“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...
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