Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Blunderstone Rookery. Suffolk birthplace and boyhood home of David Copperfield, who often associates the place in his mind with the nearby tombstone of his father. Charles Dickens himself grew up in Suffolk and always tied it to childhood innocence. David’s earliest memories of happy evenings with his mother and nurse Peggotty soon give way to the strict and cruel house presided over by his new stepfather and aunt. He retreats to his room and finds refuge in his father’s books. This same room is a prison for five days of punishment which to the boy seem a nightmare of years. Peggotty tries to send him affection and tenderness through the keyhole, but nothing can forestall Mr. Murdstone’s determination to send him away to school.
*Yarmouth. Norfolk seaport, about 110 miles northeast of London, where Dan Peggotty and his three dependents live in a boathouse. Little David first travels here on a two-week visit, little knowing that he will return to a changed rookery with Murdstone installed as his stepfather. For David, the boathouse is better than Aladdin’s palace; he even has his own special room, something that becomes increasingly important to him. In later visits to the Ark, as he calls it, David brings his school friend, Steerforth, unwittingly leading to Little Em’ly’s seduction. Her surrogate father, Peggotty, then insists on placing a candle in the window as a visible...
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The Beginnings of Social Change
British society was divided at the end of the eighteenth century roughly into three classes: the aristocracy, the gentry, and the yeoman class. Yet the revolutionary fervor at end of that century, exemplified by the American and French Revolutions, was seeping into the social fabric of England. In the following several decades, class distinctions began to relax and be redefined. As people in the lower middle classes became more prosperous, they began to emulate their social betters, as did the landed gentry of the upper middle class. During the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of people rose financially through commercial work and factory production. These middle-class individuals increasingly became absorbed with a cultivation of the proper manners, dress, and décor, practiced by the gentry and lesser members of the aristocracy. Examples of this rising middle class can be seen with the Murdstones and the Steerforths in David Copperfield. David’s parents, his aunt, and the Wickfields are members of the middle class, but they do not try to adopt the pretensions of the aristocracy.
The contrast between the wealthy and poorer classes, however, was evident in London during the nineteenth century. A small portion of the city was occupied by well-kept residences and shopping areas. Upper and middle-class residents stayed in these areas,...
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David Copperfield begins in Blunderstone Rookery, a house in rural Suffolk. The rooks no longer nested on the property, but David's father had liked the idea of living near a rookery. This home is an ideal setting in the years before his mother's second marriage. After she marries Murdstone, it becomes a prison with Murdstone and his equally "firm" sister as keepers.
Before this second marriage David goes with his nurse, Peggotty, to her native region, the seacoast near Yarmouth. Yarmouth, Dickens told his friend, John Forster, was "the strangest place in the wide world." It has miles of flat coast, an even sea, and marshes reaching toward the sea. Peggotty's brother Dan'l lives in a small house that has a roof made from the bottom of a boat. Dickens had a lifelong fascination for the sea which figures prominently in several of his books, including Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. David and Em'ly spend many hours collecting seashells and stones along that coast. During the days he spends in Yarmouth he falls innocently in love with her. The sea dominates the lives of Dan'l and his fellow fishermen, and they believe that many of their deaths will take place as the tide ebbs. David pays several visits to Yarmouth as the novel continues.
En route to his first school, Salem House Academy, David sees London for the first time. He is awe stricken, but his stay there is brief. Salem House is six miles outside the city at...
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David Copperfield was serialized in monthly, one-shilling installments from May 1849 to November 1850. Dickens knew that serialization affected his audience’s reading experience. He carefully constructed these installments so that each part relates to other parts and constitutes a complete unit in itself. He was concerned not only with David Copperfield’s installment arrangement, but also with the design of each installment’s chapters, the only narrative units over which he had full control.
Serial publication caused Victorian readers to pause between issues. Read aloud by fathers to their families, these installments provided home entertainment much like an ongoing television series does in the twenty-first century. Chapters in David Copperfield mark new beginnings or hindrances for David as they move the plot ahead, thus tantalizing readers. The beginning and ending of chapters become narrative stress points, crucial in emphasizing the novel’s thematic messages as well as providing a cliff-hanging effect to motivate readers to buy the next installment. Dickens’s use of chapter titles marks this natural stress point and presents readers with important details that foreshadow David’s future experiences and suggest a way to understand them.
Often chapter titles mark important stages in David’s life, such as in chapter 3, “I Have a Change,” announcing his trip to Yarmouth...
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Dickens attempted to write his autobiography, but found that some episodes in his early life were too painful to relive in an autobiographical or confessional fashion. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized account of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in an unsurpassed psychological portrait. Copperfield obviously depends on the memory of others to give an account of his birth and baby years. Dickens was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life. David Copperfield has this quality too. Dickens' imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptures not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lends that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield.
