone look.
My old dear bedroom was changed, and I was to lie a long way off. I rambled downstairs to find anything that was like itself, so altered it all seemed; and roamed into the yard. I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog–deep mouthed and black-haired like Him–and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get at me. (Chapter 3).......Murdstone–and his stern sister, Jane, whom he has brought with him to manage the house–now rule the family. He instructs Mrs. Copperfield that the proper way to rear a child is to be firm. David soon learns that Murderstone’s idea of firmness is cruelty. He scolds and beats David merely for being a boy. David finds that his only pleasure in life is to read books alone in his room. One day, after David bites him in retaliation for a beating, Murdstone decides to send him off to Salem House Academy, a boarding school near London. He simply cannot brook being around the boy. Upon David’s arrival, he is made to wear on his back a placard saying, “TAKE CARE OF HIM. HE BITES.” David says this shaming tactic makes him miserable:
What I suffered from that placard, nobody can imagine. Whether it was possible for people to see me or not, I always fancied that somebody was reading it. It was no relief to turn round and find nobody; for wherever my back was, there I imagined somebody always to be. (Chapter 5).......At Salem House, a sadistic schoolmaster, Mr. Creakle–who describes himself as a “tartar”–continues the cruelty. But an amiable boy named Tommy Traddles makes friends with David and helps him through the embarrassment of wearing the placard and being referred to by other boys as “Towzer,” a dog’s name. David also receives the sympathy of the most popular boy at school–handsome, self-confident James Steerforth, who comes from a wealthy family. After learning that Steerforth is his roommate, David turns his entire fortune, seven shillings, over to him for wise management. Steerforth buys them a bottle of currant wine, almond cakes, biscuits, and fruit. They have a feast in which other boys share the provender. David is in thrall of Steerforth, although it is clear that the latter is the type of boy who knows how to use his charms to manipulate people.
Creakle Beats the Boys
.......School remains a misery, for Creakle delights in beating the boys with cane and ruler for the merest infraction. David notices that Traddles, a frequent victim of Creakle’s sadism, likes to draw pictures of skeletons. David concludes that Traddles does so either because these drawings remind him that death will
end his misery or because skeletons are easy to draw. However, says David, "Steerforth continued his protection of me, and proved a very useful friend, since nobody dared to annoy one whom he honoured with his countenance."
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; I compared these henceforth everyday associates with those of my happier childhood - not to say with Steerforth, Traddles, and the rest of those boys; and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom. (Chapter 11).......While in London, he rents a room from the amiable Wilkins Micawber and his family. Micawber has a big heart, but he is forever short of ready cash to provide for his wife, Emma, and their children–twin infants, a boy of four, and a girl of three. The first floor of his dwelling does not even have furniture, David says, “and the blinds were kept down to delude the neighbors” (Chapter 11). They also kept a servant girl, an orphan from nearby St. Luke’s Workhouse.
.......One of these days, Micawber is wont to say, something is going to “turn up” that will put money in his pocket. But when nothing turns up, Micawber and his family end up at King’s Bench Prison for failure to pay debts.
.......David then makes a major decision that proves to be a turning point in his life: He runs away. His destination is Dover, where his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood, lives. When he hires a cart man to carry a box containing his belongings to a coach office, the man drives off with the box and the money that David paid him. Now David has only the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet–nothing else. On the way to Dover, he sells his waistcoat to a greedy merchant for threepence and suffers the harassment of tramps on the road. Finally, he arrives at Dover–bone tired, his shoes worn out from walking. Although he has never met Aunt Betsey, he remembers hearing his mother speak of her. Now he hopes she will take him. She is a bit taken aback by his sudden appearance, but she accepts the ragged, dirty-faced boy.
