FULL TITLE • The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger
AUTHOR • Charles Dickens
TYPE OF WORK • Novel
GENRE • Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel)
LANGUAGE • English
TIME AND PLACE WRITTEN • May 1849–November 1850; England
DATE OF FIRST PUBLICATION • May 1849–November 1850 (serial publication)
PUBLISHER • Bradbury and Evans
NARRATOR • An older David Copperfield narrates the story of his childhood from his happy home in London.
POINT OF VIEW • David writes in the first person, limiting his viewpoint to what he sees in his youth and his attitude at that time.
TONE • David reflects upon his youth fondly and remembers his naïve youth wistfully.
TENSE • Past
SETTING (TIME) • 1800s
SETTING (PLACE) • England
PROTAGONIST • David Copperfield
MAJOR CONFLICT • David struggles to become a man in a cruel world, with little money and few people to guide him.
RISING ACTION • David loses his mother and falls victim to a cruel childhood but then has a happier youth with Miss Betsey and Agnes.
CLIMAX • David realizes, while watching the reconciliation between the Strongs, that marriage cannot be happy unless husband and wife are equal partners. This realization forces David to contemplate his marriage to Dora in a new light and reconsider most of the values he has held up to this point.
FALLING ACTION • The various subplots involving secondary characters resolve themselves. David realizes his love for Agnes, marries her, and comes to grips with the treachery and death of his good friend Steerforth.
THEMES • The plight of the weak; equality in marriage; wealth and class
MOTIFS • The role of mothers; accented speech; physical beauty
SYMBOLS • The sea; flowers; Mr. Dick’s kite
FORESHADOWING • The opening scene’s observation that David’s birth is inauspicious; the adult David’s remark that Little Em’ly would have been better off if the sea had swallowed her as a child; Agnes’s distrust of Steerforth; Agnes’s blush when David asks her about her love life
CHARLES DICKENS WAS BORN on February 7, 1812, and spent the first ten years of his life in Kent, a marshy region by the sea in the east of England. Dickens was the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, was a kind and likable man, but his financial irresponsibility placed him in enormous debt and caused tremendous strain on his family. When Charles was ten, his family moved to London. Two years later, his father was arrested and thrown in debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother moved into the prison with seven of her children. Only Charles lived outside the prison in order to earn money for the struggling family. He worked with other children for three months pasting labels on bottles in a blacking warehouse, where the substance people used to make boots black was manufactured. His experiences at this warehouse inspired passages in David Copperfield.
After an inheritance gave John Dickens enough money to free himself from his debt and from prison, Charles attended school for two years at Wellington House Academy. He became a law clerk, then a newspaper reporter, and finally a novelist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), met with huge popular success. Dickens was a literary celebrity throughout England for the rest of his life.
In 1849, Dickens began to write David Copperfield, a novel based on his early life experiences. Like Dickens, David works as a child, pasting labels onto bottles. David also becomes first a law clerk, then a reporter, and finally a successful novelist. Mr. Micawber is a satirical version of Dickens’s father, a likable man who can never scrape together the money he needs. Many of the secondary characters spring from Dickens’s experiences as a young man in financial distress in London.
In later years, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child,” and many critics consider the novel to be one of his best depictions of childhood. Dickens’s other works include Oliver Twist (1837–1839), Nicholas Nickelby (1838–1839), and A Christmas Carol (1843). Perhaps his best known novel, Great Expectations (186O–1861) shares many thematic similarities with David Copperfield. Dickens died in Kent on June 9, 1870, at the age of fifty-eight.
David Copperfield is set in early Victorian England against a backdrop of great social change. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had transformed the social landscape and enabled capitalists and manufacturers to amass huge fortunes. Although the Industrial Revolution increased social mobility, the gap between rich and poor remained wide. London, a teeming mass of humanity lit by gas lamps at night and darkened by sooty clouds from smokestacks during the day, rose in dark contrast to Britain’s sparsely populated rural areas. More and more people moved from the country to the city in search of the opportunities that technological innovation promised. But this migration overpopulated the already crowded cities, and poverty, disease, hazardous factory conditions, and ramshackle housing became widespread. Dickens acutely observed these phenomena of the Industrial Revolution and used them as the canvas on which he painted David Copperfield and his other urban novels.