It is unlikely that Dickens knew the term bildungsroman but he sets up his novel along the lines of the classics in that genre. The events of an individual's life from childhood to a successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he faced and overcame in childhood and youth form an integral part of these works. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person's story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is...
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Dickens in David Copperfield is not as concerned as he usually is with "the condition of England question," Thomas Carlyle's term for Dickens' concern with the problems of contemporary English society. The overall tone of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations, differs very much from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Dombey and Son, which all preceded David Copperfield and from Bleak House and Little Dorrit, which came after it. The bildungsroman shows Dickens exploring his personality, tracing its origin and development. Social concerns do enter into the novel however. Salem House Academy is a school as brutal in its depiction of sadistic schoolmasters as the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby. Dr. Strong's school in Canterbury seems to have been the exception rather than the rule in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. But Dickens presents Salem House and the students' lives there without tirades against the obvious abuses of such an institution.
Dickens sees the evils of prostitution as the result of a male dominated society. Martha Endell and Little Em'ly are victims of that society, but there is no editorializing on the evils of prostitution per se.
While reporting the activities of Parliament, Dickens developed a contemptuous attitude toward that branch of the English government and toward the legal profession generally. He satirizes...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1850s: The lower classes crowded into English urban centers and working without any labor restrictions on their behalf are pessimistic about ever rising out of poverty. No social services are available to help them.
Today: England has social programs such as national health insurance and subsidized housing that help improve the lives of those in the lower class.
- 1850s: Voices emerge in protest against conditions for the working class, including a huge Chartist demonstration in 1848 in London. Protestors present a petition for working-class rights to Parliament containing over two million signatures.
Today: Protests in England during the beginning of the twenty-first century center on the war in Iraq, including anti-war marches and a movement to oust Prime Minister Tony Blair from the Labour Party for his alliance with and support of President Bush’s handling of the war.
- 1850s: This period is the height of Victorianism in England, characterized by a devotion to strict codes among the middle and upper classes even regarding vocabulary. For example, it is considered improper to use the word, leg, in mixed company. The word, limb, is the preferred term.
Today: Various languages, including different dialects of English, are spoken in England, from “posh,”...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is David Copperfield's childhood at all like that of American children in the nineteenth century?
2. Could an Edward Murdstone exploit a young naive woman like Clara Copperfield today? How has society and the legal system in England or America changed since 1850?
3. Dan'l Peggotty and his family are lower class English people. Has Dickens presented them realistically?
4. While England, even in 1850, was a democracy to an extent, it still had (and has) a rigid class system. How has Dickens presented this in David Copperfield?
5. Dickens is noted for his ability to create character in his fiction. How typically does he present minor characters in David Copperfield?
6. The very name, Little Em'ly, is rather sentimental. She is called this all through the novel. Does the reader ever see her as a realistic human being?
7. Is Dickens more skilled in presenting men than women? How has his experience influenced his views on human personalities?
8. How is London seen in David Copperfield? It was the world's largest city in 1850.
9. Lord Byron is the model Dickens had in mind when he created James Steerforth. Is his character accurately depicted in David's friend?
10. Wilkins Micawber is usually regarded as one of the supreme comic characters in English literature. By what standards is he comic? Have our views of what constitutes humor changed...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Freud admired Dickens both as a writer and for his insights into the mystery of the human personality. David Copperfield was his favorite novel by Dickens. A Freudian critic, Lawrence Frank, sees in certain passages of the novel material that matches Freud's "the Wolf Man," From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, and Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis. Is he right? Compare these writings.
2. Dickens was always careful to make certain that the speech patterns of his characters were accurate, whether they were Suffolk fishermen or London Cockneys. Comment on the speech patterns in David Copperfield.
3. Dickens obviously had great sympathy for women who had become prostitutes. For many years he advised Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had founded a Home for Homeless Women. He also helped her run this charity. How is this experience in his life reflected in David Copperfield?
4. Dickens' own education was meager, but education was a life-long concern for him. Compare his treatment of this theme in Nicholas Nickleby and Hard- Times versus David Copperfield.
5. Dickens respected the working people of England and insisted that their dignity should be protected. Is this born out in his writing? Compare his portraits of Dan'l Peggotty and Steven Blackpool in Hard Times, and workers in other Dickens' novels.
6. It has been said that Dickens does...
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Topics for Further Study
The introduction to this chapter notes the universality of the novel. Write a poem or short story in a modern setting about an element of the novel that you find universal.
Read Dickens’s Great Expectations and compare its coming of age theme to that of David Copperfield. Does Pip in the first novel face the same difficulties as David? What accounts for the differences? Make up a chart comparing and contrasting the two in regards to this theme.
Write a report on the treatment of children during the Victorian age. In your research, consider the following questions: How were orphans treated? How realistic was David’s description of his harsh treatment at school? Were there any laws protecting children who were part of the labor force? Choose one of these topics to focus on for your report.