.......Wondering what should be done with David–he will require schooling, after all, as well as other types of training–she asks the advice of her eccentric boarder, Mr. Dick. David reports his answer as follows:
"Why, if I was you," said Mr. Dick, considering, and looking vacantly at me, "I should–" the contemplation of me seemed to.......A brilliant idea, and Aunt Betsey tells her servant girl, Janet, to prepare the bath. Later, when Aunt Betsey asks again about David's future, Mr. Dick advises that he go to bed. This wise observation prompts Aunt Betsey to send David to bed. Aunt Betsey later tells David that she rescued Mr. Dick from a life sentence in an asylum. His family had declared him mad and his brother wanted to institutionalize him, but Aunt Betsey declared him sane and took him in.
inspire him with a sudden idea, and he added, briskly, "I should wash him!" (Chapter 13)
David Goes to Canterbury
.......After David gets used to his new surroundings, Aunt Betsey enrolls him in a proper school at Canterbury, operated by the upright Dr. Strong, who is the opposite of Mr. Creakle. In Canterbury, David lodges with Miss Trotwood’s attorney, Mr. Wickfield, and his daughter, Agnes. Life with the Wickfields is good.
Agnes, a virtuous and agreeable girl, becomes a dear and loyal friend of David. While in Canterbury, David is happy to meet up with Wilkins Micawber and his family. Now out of prison, Micawber has come to Canterbury in hopes that “something will turn up.”
Micawber Works for Heep
.......Micawber accepts a job with Heep’s law firm, unaware that Heep plans to use him in the execution of shady business practices. He pays Micawber such a small salary that Micawber has no alternative but to borrow money from him and, thus, become beholden to him. Heep, who has moved into the Wickfield household, then
begins ogling Agnes. Meanwhile, David takes up writing and becomes a parliamentary reporter. After getting some pieces published, he marries Dora, and they move into a cottage opposite Aunt Betsey’s quarters. Dora fails miserably as a housekeeper, but David continues to love her nonetheless.
.......Dickens is a master at drawing memorable characters. Some are simple and uncomplicated, like Barkis, Creakle, Murdstone, and Clara Peggotty. Others are complex, like David Copperfield. Throughout the novel, he befriends the wealthy and charming James Steerforth, ignoring his devious and malevolent side. At the same time, he befriends the good-hearted Tommy Traddles and the humble Peggottys. These two worlds–the world of Steerforth and the world of the people Steerforth and his family look down upon–both attract David, and part of his maturation is deciding what should constitute his own world. To bring his characters to life, Dickens invests them with clearly defined virtues or vices and describes the characters in a way that enables the reader to picture them and the scenes in which they appear. Note, for example, the effect of the popping buttons in the following passage in which the narrator, David, recalls a moment with Peggotty:
She laid aside her work . . . and opening her arms wide, took my curly head within them, and gave it a good squeeze. I know it was a good squeeze, because, being very plump, whenever she made any little exertion after she was dressed, some of the buttons on the back of her gown flew off. And I recollect two bursting to the opposite side of the parlour, while she was hugging me. (Chapter 2)Note also the description of a shopkeeper’s face, hands, and eyes in the following passage:
An ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with a stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. . . . He took his trembling hands, which were like the claws of a great bird, out of my hair; and put on a pair of spectacles, not at all ornamental to his inflamed eyes. (Chapter 13).......Another way Dickens creates memorable characters is to associate them with a phrase they continually repeat. Here are examples of characters who repeat a phrase:
Barkis: “Barkis is willin.” (This phrase refers to Barkis's willingness to marry Peggotty.).......Dickens also endows some characters with an unusual physical appearance or quality, places them in unusual settings, or has them take part in unusual activities. Following are examples:
Mrs. Gummidge: I am a lone lorn creetur [creature]'
Wilkins Micawber: “Something will turn up.” (Micawber, forever in debt and without a steady means of livelihood, continually holds out the hope that
fortune will eventually smile on him.
Uriah Heep: I am a very umble [humble] person. (Heep, a villain, uses this phrase to present himself as harmless.)
Mr. Dick: He flies kites........Finally, Dickens alters the speech patterns and vocabulary of characters to reflect their personalities, their social class, or the dialect spoken in the region in which they live. For example, the impoverished Wilkins Micawber inflates his language to suit his optimistic vision of the future–even when he is not discussing his future. In the following passage, Micawber offers to give David Copperfield directions to his residence. However, he does not merely say, “I will show you where it is.” Instead, he says:
Daniel Peggotty and his family: They live in an upturned boat.
