David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Charles Dickens is considered one of the great Victorian novelists, a reputation that was established soon after his novels began to be published. His first book, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), written when he was in his early twenties, became an immediate success in Britain and the United States. Soon after his death, scholars downplayed his literary significance, a pattern that continued for the next few decades. Yet in the 1950s, his reputation regained its status to the point that by the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, no other English author except Shakespeare had merited as much critical attention.

In his Irish Essays, Matthew Arnold, a contemporary of Dickens, comments on the experience of writing the review of the novel: “what a pleasure to have the opportunity of praising a work so sound, a work so rich in merit, as David Copperfield.” He finds “treasures of gaiety, invention, life” and “alertness and resource,” in this “charming and instructive book.” Arnold insists that “a soul of good nature and kindness govern[s] the whole!”

In his 1948 article, “The Art of ‘The Crowded Novel,’” E. K. Brown praises “the beauty of [the novel’s] structure,” finding “the device of contrast . . . admirably used in the plot.” Brown explores “the subtlety with which Dickens renders the settings,” giving as an example Dickens’s reference to Aladdin’s palace as a metaphor for Mr. Peggotty’s boat: “Dickens renders perfectly not only the intimacy of the family with the sea . . . but what is more important to the idea of the novel, . . . the fairy-tale security and happiness of the family’s life.” In a discussion of the...

(The entire section is 423 words.)