“But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” This is Charles Dickens’s final, affectionate judgment of the work that stands exactly in the middle of his novelistic career, with seven novels preceding and seven following it (excluding the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870). When he began the novel, he was in his mid-thirties, secure in the continuing success that had begun with Sketches by Boz (1836) and Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). It was a good time to take stock of his life and to make use of the autobiographical manuscript he had put by earlier; he did not try to conceal the personal element from his public, who eagerly awaited each of the nineteen numbers of the serialized first publication of David Copperfield between May, 1849, and November, 1850. Dickens is readily identified with David Copperfield, and as Dickens phrased it, he viewed his life through the “long Copperfieldian perspective.”
Although much in the life of the first-person narrator corresponds to Dickens’s own life, the author altered a number of details. Unlike David, Dickens was not a genteel orphan but the eldest son of living and improvident parents; his own father served as the model for Micawber. Dickens’s childhood stint in a shoeblacking factory seems to have been somewhat shorter than David’s drudgery in the warehouse of the wine distributors Murdstone and Grinby, but the shame and suffering he felt were identical. Whereas young Dickens failed in his romance with a pretty young girl, David is permitted to win his first love, Dora, but Dickens then imparts to Dora’s character the faults of his own wife, Kate.
However fascinating the autobiographical details, David Copperfield stands primarily on its merits as a novel endowed with the bustling life of Dickens’s earlier works but controlled by his maturing sense of design. In addition to the compelling characterization of the protagonist, the novel abounds with memorable portrayals. The square face and black beard of Mr. Murdstone, always viewed in conjunction with that “metallic lady,” Miss Murdstone, evoke the horror of dehumanized humanity. Uriah Heep’s writhing body, clammy skin, and peculiarly lidless eyes suggest a subhuman form more terrifying than the revolting nature of his “umbleness.” Above all the figures that crowd the lonely world of the orphan rises the bald head of Mr. Micawber, flourishing his command of the English language and his quizzing glass with equal impressiveness.
These vivid characters notwithstanding, David is very definitely the hero of his own story. This is a novel of initiation, organized around the two major segments of the hero’s development, childhood and early manhood. The plot focuses steadily on the testing he receives that is to qualify him for full manhood. He makes his own choices, but each important stage of his moral progress is marked by the intervention and aid of his aunt.
Initially, David is weak simply because he is a child, the hapless victim of adult exploitation; but he is also heir to the moral weakness of his childish mother and his dead father, who was an inept, impractical man. Portentously, David’s birth is the occasion of a conflict between his mother’s Copperfieldian softness and Miss Betsey’s firmness, displayed in her rigidity of figure and countenance. From a state of childish freedom, David falls into the Murdstone world. The clanking chains of Miss Murdstone’s steel purse symbolize the metaphorical prison that replaces his innocently happy home. Indeed, for David, the world becomes a prison. After his five days of solitary confinement at Blunderstone, he enters the jail-like Salem House School, and after his mother’s death, he is placed in the warehouse, apparently for life. His involvement with the Micawbers offers no escape either, for he is burdened with their problems in addition to his own.
Although David repudiates the tyrannical firmness of which he is for a time a victim, he does not actively rebel except once, when he bites Mr. Murdstone. Instead, like his mother, he submits—fearfully to the Murdstones and Creakle and worshipfully to the arrogant Steerforth. He also escapes into the freedom of fantasy through books and stories and through the lives of others, which he invests with an enchantment that conceals from him whatever is potentially tragic or sordid.
David’s pliant nature, nevertheless, shares something of the resolute spirit of his aunt, Miss Betsey. Looking back on his wretched boyhood, David recalls that he kept his own counsel and did his work. From having suffered in secret, he moves to the decision to escape by his own act. The heroic flight is rewarded when Miss Betsey relents and takes him in. In accordance with her character, she trusses up the small boy in adult clothes and announces her goal of making him a “fine fellow, with a will of your own,” with a “strength of character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by anybody, or by anything.” The first cycle of testing is complete.
The conventionally happy years in Dover and Canterbury mark an interlude before the second major cycle of the novel, which commences with David’s reentry into the world as a young man. Significantly, he at first resumes the docile patterns of childhood. Reunited with Steerforth, he once again takes pride in his friend’s overbearing attitude, and he allows himself to be bullied by various people, above all servants. He evades the obligation to choose his own career by entering into a profession that affects him like an opiate. In Dora’s childlike charms, he recaptures the girlish image of his mother. At this point, however, the firm Miss Betsey, having cut short his childhood trials, deliberately sets in motion his adult testing with her apparent bankruptcy.