Doorman at Salem House: He has a wooden leg.
Mr Creakle: He speaks only in a whisper.
Uriah Heep: He has clammy hands.
Miss Mowcher: She is a dwarf. The narrator says that she has "such extremely little arms, that, to enable herself to lay a finger archly against her snub nose, as she ogled Steerforth, she was obliged to meet the finger half-way, and lay her nose against it.
"Under the impression," said Mr. Micawber, "that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road,—in short," said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, "that you might lose yourself—I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way." (Chapter 11)Daniel Peggotty speaks with the unadorned language of the Yarmouth working class, language which reflects his simplicity and humility, as well as the region in which he lives. In the following passage, he discusses Ham's relationship with Emily:
He follers her about, he makes hisself a sort o' servant to her, he loses in a great measure his relish for his wittles, and in the long-run he makes it clear to me wot's amiss. Now I could wish myself, you see, that our little Em'ly was in a fair way of being married. I could wish to see her, at all ewents, under articles to a honest man as had a right to defend her. I don't know how long I may live, or how soon I may die; but I know that if I was capsized, any night, in a gale of wind in Yarmouth Roads here, and was to see the town-lights shining for the last time over the rollers as I couldn't make no head against, I could go down quieter for thinking "There's a man ashore there, iron-true to my little Em'ly, God bless her, and no wrong can touch my Em'ly while so be as that man lives." (Chapter 21)..
The Power of Love
.......What counts most in life is love–giving it and receiving it. David thrives under the love and care of his mother and Peggotty. However, when his cruel stepfather, Murdstone, comes between David and the two women, David founders. Moreover, his mother–denied spousal love and forbidden to treat David as she did before she married Murdstone–eventually dies. Murdstone himself–refusing to give or receive love–never becomes fully human. The Micawbers, though impoverished, are rich in love. They have nothing and they have everything. Barkis and Clara Peggotty–as well as Peggotty’s relatives–are humble working-class people who likewise realize the importance of love and therefore lead useful and successful lives.
The Evils of Physical and Mental Abuse
.......Frequently in the novel, Dickens calls attention to the physical and mental abuse of both children and adults. David Copperfield, Tommy Traddles, and other children suffer abuse at the hands of adults at home, in school, in the workplace, and elsewhere. David, of course, endures the beatings and threats of
Murdstone. As for Tommy Traddles, David’s friend at Salem House School, David says: “He was always being caned - I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler'd on both hands.” Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes are made to work long hours in a warehouse even though they, like their co-worker David, are only children.
Exploitation of the Weak
.......In every society, there are those who exploit the poor and the weak for material or social gain, or for perverse pleasure. Such exploitation was a serious problem in nineteenth-century British society, and Dickens calls attention to it in many of his novels, including David Copperfield. A notable example of such exploitation is Edward Murdstone’s employment of children in the warehouse he operates with Grinby. David Copperfield, Mick Walker, and Mealy Potatoes–though not even adolescents–must work long, hard hours for meager pay. Mr. Creakle also exploits children, for he takes pleasure in inflicting pain on the defenseless. Steerforth exploits the innocent Emily, using his worldly charm to persuade her to run away with him. Uriah Heep exploits the weak-willed Mr. Wickfield. Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes, tells David (whom she calls Trotwood):
"Uriah," she replied, after a moment's hesitation, "has made himself indispensable to papa. He is subtle and watchful. He has mastered papa's weaknesses, fostered them, and taken advantage of them, until - to say all that I mean in a word, Trotwood [David] - until papa is afraid of him." (Chapter 25)Persevering Against Adversity
.......David Copperfield overcomes formidable obstacles through perseverance, seasoned with humor and hope . Wilkins Micawber also perseveres against adversity, thanks to his remarkable resilience. Note, for example, his quick recovery from the shock of being imprisoned.
