“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!”