Responding to his new challenges, David falls back upon his childhood resources. At first, in unconscious imitation of Murdstone, he tries to mold Dora, but then consciously rejects tyranny and chooses instead resignation and understanding for the fact that she can be no more than his “child-wife.” He responds with full sympathy to the tragedy of Emily’s affair with Steerforth, but he needed that proof to be finally disenchanted with the willfulness that had captivated his boyish heart. Most important, he recovers the saving virtue of his childhood, his ability to suffer in secrecy, to keep his own counsel, and to do his work. As his trials pile up—poverty, overwork, disappointment in marriage, his wife’s death, and the tribulations of the friends to whom his tender heart is wholly committed—he learns to conquer his own undisciplined heart.
The mature David who emerges from his trials has profited from his experiences and heritage. His capacity for secret suffering is, for him as for Miss Betsey, a source of strength, but his, unlike hers, is joined to the tenderheartedness inherited from his parents. Her distrust of humans has made her an eccentric. His trusting disposition, on the other hand, though rendering him vulnerable, binds him to humankind.
Although Miss Betsey sets a goal of maturity before David, Agnes is the symbol of the hard-won self-discipline that he finally achieves. She is from the beginning his “better angel.” Like him, she is tenderhearted and compliant, yet far from being submissive; she is in control of herself in even the most difficult human relationships. Since it is never distorted by distrust of humankind, her firmness of character is the only influence David should accept in his pursuit of the moral goal Miss Betsey has set before him.
By the time David has recognized his love for Agnes, he has also attained a strength of character similar to hers. The appropriate conclusion to his quest for maturity is his union with Agnes—who is from the beginning a model of the self-disciplined person in whom gentleness and strength are perfectly balanced. Furthermore, the home he builds with her is the proper journey’s end for the orphaned child who has grasped at many versions of father, mother, family, and home: “Long miles of road then opened out before my mind, and toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against him, his own.” He has outgrown the child-mother, the child-wife, the childhood idols, even the childhood terrors, and he is a mature man ready to accept love “founded on a rock.” In the context of a successful, completed quest, the novel ends with a glimpse of the complete man, who writes far into the night to erase the shadows of his past but whose control of the realities is sufficient in the presence of the woman who is always symbolically “near me, pointing upward!”
How important is the role of the father in the novel? Is David affected by the absence of his father in his life? If so, how? If not, how does he manage to overcome this?
Answer: The role of the father appears to play a key role in the novel, for the two most morally questionable characters, Steerforth and Uriah Heep, grew up without a father figure in their lives. Steerforth even verbally laments this at one point in the novel, envying Ham for this reason, despite Ham's lower-class status. One can argue that David was affected by his lack of a father, with the lack of guidance resulting in the long, arduous journey he must undergo in order to finally find happiness. On the other hand, he was not affected the way Steerforth and Uriah were, for he eventually did find this happiness. This could be due to replacement father figures in David's life, such as Peggotty and Mr. Dick.
Mr. Micawber's character has intrigued many literary analysts over the years, especially due to the fact that he was easily relatable to many during Dickens' time. Why is this so, and what lessons can be learned from this character?
Answer: Mr. Micawber has a very large family, as was common during Dickens' time. Additionally, he is harangued by creditors, as were many who lived during the Age of Industrialism. He moves from place to place trying to escape his debts, and his view of his situation is far removed from reality. In the end however, he teaches readers that the best way to deal with these issues is to face them head on and to deal with the consequences. No matter how many times he moves, he can never escape from his troubles, providing a lesson for readers.
How does Dickens challenge the accepted views of women during his time to promote the idea of the empowered female?
Answer: During the time when the novel was written, women were supposed to be obedient housewives, caring for the home and following their husbands all but blindly. David and Dora easily accept that she can be a doll, a child-wife. But the novel immediately opens with a family whose male figurehead is already dead, and despite this fact, the family is content. In fact, the situation sours once a new male figurehead, Mr. Murdstone, appears in their lives. The positions of other single yet strong women in the novel, such as Peggotty and Miss Betsey, are important; consider, for instance, how Miss Betsey endures her ex-husband’s extortion.
