Several of the characters in David Copperfield, like Mr. Macawber and Peggotty, are so memorable because they are lovable and warm-hearted, offering support and comfort as they help David in his journey to adulthood. They also are valuable to him as they help counter the effects of the darker characters in the novel. Dickens provides a rather pessimistic view of human nature in his depiction of Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Creakle, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep, who impede David’s journey to selfhood and expose him to a world of cruelty and corruption. In his portrayal of these four men, Dickens explores how character can be negatively shaped through experience, especially when restrictive social mores and unregulated social institutions are part of that experience.
David’s idyllic childhood ends when his mother marries Mr. Murdstone, which introduces David to the very worst in human nature. Dickens never provides any background information about Murdstone or about Creakle that might provide clues to the formation of their characters as he does with Steerforth and Heep. Thus, he suggests, the first two men are inherently evil through some defect in their character. This defect has a devastating effect on David.
Murdstone is a controlling, brutal man who David notes, “ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog.” Murdstone initially tries to hide his true self when he insists to David that he wants to be “best friends in the world” in order to persuade Clara to think that he will be a good father. But even though David has never come into contact with such evil before, he is an observant child and so is suspicious of this man who has “an eye that has no depth in it to be looked into.” David understands that a kind word would have made him respect Murdstone, but his stepfather only offers platitudes before he marries Clara and gains control of the household.
Besides causing him to live in constant fear of being verbally and physically abused, Murdstone, along with his sister, denies David his childhood, first by not allowing him any free time to play at his home and then by forcing him into servitude in the London warehouse. David becomes “sullen, dull, and dogged” under Murdstone’s tyranny. He escapes only through the adventure books his father left him that, he claims, “kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.”
Murdstone unleashes his cruelty on David’s mother as well, taking advantage of Clara’s pliant nature in order to control David and the household. He admits that his goal is to form Clara’s character, along with David’s. When she does not conform to his demands, he threatens to stop loving her, knowing that she could not bear this. He is unconcerned that pushing her to separate herself from her son breaks her heart along with her spirit, which leads to an early death.
Murdstone forces David to encounter another person who is as evil as he is when he sends him to boarding school. Mr. Creakle, who runs Salem House, enjoys the power he has over the boys as Murdstone enjoyed the power he had over Clara and David. Creakle gloats to David, “when I say I’ll do a thing, I do it, . . . and when I say I will have a thing done, I will have it done.” His nature is as cruel as Murdstone’s. David notes that “he had a delight in cutting at the boys, which was like the satisfaction of a craving appetite.” Creakle compounds David’s misery until he is able to establish a sense of community with the other boys at school.
The most popular boy in that community is James Steerforth, who decides that he will accept David as a friend. Steerforth, along with Uriah Heep, are more complex characters than Murdstone and Creakle, representing Dickens’s belief that environment also has a profound effect on character and that a dark nature can emerge regardless of which...
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