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David Copperfield
By Charles Dickens  (1812-1870)
A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Type of Work
David Copperfield is a novel written in first-person point of view. It is sometimes referred to as an apprenticeship novel because it centers on the period in which a young person grows up—that is, serves his apprenticeship. This type of novel was pioneered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). An apprenticeship novel can also be identified by its German name, bildungsroman, meaning novel (roman) of educational development (bildungs). Dickens based the book in part on the difficult early years of his own life. The narration changes names, locales, and other details of Dickens’s life but retains its general tenor. For example, when Dickens was only a child, he had to leave school to work in a factory that made shoe polish. In the novel, David Copperfield has to leave school to work in a warehouse washing and labeling bottles used in the wine trade. David’s initials (D.C.) are, of course, the reverse of Dickens’s (C.D.). 

Publication Dates and Full Title
David Copperfield (full original title: The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger) was published in monthly installments between May 1849 and November 1850. An edition in book form was published near the end of 1850. 


The novel begins in the early 19th 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.)
Main Characters
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 Peggoty 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." 
Micawber Family Wilkins Micawber's wife and four children. 
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 who 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 the school at Canterbury from which David graduates.
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.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
At midnight on a Friday in March, Mrs. Clara Copperfield—a widow of six months—bears a son at her home in Blunderstone, Suffolk, in eastern England. She names him David, after his father. 

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 a year. 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."

Daniel Peggotty and Ham visit David at the school, bringing him crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. When Steerforth makes the acquaintance of the Peggottys, he and they get along like old friends. On one occasion, David takes Steerforth on a visit to the Peggotys at Yarmouth.

One morning in the parlor of the school, David receives news from Mrs. Creakle that his mother has died in childbirth. Mrs. Copperfield was a delicate creature whose health declined after Murdstone married her and subjected her to his rigid ways. The news breaks David's heart, of course, but Mrs. Creakle treats him kindly during this time—unlike her husband, who sits nearby eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Mrs. Copperfield's baby fails to thrive and also dies.

When David goes home for the funeral, Murdstone is the same as before: mean, malicious, altogether odious. He decides to fire the only friend David can turn to, Peggotty. Fortunately for her, she has another home to go to, for she finally consents to marrying a wagon driver named Barkis, who had long been courting her with the simple phrase, “Barkis is willin'.”

Murdstone then withdraws David from school and sends him to London to work in a warehouse that Murdstone maintains for the wine business he operates with Mr. Grinby. On the trip to the big city, he wears a white hat with a band of black crepe to indicate that he is in mourning for a loved one. At the warehouse, the days are long and hard. There is no shortage of work for David, but he never has enough to eat. His job, for which he receives six shillings a week, is to wash and label wine bottles. In this task, he trains under another boy, Mick Walker, the son of a bargeman. One of David's co-workers is a boy named Mealy Potatoes, the son of a waterman. (Warehouse workers gave Mealy his odd name because of his pale complexion). When David makes friends with the men who work in the warehouse and tells them stories based on books he has read, Mealy becomes jealous and rises up against David. However, Mick Walker puts Mealy in his place. Overall, though, life at the warehouse—with its shabby surroundings and the long hours of menial labor —depresses David terribly. 
    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
    inspire him with a sudden idea, and he added, briskly, "I should wash him!" (Chapter 13)
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.

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.”

At the law office of Mr. Wickfield, David meets the repulsive Uriah Heep, a law clerk. Heep, who resembles a walking corpse, claims to be a humble, lowly person. But he cannot hide a certain sinister aura about him—a cold malevolence that he displays in his vigilant eyes. What is he up to?

The years pass and David graduates as an accomplished young gentleman. While journeying to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty and Barkis, David mulls over the type of work he would like to do. He also runs into Steerforth, and they stop at Steerforth’s house in Highgate before going on to Yarmouth. There, he meets Steerforth's mother and Rosa Dartle, the daughter of a relative. When Rosa's parents died, Mrs. Steerforth took her in as a companion. Although Rosa is not pretty, she has some commendable features. The very noticeable scar on her lip is not one of them. When David mentions it, Steerforth says he caused it: "I was a young boy, and she exasperated me, and I threw a hammer at her."
Mrs. Steerforth obviously dotes on her son, for she speaks often of him and shows David his picture as a baby. Rosa Dartle, too, is enthralled with Steerforth and hopes someday to marry him, although he pays her little heed. During their stay there, David and Steerforth ride horses, and Steerforth gives David lessons in fencing and boxing.