NOW A GROWN MAN, DAVID COPPERFIELD tells the story of his youth. As a young boy, he lives happily with his mother and his nurse, Peggotty. His father died before he was born. During David’s early childhood, his mother marries the violent Mr. Murdstone, who brings his strict sister, Miss Murdstone, into the house. The Murdstones treat David cruelly, and David bites Mr. Murdstone’s hand during one beating. The Murdstones send David away to school.
Peggotty takes David to visit her family in Yarmouth, where David meets Peggotty’s brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his two adopted children, Ham and Little Em’ly. Mr. Peggotty’s family lives in a boat turned upside down—a space they share with Mrs. Gummidge, the widowed wife of Mr. Peggotty’s brother. After this visit, David attends school at Salem House, which is run by a man named Mr. Creakle. David befriends and idolizes an egotistical young man named James Steerforth. David also befriends Tommy Traddles, an unfortunate, fat young boy who is beaten more than the others.
David’s mother dies, and David returns home, where the Murdstones neglect him. He works at Mr. Murdstone’s wine-bottling business and moves in with Mr. Micawber, who mismanages his finances. When Mr. Micawber leaves London to escape his creditors, David decides to search for his father’s sister, Miss Betsey Trotwood—his only living relative. He walks a long distance to Miss Betsey’s home, and she takes him in on the advice of her mentally unstable friend, Mr. Dick.
Miss Betsey sends David to a school run by a man named Doctor Strong. David moves in with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes, while he attends school. Agnes and David become best friends. Among Wickfield’s boarders is Uriah Heep, a snakelike young man who often involves himself in matters that are none of his business. David graduates and goes to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty, who is now married to Mr. Barkis, the carrier. David reflects on what profession he should pursue.
On his way to Yarmouth, David encounters James Steerforth, and they take a detour to visit Steerforth’s mother. They arrive in Yarmouth, where Steerforth and the Peggottys become fond of one another. When they return from Yarmouth, Miss Betsey persuades David to pursue a career as a proctor, a kind of lawyer. David apprentices himself at the London firm of Spenlow and Jorkins and takes up lodgings with a woman named Mrs. Crupp. Mr. Spenlow invites David to his house for a weekend. There, David meets Spenlow’s daughter, Dora, and quickly falls in love with her.
In London, David is reunited with Tommy Traddles and Mr. Micawber. Word reaches David, through Steerforth, that Mr. Barkis is terminally ill. David journeys to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty in her hour of need. Little Em’ly and Ham, now engaged, are to be married upon Mr. Barkis’s death. David, however, finds Little Em’ly upset over her impending marriage. When Mr. Barkis dies, Little Em’ly runs off with Steerforth, who she believes will make her a lady. Mr. Peggotty is devastated but vows to find Little Em’ly and bring her home.
Miss Betsey visits London to inform David that her financial security has been ruined because Mr. Wickfield has joined into a partnership with Uriah Heep. David, who has become increasingly infatuated with Dora, vows to work as hard as he can to make their life together possible. Mr. Spenlow, however, forbids Dora from marrying David. Mr. Spenlow dies in a carriage accident that night, and Dora goes to live with her two aunts. Meanwhile, Uriah Heep informs Doctor Strong that he suspects Doctor Strong’s wife, Annie, of having an affair with her young cousin, Jack Maldon.
