Study Guide Prepared by
Michael J. Cummings..©
Copperfield is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. It centers
on the maturation of the title character between boyhood and young manhood.
This genre was pioneered by German author Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm
Meister's Apprenticeship). Bildungsroman, a German word, means novel
(roman) of educational development (bildungs).
based David Copperfield 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.).
Dates and Full Title
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
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.)
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.
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.
Clara Copperfield's cruel second husband.
Jane Murdstone: Edward
Aunt Betsey Trotwood:
David's grand-aunt. She takes him in after he runs away from his warehouse
job in London.
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
Ham: Friendly, hard-working
adopted child of Daniel Peggotty.
Emily: Called Little
Em'ly, she is an engaging child adopted by Daniel Peggoty.
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
Servant of the Micawbers.
Barkis: Wagon driver
who courts Clara Peggotty with the simple phrase, "Barkis is willin."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
of Wilkins Micawber.
Mr. Dolloby: Shopkeeper
to whom young David, desperate for money, sells his waistcoat for ninepence.
Doorman at Salem House
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
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.
Michael J. Cummings..©
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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'."
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Australia, “something turns up" for Micawber: He becomes a magistrate in
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
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)
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.)
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]'
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
Repetition of a consonant
I rolled myself
up in a
of the counterpane
[bedspread] and cried
myself to sleep. (Chapter 4)
often as Mick Walker
the course of that forenoon, I mingled my tears with
I was washing
ugly old man
. . . rushed out of a dirty
. . . and seized me
by the hair of my
always observed this quickly,
I thought, and always roused him with a question
stopped short, put hishands
and doubled himself
up with laughter. (Chapter 42)
Repetition of a term, phrase,
or clause at the beginning of word groups
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.
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)
Every barn in the
neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot
of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected
with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. (Chapter
I imagined how the
winds of winter would howl round it [Copperfield's former home], how
the cold rain would beat upon the window-glass, how the moon
would make ghosts on the walls of the empty rooms, watching their solitude
all night. (Chapter 17)
"Oh, what do you want?'
grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. "Oh, my eyes
and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you
want? Oh, goroo, goroo!'
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.
bare old elm-trees wrung their many hands in the bleak wintry air. (Chapter
[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.
Comparison of the touch
of Peggotty's finger to the feel of a nutmeg grater
[Mr. Barkis] sat in his usual
place and attitude like a great stuffed figure. (Chapter 11)
Comparison of Barkis
to a stuffed figure
[H]is trembling hands . .
. were like the claws of a great bird . . . . (Chapter 13)
Comparison of Uriah Heep's
hands to bird claws
Doctor Strong looked almost
as rusty, to my thinking, as the tall iron rails and gates outside the
house; and almost as stiff and heavy as the
great stone urns that flanked
them . . . . (Chapter 14)
Comparison of Doctor
Strong to rails, gates, and stone urns
Study Questions and Essay
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
At what point in David's childhood
do you realize that he has enough pluck and strength of character to overcome
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