In Yarmouth, David learns that Ham and Emily—who has blossomed into a lovely young lady—are engaged. During their stay, Steerforth becomes a friend of the family and furtively eyes the attractive Emily. They remain in the vicinity for two weeks, taking their ease. Steerforth goes boating with Daniel Peggotty while David, who has no particular interest in the sea, occupies himself in other ways. David also visits his boyhood home, Blunderstone, while Steerforth remains in Yarmouth (apparently meeting secretly with Emily). When David returns to Yarmouth, Steerforth is in a dark mood, but he does not tell David the cause of it.

David decides to accept a position in the law firm of Spenlow and Jorkins as an apprentice proctor, a type of solicitor who practices law in admiralty and ecclesiastical courts. He lodges in an apartment rented by a Mrs. Crupp. To be on his own—and to be master of his own place of residence—gives him no small pleasure. When he meets Spenlow’s beautiful daughter, Dora, David becomes infatuated with her. It so happens that Dora is an acquaintance of Jane Murdstone. Meanwhile, David learns from Agnes Wickfield that Uriah Heep has taken advantage of her father and manipulated his way into a partnership with him. Poor Spenlow. David had always thought of Heep as a schemer.

Meanwhile, David learns that Barkis—the husband of Peggoty, his dear childhood nurse—is dying. After arriving at the bedside of Barkis, David is told by Daniel Peggoty, "He's going out with the tide." When Barkis sees David, he says feebly, "Barkis is willin.' " Then he dies. David later learns that there is an even greater loss in the Peggotty family: Emily has absconded with Steerforth. After charming her with his winning ways, he ran away with her. She leaves a note informing the Peggottys that she is with Steerforth but makes no mention of marriage plans. Daniel Peggotty goes to search for her. David later hears more unsettling news: Betsey Trotwood has gone bankrupt as a result of business transactions made on her behalf by the Wickfield law firm. With no one else to turn to, she and Mr. Dick move to David’s lodgings.

To meet his growing financial responsibilities, David makes extra money by working for Dr. Strong, the master of the Canterbury school from which David graduated. David also becomes secretly engaged to Dora Spenlow. When Jane Murdstone learns of the engagement, she tattles to Mr. Spenlow. Shortly thereafter, however, Spenlow dies without a will in an accident, and Dora moves in with two aunts.

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.

Steerforth leaves Emily, and she returns to Yarmouth after Littimer, a servant in the Steerforth household, proposes to her. Tongues wag about her affair with Steerforth, and jealous Rosa Dartle confronts and humiliates her. Mr. Peggotty and Emily decide to move to Australia, where Emily can get a fresh start away from gossips.

Amid all of these developments, Dora gives birth, but the child does not survive. Dora remains bedridden while David and Tommy Traddles go to Canterbury after Micawber gets the goods on Uriah Heep. After he is exposed as a cheat, Mr. Wickfield regains his dignity and his law firm and Heep is sent to prison. After David returns to be with Dora, her lingering illness claims her life. Agnes Wickfield is attending her at the moment of her death.

Micawber and his family decide to go to Australia with Peggottys to seek their fortune after Betsey Trotwood offers to give them money for the trip. Before everyone debarks, David carries a letter from Emily to Ham. Upon David's arrival, a powerful storm strikes and Ham swims out to save victims of a wrecked schooner. One of those aboard is Steerforth. He drowns. So does Ham when he tries to save him.

After the Peggottys and Micawbers leave for Australia, David sojourns in Switzerland to regain himself after enduring the shock of the deaths of Dora, Ham, and Steerforth. In time, he thinks about Agnes and realizes that he has loved her all along. Unfortunately, he believes, she regards him only as a friend. However, when he reveals his feelings for her, she informs him that she has always loved him. His marriage to Dora, of course, prevented her from saying so. They marry and have many children, and David’s career as a writer continues to blossom. He begins writing his autobiography.