Dora and David marry, and Dora proves a terrible housewife, incompetent in her chores. David loves her anyway and is generally happy. Mr. Dick facilitates a reconciliation between Doctor Strong and Annie, who was not, in fact, cheating on her husband. Miss Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth’s ward, summons David and informs him that Steerforth has left Little Em’ly. Miss Dartle adds that Steerforth’s servant, Littimer, has proposed to her and that Little Em’ly has run away. David and Mr. Peggotty enlist the help of Little Em’ly’s childhood friend Martha, who locates Little Em’ly and brings Mr. Peggotty to her. Little Em’ly and Mr. Peggotty decide to move to Australia, as do the Micawbers, who first save the day for Agnes and Miss Betsey by exposing Uriah Heep’s fraud against Mr. Wickfield.
A powerful storm hits Yarmouth and kills Ham while he attempts to rescue a shipwrecked sailor. The sailor turns out to be Steerforth. Meanwhile, Dora falls ill and dies. David leaves the country to travel abroad. His love for Agnes grows. When David returns, he and Agnes, who has long harbored a secret love for him, get married and have several children. David pursues his writing career with increasing commercial success.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Plight of the Weak
Throughout David Copperfield, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless. Dickens focuses on orphans, women, and the mentally disabled to show that exploitation—not pity or compassion—is the rule in an industrial society. Dickens draws on his own experience as a child to describe the inhumanity of child labor and debtors’ prison. His characters suffer punishment at the hands of forces larger than themselves, even though they are morally good people. The arbitrary suffering of innocents makes for the most vividly affecting scenes of the novel. David starves and suffers in a wine-bottling factory as a child. As his guardian, Mr. Murdstone can exploit David as factory labor because the boy is too small and dependent on him to disobey. Likewise, the boys at Salem House have no recourse against the cruel Mr. Creakle. In both situations, children deprived of the care of their natural parents suffer at the hands of their own supposed protectors.
The weak in David Copperfield never escape the domination of the powerful by challenging the powerful directly. Instead, the weak must ally themselves with equally powerful characters. David, for example, doesn’t stand up to Mr. Murdstone and challenge his authority. Instead, he flees to the wealthy Miss Betsey, whose financial stability affords her the power to shelter David from Mr. Murdstone. David’s escape proves neither self-reliance nor his own inner virtue, but rather the significance of family ties and family money in human relationships.
Equality in Marriage
In the world of the novel, marriages succeed to the extent that husband and wife attain equality in their relationship. Dickens holds up the Strongs’ marriage as an example to show that marriages can only be happy if neither spouse is subjugated to the other. Indeed, neither of the Strongs views the other as inferior. Conversely, Dickens criticizes characters who attempt to invoke a sense of superiority over their spouses. Mr. Murdstone’s attempts to improve David’s mother’s character, for example, only crush her spirit. Mr. Murdstone forces Clara into submission in the name of improving her, which leaves her meek and voiceless. In contrast, although Doctor Strong does attempt to improve Annie’s character, he does so not out of a desire to show his moral superiority but rather out of love and respect for Annie. Doctor Strong is gentle and soothing with his wife, rather than abrasive and imperious like Mr. Murdstone. Though Doctor Strong’s marriage is based at least partially on an ideal of equality, he still assumes that his wife, as a woman, depends upon him and needs him for moral guidance. Dickens, we see, does not challenge his society’s constrictive views about the roles of women. However, by depicting a marriage in which a man and wife share some balance of power, Dickens does point toward an age of empowered women.
Wealth and Class
Throughout the novel, Dickens criticizes his society’s view of wealth and class as measures of a person’s value. Dickens uses Steerforth, who is wealthy, powerful, and noble, to show that these traits are more likely to corrupt than improve a person’s character. Steerforth is treacherous and self-absorbed. On the other hand, Mr. Peggotty and Ham, both poor, are generous, sympathetic characters. Many people in Dickens’s time believed that poverty was a symptom of moral degeneracy and that people who were poor deserved to suffer because of inherent deficiencies. Dickens, on the other hand, sympathizes with the poor and implies that their woes result from society’s unfairness, not their own failings.
