illustration of two young men standing in 19th century garb and looking at one another

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Overview

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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 novel’s complexity, he finds it “admirable” that such a “densely crowded” novel is “never confused” and points out how all the narrative elements come together to form the book’s main ideas. Citing its universality, Brown claims, “the imagined group of characters . . . and the conflicts among them, after the lapse of almost a century, still seem so much a part of the streaming course of human life.” Monroe Engel in his 1959 book The Maturity of Dickens agrees; he states that “David Copperfield has captured the imagination of readers for a century.”

Bert G. Hornback in his 1968 essay on the novel echoes this sentiment in his conclusion: this is “Dickens’s most ambitious undertaking; it is also his most complete, most satisfying, and most fully satisfactory achievement. To borrow a phrase from the text, if Agnes could do without it, we certainly could not.”

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David Copperfield


Essays and Criticism