In Australia, “something turns up” for Micawber: He becomes a magistrate in Port Middlebay.


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.”
    Mrs. Gummidge: I am a lone lorn creetur [creature]'
    Wilkins Micawber: “Something will turn up.”
    Uriah Heep: I am a very umble [humble] person. 
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:
    Mr. Dick: He flies kites.
    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 ogledSteerforth, she was obliged to meet the finger half-way, and lay her nose against it. 
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:
    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. In addition, several adults suffer abuse in various settings at the hands of other adults—and society in general. For example, Clara Copperfield languishes and dies under the tyranny of Edward Murdstone. Betsey Trotwood’s husband, from whom she separated, beat her on one occasion and threatened to throw her out of a window.

The brother of eccentric Mr. Dick, declaring him mad, had planned to place him in an asylum for the rest of his life before Betsey Trotwood rescued him and took him into her home. Wilkins Micawber and his family suffer the abuse of a society that imprisons them. Emily, as a young adult, endures the sexual abuse of Steerforth and the sexual harassment of Littimer. On the road to Dover, David encounters a tinker who has beaten the woman with him. She has a black eye and is wiping blood from her face.

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 19th 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

Perseverance—seasoned with humor and hope—enables David Copperfield to overcome formidable obstacles. Wilkins Micawber also prevails against adversity, thanks to his undying optimism. In addition, Daniel Peggotty does not give up on Emily even though she has become a "fallen" woman. 

Other Themes

Dickens also develops the following themes in the novel: (1) the need for education and prison reform, (2) the obligation to care for the impoverished and the mentally deficient, (3) the importance of perseverance (David, Micawber, and other characters continue to strive against adverse circumstances and ultimately succeed).


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. 

Figures of Speech

To describe his characters and settings, Dickens resorts often to figures of speech and other rhetorical devices. Following are examples of passages containing such devices. 
Passage With Figure of Speech Underlined Name and Definition of Figure of Speech 
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) Anaphora: Repetition of a term, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other. Here, Dickens repeats the words it was a wonderfully fine thing.
Allusion: Robinson Crusoe is the title character in the famous Daniel Defoe novel (1719) in which Crusoe is marooned on an island and must fend for himself until he is rescued many years after first setting foot on the island. 


I rolled myself up in a corner of the counterpane [bedspread] and cried myself to sleep. (Chapter 4) Alliteration: Repetition of a consonant sound. The letter c is repeated.
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) Metaphor: Comparison of one thing to an unlike thing without using like, as, or than. The playground is being compared to a desert.
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) Simile: Comparison of one thing to an unlike thing by using like, as, or than. Peggotty's forefinger is being compared to a nutmeg-grater.
Soon I was at our house, where the bare old elm-treeswrung their many hands in the bleak wintry air, personification. (Chapter 8)  Alliteration: Repetition of a consonant sound.
Personification: Comparison of the elm trees to human beings.


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Who are the most admirable characters in the novel? Who are the least admirable?
  • Who is the most memorable character, good or bad?
  • How did the England of Charles Dickens treat its poorest citizens and its orphans? Did the government provide them any support? Did the upper classes maintain any private programs for them? Did poor children receive a government-subsidized education at schools? What were schools like? How widespread was child labor? 
  • What was a workhouse?
  • What was a debtors' prison (like King's Bench Prison, in which the Micawbers were held)?
  • David responds to the love he receives from his mother, from Peggoty, from Aunt Betsey, and from others. But he rebels against Murdstone's beatings by biting him. Do these developments suggests that the adage advising "spare the rod and spoil the child" is wrong?
  • At what point in David's childhood do you realize that he has enough pluck and strength of character to overcome adversity?
  • Did David's memory of his mother influence his choice of Dora Spenlow as his first wife?
  • Research the life of Charles Dickens. Then discuss in an essay the extent to which he based David Copperfield's character and experiences on his own.
  • Write an essay that attempts to fathom Steerforth's character. What makes him tick? Why did he lure Emily away?