Dickens does not go so far as to suggest that all poor people are absolutely noble and that all rich people are utterly evil. Poor people frequently swindle David when he is young, even though he too is poor and helpless. Doctor Strong and Agnes, both wealthy, middle-class citizens, nonetheless are morally upstanding. Dickens does not paint a black-and-white moral picture but shows that wealth and class are are unreliable indicators of character and morality. Dickens invites us to judge his characters based on their individual deeds and qualities, not on the hand that the cruel world deals them.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Mothers and Mother Figures
Mothers and mother figures have an essential influence on the identity of the characters in David Copperfield. Almost invariably, good mother figures produce good children while bad mothers yield sinister offspring. This moral connection between mothers and children indicates Dickens’s belief that mothers have an all-important role in shaping their children’s characters and destinies.
The success of mother figures in the novel hinges on their ability to care for their children without coddling them. Miss Betsey, the aunt who raises David, clearly adores him but does not dote on him. She encourages him to be strong in everything he does and to be fair at all times. She corrects him when she thinks he is making a mistake, as with his marriage to Dora, and her ability to see faults in him helps him to mature into a balanced adult. Although Miss Betsey raises David to deal with the difficulties of the world, she does not block those hardships. Instead, she forces David to confront them himself. In contrast, Uriah’s mother, Mrs. Heep, dotes on her son and allows him to dominate her. As a result, Uriah develops a vain, inflated self-regard that breeds cruel behavior. On the whole, Dickens’s treatment of mother-child relationships in the novel is intended to teach a lesson. He warns mothers to love their children only in moderation and to correct their faults while they can still be fixed.
Dickens gives his characters different accents to indicate their social class. Uriah Heep and Mr. Peggotty are two notable examples of such characters whose speech indicates their social standing. Uriah, in an attempt to appear poor and of good character, consistently drops the “h” in “humble” every time a group of Mr. Wickfield’s friends confront him. Uriah drops this accent as soon as his fraud is revealed: he is not the urchin-child he portrays himself to be, who grew up hard and fell into his current character because of the cruelty of the world. Rather, Uriah is a conniving, double-crossing social climber who views himself as superior to the wealthy and who exploits everyone he can. Mr. Peggotty’s lower-class accent, on the other hand, indicates genuine humility and poverty. Dickens uses accent in both cases to advance his assertion that class and personal integrity are unrelated and that it is misleading to make any connection between the two.
In David Copperfield, physical beauty corresponds to moral good. Those who are physically beautiful, like David’s mother, are good and noble, while those who are ugly, like Uriah Heep, Mr. Creakle, and Mr. Murdstone, are evil, violent, and ill-tempered. Dickens suggests that internal characteristics, much like physical appearance, cannot be disguised permanently. Rather, circumstances will eventually reveal the moral value of characters whose good goes unrecognized or whose evil goes unpunished. In David Copperfield, even the most carefully buried characteristics eventually come to light and expose elusive individuals for what they really are. Although Steerforth, for example, initially appears harmless but annoying, he cannot hide his true treachery for years. In this manner, for almost all the characters in the novel, physical beauty corresponds to personal worth.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The sea represents an unknown and powerful force in the lives of the characters in David Copperfield, and it is almost always connected with death. The sea took Little Em’ly’s father in an unfortunate accident over which she had no control. Likewise, the sea takes both Ham and Steerforth. The sea washes Steerforth up on the shore—a moment that symbolizes Steerforth’s moral emptiness, as the sea treats him like flotsam and jetsam. The storm in the concluding chapters of the novel alerts us to the danger of ignoring the sea’s power and indicates that the novel’s conflicts have reached an uncontrollable level. Like death, the force of the sea is beyond human control. Humans must try to live in harmony with the sea’s mystical power and take precautions to avoid untimely death.
Flowers represent simplicity and innocence in David Copperfield. For example, Steerforth nicknames David “Daisy” because David is naïve. David brings Dora flowers on her birthday. Dora forever paints flowers on her little canvas. When David returns to the Wickfields’ house and the Heeps leave, he discovers that the old flowers are in the room, which indicates that the room has been returned to its previous state of simplicity and innocence. In each of these cases, flowers stand as images of rebirth and health—a significance that points to a springlike quality in characters associated with their blossoms. Flowers indicate fresh perspective and thought and often recall moments of frivolity and release.