At last Mr. Micawber's difficulties came to a crisis, and he was arrested early one morning, and carried over to the King's Bench Prison in the Borough. He told me, as he went out of the house, that the God of day had now gone down upon him--and I really thought his heart was broken and mine too. But I heard, afterwards, that he was seen to play a lively game at skittles, before noon. (Chapter 11)In addition, Daniel Peggotty does not give up on Emily even though she has become a "fallen" woman.
.......The narrator not only calls attention to cruelty and malice but also to compassion. Peggotty, the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey, and others all treat David kindly and sympathetically. David himself exhibits compassion throughout the novel, for Steerforth and others. Early in the novel, when he contemplates the place of his father's burial, he says,
There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were--almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes--bolted and locked against it.Mr. Dick also exhibits compassion, as David points out.
He was by nature so exceedingly compassionate of anyone who seemed to be ill at ease, and was so quick to find any such person out, that he shook hands with Mr. Micawber, at least half-a-dozen times in five minutes. To Mr. Micawber, in his trouble, this warmth, on the part of a stranger, was so extremely touching, that he could only say, on the occasion of each successive shake, "My dear sir, you overpower me!"Other Themes
.......Dickens also develops themes on the need for education and prison reform and on the obligation to care for the impoverished and the mentally deficient.Climax
.......The climax of the novel occurs in Chapter 55, entitled "The Tempest," when a violent storm at Yarmouth sinks a schooner on which all aboard drown. At the last moment before the sea claims the vessel, David–who has been visiting in the region and runs to the shore when informed that a ship is in trouble–sees a man
on board waving a red cap as the foundering schooner begins to break up. He thinks he recognizes the man. Later, after the sea washes the body of the man ashore, David sees the face of Steerforth: "I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school." Steerforth's death signals the death of the naive and guileless side of David–the side of David who believed in
Steerforth as a flawless hero. But on this day, not even the sea will accept Steerforth; it spews him out. David comes away with a better understanding of human beings. Some–like the Peggottys–are good; some–like Uriah Heep–are bad. But many–like Steerforth–are good and bad. .......Unfortunately, in Steerforth's case, the bad triumphs over the good. Ironically, Ham
drowns when swimming out to save Steerforth, the man who stole Emily from him. He does not realize, of course, that the man he is attempting to rescue is Steerforth. Steerforth, thus, brings down both Emily and Ham.
.......There are many examples of foreshadowing in the novel, but perhaps the most striking–and most ominous–are the words spoken by Steerforth when he visits Daniel Peggotty's seaside home. The narrator reports Steerforth as saying, "Dismal enough in the dark," he said: "and the sea roars as if it were hungry for us." Steerforth, of course, is swallowed up by the sea later in the novel.
.......To describe his characters and settings, Dickens skillfully uses figures of speech and other rhetorical devices. Following are examples of passages demonstrating his use of figures of speech.
I rolled myself up in a corner of the counterpane [bedspread] and cried myself to sleep. (Chapter 4)Anaphora
Repetition of a term, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups
It was a wonderfully fine thing to have that lofty castle to myself, and to feel, when I shut my outer door, like Robinson Crusoe, when he had got into his fortification, and pulled his ladder up after him. It was a wonderfully fine thing to walk about town with the key of my house in my pocket, and to know that I could ask any fellow to come home, and make quite sure of its being inconvenient to nobody, if it were not so to me. It was a wonderfully fine thing to let myself in and out, and to come and go without a word to anyone, and to ring Mrs. Crupp up, gasping, from the depths of the earth, when I wanted her - and when she was disposed to come. (Chapter 24)Metaphor
Comparison of one thing to an unlike thing without using like, as, or than
Mr. Creakle's part of the house was a good deal more comfortable than ours, and he had a snug bit of garden that looked pleasant after the dusty playground, which was such a desert in miniature, that I thought no one but a camel, or a dromedary, could have felt at home in it. (Chapter 6)Hyperbole
[The shop displayed] certain trays full of so many old rusty keys of so many sizes that they seemed various enough to open all the doors in the world. (Chapter 13)Simile
Comparison of one thing to an unlike thing using like, as, or than
I have an impression on my mind which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance, of the touch of Peggotty's forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater. (Chapter 2)
Study Questions and Essay Topics