Does Dickens equate high social class with low moral character and vice versa? Does he equate low social class with unhappiness? Explain with examples from the text.
Answer: Dickens does not seem to show a correlation between class and character, for Agnes comes from a wealthy family and yet is one of the kindest characters in the novel. Tommy Traddles is the same way: wealthy, yet extremely kind. Uriah Heep, on the other hand is not wealthy but is the novel's villain. Furthermore, Dickens does not seem to equate poverty with unhappiness. The Peggottys are a prime example, especially Ham: poor yet hardworking and, ultimately, happy. The unhappiness and lack of ethics displayed by characters such as Steerforth and the Micawbers stems from greediness and discontentment with their current situations. Dickens reminds us that an individual is responsible for his or own choices, not being a simple product of one’s situation.
What role does Australia play in the novel?
Answer: The land of Australia is a safe haven, a place where people can go and prosper in freedom and with a new life and identity. In the novel it is as more of a reward than a solution to problems or an escape. People only go there once they have faced and solved their problems in England. This can be seen in the case of the Micawbers, who first solve their debt and relational issues and then save enough money to go to Australia. It is also illustrated by Emily, who must return and face the family she ran away from before Mr. Peggotty, who welcomes her back and forgives her, can take her to Australia, where she can start a new life.
Although David is narrating his story as an adult, his memories, as he says, are similar to those of a child. Why does Dickens choose to narrate the story in this way, and how does it affect the way in which it is told?
Answer: Dickens had a fascination with children and the childish mind, admiring it for its ability to recall many details. In fact, this enables him to fill the novel with many small, seemingly unimportant details that in fact greatly add to character and situational descriptions. An example of this, among many others, is his description of Mr. Murdstone as having "black hair and whiskers" and "ill-omened black eyes." An adult might record these things as well, but they are especially meaningful to a child. Dickens also describes Mr. Murdstone with a childlike fear and mystery that uniquely enhance the character. Furthermore, making David seem more childlike makes him more likeable and associates him with other childlike characters in the novel, such as Ham and Traddles, both of whom are happy and respected in the story. This narration seems generally reliable.
The novel was written by Dickens as something of an autobiography. What elements of the novel coincide with Dickens' own life? Why do you think Dickens made the story deviate from his own life at certain points?
Answer: Simple research reveals many similarities between the lives of David and Dickens, including their careers as political writers-turned-novelists, troublesome relationships with Dora Spenlow and Maria Beadnell respectively, and time spent working under harsh factory conditions. Of course, their stories are not identical. For example, among other things, Dickens only worked for four months in the sweatshop, while David spent more time there. These elaborations and differences could make Dickens' own feelings about these times in his life more clear to readers, as well as give him some room to comment on the social injustices of his era and achieve his other goals as a novelist.
What significance does David's marriage to Dora have in the novel? Why do you suppose that Dickens chose to have the marriage end with Dora's death?
Answer: David's marriage to Dora reveals the theme of the "undisciplined heart." David knows even before he has married her that she is not mature and cannot handle household duties; nevertheless, he lets his passion dictate his actions. The marriage cannot last, not least because Dora is used to having her freedom. She, unlike the typical Victorian woman, cannot be bound and trapped by household chores and tasks, but being bound in this way, it is only expected that she must escape it, one way or another. In a society where divorce is frowned upon, a novelist often chooses death as a way for someone to get out of a bad marriage.
There are many references to the sea throughout the novel; what significance do these references have?
Answer: The sea has a mystical role from the beginning of the novel, when David is born with a caul, which supposedly protects people from death by drowning. It is vast and unpredictable, both beneficial and deadly, for while people like the Peggottys earn a living from the ocean, it also has the power to take away lives, including the fathers of Ham and Emily. It takes Steerforth's life, and when Ham tries to intervene, it takes Ham's life as well.
What role does Uriah Heep play in the novel? Why does Dickens characterize him in the way that he does?
Answer: Uriah Heep plays the novel's villain and serves as a warning to the readers. He is the quintessential slimy social-climber, who fakes humbleness and humility while going behind people's backs in attempts to boost his own status and demean others. This is seen both physically, through Uriah's slimy appearance, and through the use of foreshadowing, which Dickens uses to predict Uriah's betrayal. Note that Uriah finally seems to experience some moral correction after society (represented first of all by his victims) stands up for a better morality, sends him to prison, and works to make prison truly correctional for him.