Mr. Dick’s Kite
Mr. Dick’s enormous kite represents his separation from society. Just as the kite soars above the other characters, Mr. Dick, whom the characters believe to be insane, stands apart from the rest of society. Because Mr. Dick is not a part of the social hierarchies that bind the rest of the characters, he is able to mend the disagreement between Doctor and Mrs. Strong, which none of the other characters can fix. The kite’s carefree simplicity mirrors Mr. Dick’s own childish innocence, and the pleasure the kite offers resembles the honest, unpretentious joy Mr. Dick brings to those around him.
David Copperfield - The protagonist and narrator of the novel. David is innocent, trusting, and naïve even though he suffers abuse as a child. He is idealistic and impulsive and remains honest and loving. Though David’s troubled childhood renders him sympathetic, he is not perfect. He often exhibits chauvinistic attitudes toward the lower classes. In some instances, foolhardy decisions mar David’s good intentions.
David Copperfield (In-Depth Analysis)
Agnes Wickfield - David’s true love and second wife, the daughter of Mr. Wickfield. The calm and gentle Agnes admires her father and David. She suffers patiently through David’s other romances, and although she loves David, she is not overcome by jealousy. Agnes always comforts David with kind words or advice when he needs support.
James Steerforth - A condescending, self-centered villain. From his boyhood, Steerforth possesses a restless energy that he can neither satisfy nor divert. He charms both women and men for the feeling of power it gives him. He also abuses David, although David is too enraptured with him and too grateful for his patronage to notice.
James Steerforth (In-Depth Analysis)
Clara Peggotty - David’s nanny and caretaker. Peggotty is gentle and selfless, opening herself and her family to David whenever he is in need. She is faithful to David and his family all her life, never abandoning David, his mother, or Miss Betsey. In her kind motherliness, Peggotty contrasts with the cruel and unloving Miss Murdstone.
Little Em’ly - Peggotty’s unfaithful niece, who is sweet but also coy and vain. Little Em’ly’s desire to be a lady causes her to disgrace herself by running away from her family.
Uriah Heep - A two-faced, conniving villain who puts on a false show of humility and meekness to disguise his evil intentions. Uriah is motivated by his belief that the world owes him something for all the humiliations he suffered as a young man. Ultimately, Uriah’s veneer of humility proves as empty as his morals.
Uriah Heep (In-Depth Analysis)
Miss Betsey Trotwood - David’s eccentric, kind-hearted aunt. Although Miss Betsey’s intentions are mysterious at the beginning of the novel, her generosity toward David soon becomes clear, and she acts as David’s second mother.
Dora Spenlow - David’s first wife and first real love. Dora is foolish and giddy, more interested in playing with her dog, Jip, than in keeping house with David. Because David cannot bear to displease Dora, he permits her to retain the pouty habits of a spoiled child.
Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins Micawber - An unlucky couple crippled by constantly precarious finances. Although Mr. Micawber never succeeds at supporting his own family, he is generous and industrious in serving others. Mrs. Micawber stands by her husband despite his flaws and regardless of the hardships they suffer.
Tommy Traddles - Young David’s simple, goodhearted schoolmate. Traddles works hard but faces great obstacles because of his lack of money and connections. He eventually succeeds in making a name and a career for himself.
Clara Copperfield - David’s mother. The kind, generous, and goodhearted Clara embodies maternal caring until her death, which occurs early in the novel. David remembers his mother as an angel whose independent spirit was destroyed by Mr. Murdstone’s cruelty.
Mr. Edward Murdstone and Miss Jane Murdstone - The cruel second husband of David’s mother, and Murdstone’s sister. The Murdstones are strict and brutal not only toward David, but to his mother as well. Together, they crush David’s mother’s spirit.
Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle - Steerforth’s mother and her ward, the orphan child of her husband’s cousin. Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle are cruel and bitter toward the world and also haughty and proud, as evidenced by their overwhelming fondness for Steerforth and their disdain of David.
Mr. Peggotty, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge - The simple relatives of David’s nurse, Clara Peggotty. Mr. Peggotty, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge represent the virtues of simple people. Mr. Peggotty and Ham are sailors, Mrs. Gummidge a sailor’s widow. They are devoted and loving to each other and David.
Doctor Strong and Annie Strong - A man and woman who exemplify the best of married life. Doctor Strong and Annie are faithful and selfless, each concerned more about the other than about himself or herself. Their deep love for each other enables them to survive Uriah’s attempts to disrupt their bliss.
Analysis of Major Characters
Although David narrates his story as an adult, he relays the impressions he had from a youthful point of view. We see how David’s perception of the world deepens as he comes of age. We see David’s initial innocence in the contrast between his interpretation of events and our own understanding of them. Although David is ignorant of Steerforth’s treachery, we are aware from the moment we meet Steerforth that he doesn’t deserve the adulation David feels toward him. David doesn’t understand why he hates Uriah or why he trusts a boy with a donkey cart who steals his money and leaves him in the road, but we can sense Uriah’s devious nature and the boy’s treacherous intentions. In David’s first-person narration, Dickens conveys the wisdom of the older man implicitly, through the eyes of a child.
David’s complex character allows for contradiction and development over the course of the novel. Though David is trusting and kind, he also has moments of cruelty, like the scene in which he intentionally distresses Mr. Dick by explaining Miss Betsey’s dire situation to him. David also displays great tenderness, as in the moment when he realizes his love for Agnes for the first time. David, especially as a young man in love, can be foolish and romantic. As he grows up, however, he develops a more mature point of view and searches for a lover who will challenge him and help him grow. David fully matures as an adult when he expresses the sentiment that he values Agnes’s calm tranquility over all else in his life.
Uriah serves a foil to David and contrasts David’s qualities of innocence and compassion with his own corruption. Though Uriah is raised in a cruel environment similar to David’s, Uriah’s upbringing causes him to become bitter and vengeful rather than honest and hopeful. Dickens’s physical description of Uriah marks Uriah as a demonic character. He refers to Uriah’s movements as snakelike and gives Uriah red hair and red eyes. Uriah and David not only have opposing characteristics but also operate at cross-purposes. For example, whereas Uriah wishes to marry Agnes only in order to hurt David, David’s marriages are both motivated by love. The frequent contrast between Uriah’s and David’s sentiments emphasizes David’s kindness and moral integrity.
While David’s character development is a process of increased self-understanding, Uriah grows in his desire to exercise control over himself and other characters. As Uriah gains more power over Mr. Wickfield, his sense of entitlement grows and he becomes more and more power-hungry. The final scenes of the novel, in which Uriah praises his jail cell because it helps him know what he should do, show Uriah’s need to exert control even when he is a helpless prisoner. But imprisonment does not redeem his evil—if anything, it compounds his flaws. To the end, Uriah plots strategies to increase his control. Because he deploys his strategies to selfish purposes that bring harm to others, he stands out as the novel’s greatest villain.
Steerforth is a slick, egotistical, wealthy young man whose sense of self-importance overwhelms all his opinions. Steerforth underscores the difference between what we understand as readers and what David sees—and fails to see—in his youthful naïveté. David takes Steerforth’s kindness for granted without analyzing his motives or detecting his duplicity. When Steerforth befriends David at Salem House, David doesn’t suspect that Steerforth is simply trying to use David to make friends and gain status. Though Steerforth belittles David from the moment they meet, David is incapable of conceiving that his new friend might be taking advantage of him. Because Steerforth’s duplicity is so clear to us, David’s lack of insight into Steerforth’s true intentions emphasizes his youthful innocence. Steerforth likes David only because David worships him, and his final betrayal comes as a surprise to David but not to us.