Read a biography of Dickens and find specific parallels to incidents and people in David’s life. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation of your findings.
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Ten years after completing David Copperfield, Dickens wrote his second bildungsroman, Great Expectations (1860-61). There is little optimism despite the title in this work, and its hero, Pip (Phillip Pirrip) has a character that is much more like Dickens than David Copperfield. Unlike David, Pip is not patient and easy-going. He also becomes a snob who is embarrassed that his benefactor, Magwitch, is an escaped criminal. Another orphan character created by Dickens is Oliver Twist, and his story forms Dickens' third novel about a child caught in the underworld of London. Most of the characters in the major novels are either orphans or children who grow up in a single parent home like Steerforth in David Copperfield.
A film version of David Copperfield was made by MGM in 1935 with an all-star cast including Lionel Barrymore, W. C. Fields, Edna May Oliver and Basil Rathbone. Fields is outstanding as Wilkins Micawber, a role he was born to play. A made-for-television version was shot in England in 1970, but does not match in quality the earlier film. In 1999 the BBC made another production for Masterpiece Theater.
Another more recent bildungsroman is E. L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate, which portrays a street kid in New York during the 1930s. Billy becomes associated with Dutch Schultz, the prohibition-era gang leader. A film version appeared in 1991 that is excellent, with Dustin Hoffman playing...
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There have been several television and film versions of the novel dating from 1911. One version, available as of 2006 on DVD, was a television series produced in 2000, starring Hugh Dancy as David.
Several abridged and unabridged audio versions are also available. Books on Tape put out a popular, full-length cassette audio version in 1977.
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What Do I Read Next?
Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–1861) focuses on the coming of age of Pip, an orphan who must face the harsh realities of life in Victorian England. The novel is available from Random House (2006).
A remarkable form of social protest is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729), which suggests an outrageous solution to the famine in Ireland: babies should be eaten. This essay, along with other short works by Swift, is available in A Modest Proposal and Other Prose, from Barnes and Noble (2004).
Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist, the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1993) examines the public and private world of the Victorians, including their customs, rituals, occupations, and living conditions.
Sally Mitchell’s Daily Life in Victorian England (1996) focuses on a variety of lifestyles during this period from country gentry to urban slum dwellers.
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For Further Reference
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London, England: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990. Ackroyd says that the first biography by John Forster is too dull in places and that Edgar Johnson in his 1952 biography is frequently wrongheaded. Accordingly, he provides all the known facts about Dickens and enlivens his account with a "Prologue," describing the reaction in England and America after the writer's death, and several chapters which include a mock interview he has with Dickens during the author's lifetime, another chapter featuring Dickens in a fictional conversation with T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Chatterson, and another chapter in which Ackroyd himself is interviewed about how he wrote this biography. A thorough and entertaining book.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. A full study of the genre from its origin in Europe through the major British authors who have produced these works.
Ford, George H., and Lauriat Lane Jr. The Dickens Critics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972. A reprint of a book published by Cornell University Press in 1961. Includes essays by contemporaries of Dickens such as Poe, Henry James, and John Ruskin, and continues into our century. George H. Ford's perceptive essay on David Copperfield is included.
Frank, Lawrence. Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. Lincoln: University of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, Norton, 1973, pp. 117, 166.
Arnold, Matthew, “Mr. Creakle and the Irish,” in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, pp. 783, 784, 785; originally published in Irish Essays, Smith Elder, 1882.
Bloom, Harold, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Warner Books, 2002, pp. 776, 777.
Brown, E. K., “The Art of ‘The Crowded Novel,’” in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, pp. 790, 791, 792, 793, 794; originally published in Yale Review, N.S. 37, 1948.
Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1990.
Engel, Monroe, “The Theme of David Copperfield,” in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, p. 808; originally published in The Maturity of Dickens, Harvard University Press, 1959.
Hornback, Bert G., “David’s Vocation as Novelist: Frustration and Resolution in David Copperfield,” in David Copperfield, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome H. Buckley, Norton, 1990, p. 836; originally published in Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 8, 1968.
Kaplan, Fred, Dickens: A...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom’s introduction considers the novel as the original portrait of the artist as young man. Eight other essays, all written after 1969, include examinations of the novel’s moral unity and mirror imagery.
Collins, Philip. Charles Dickens: “David Copperfield.” London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Brief study that focuses on the work itself rather than on Dickens or his methods. Discusses the novel’s specific strengths and weaknesses and examines how the novel’s serial publication affected its structure. Most useful for the student who has read some of Dickens’ contemporaries.
Dunn, Richard J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1984. Intended for teachers but fascinating and helpful for students. Includes descriptions of other books and materials useful for understanding the novel and for determining discussion topics and approaches for classroom use.
Storey, Graham. “David Copperfield”: Interweaving Truth and Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A very accessible study. After three chapters that discuss the novel’s autobiographical elements and critical reception, Storey presents an extended reading focusing on children and...
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