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

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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The Darker Characters

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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...

(This entire section contains 1704 words.)

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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 class has nurtured it.

Steerforth is the most charming boy at school, a quality that he retains throughout his life. David notices Steerforth because of his attractiveness and bearing, but his loyalty to his new friend is forged when Steerforth is sympathetic to David’s having to wear the “I bite” sign around school. He appears just as charming when David introduces him to the Peggottys and easily makes Em’ly fall in love with him.

Steerforth’s true character, however, emerges soon after he and David become friends. David is thrilled to be so privileged as to be chosen to bunk next to Steerforth, not complaining when the older boy selfishly insists that he tell adventure stories long into the night, preventing him from getting much sleep. Steerforth’s cruel streak appears during an altercation with Mr. Mell, one of the teachers at Salem House. Refusing to follow Mr. Mell’s direction, the arrogant Steerforth reveals his class bigotry as well as his lack of compassion when he refuses to recognize Mr. Mell as a gentleman and calls attention to the impoverished condition of his mother, which eventually gets Mr. Mell dismissed from his position at the school. David is too blinded by his devotion to Steerforth to recognize the boy’s cruel treatment of Mr. Mell, but Traddles notices it and declares, “Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!”

Steerforth’s bigotry emerges in his response to the Peggottys, even after he spends many evenings with them, enjoying their company. He later refers to them disparagingly as “that sort of people” and claims, “there’s a pretty wide separation between them and us. . . . They have not very fine natures.” David’s lack of maturity and continued innocence cause him to assume that Steerford’s words were spoken merely in jest. David’s lack of a clear sense of self prompts him to overlook Steerforth’s condescension toward him as well. The older boy never treats David as his equal and takes to calling him “Daisy” in London because of his obvious innocence. Agnes clearly sees that David “has made a dangerous friend,” but her dear friend is still too blinded by his trusting nature to accept her warning.

As his relationship with Em’ly develops, Steerforth does show signs of guilt but quickly blames his behavior on not having been raised by a father. He fails to note that David did not have a father either, except a very cruel one. But Dickens does suggest that Steerforth’s environment shapes his character when he introduces his mother who cruelly dismisses Mr. Peggotty and his obvious distress over Em’ly’s situation. She shows no concern for Em’ly, only for herself and her son, who she is sure will be ruined if he marries Em’ly.

Miss Dartle presents the most compelling evidence of Mrs. Steerforth’s influence on her son’s character when she attacks the elderly woman after Steerforth’s death. She insists that Steerforth was ruined by his mother’s “pampering of his pride and passion,” declaring, “from his cradle [you] reared him to be what he was, and stunted what he should have been” by encouraging his arrogance and selfishness.

When Em’ly runs off with Steerforth, David is forced to recognize his friend’s damaged nature. He understands that there is something wrong with Uriah, however, as soon as he meets him. In Uriah, Dickens has created a true grotesque, whose appearance and mannerisms become an outward expression of the evil within. Initially, David tries not to judge him by his “cadaverous face” or the “snaky twistings of his throat and body,” which occur “when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly.” Yet Dickens turns Uriah’s evil into a supernatural force that cannot be overlooked: When David first meets Uriah, he sees the boy blowing into a horse’s nostrils, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”

Uriah has learned to hide his true self through a veneer of “umbleness,” which, he insists, defines him and his mother. He is able to manipulate others, especially Mr. Wickfield, through careful study of their weaknesses and by pretending that he would never assume to try to move above his class, maneuvers designed to gain their trust. His subtle watchfulness even works on David, who distrusts him immediately but does not initially realize that Uriah is taking advantage of David’s “juvenile frankness.”

When his true character emerges after Traddles exposes his criminal activities, Uriah reveals that, as was the case with Steerforth, his experiences have shaped him. In Uriah’s case, the social system that created rigid rules making it almost impossible to move above one’s class taught him how to gain power over people and so take the revenge that the system fostered within his heart. Uriah explains that he and his family were taught “a deal of umbleness” and were forced “to be umble to this person, and umble to that . . . and always to know our place and abase ourselves before our betters.” His father reinforced this behavior, thinking that it was the best way for his son to “get on.” Uriah admits that this training enabled him to gain a measure of power: “I got to know what umbleness did and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite.” After this admission, David acknowledges, “I had never doubted his meanness, his craft and malice; but I fully comprehended now . . . what a base, unrelenting and revengeful spirit, must have been engendered by this early, and this long, suppression.”

Dickens’s pessimistic view of human nature, as evidenced by the cruel actions of these four characters who have such a profound effect on David’s life, is tempered by the goodness and compassion of his friends and family, who are often able to repair the damage that these four have accomplished. The novel also provides a forum for Dickens’s views of the inherent nature of evil as well as a critique of a society that enables and shapes this darker side of humanity.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on David Copperfield, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Psychological Projection in David Copperfield and Franz Kafka's Work

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When we speak of psychological fiction, we generally mean the use of probing methods, like introspection or analysis; or we mean enveloping techniques, like point of view and stream of consciousness, which simulate the flow of inner conflict. But there is another kind of fiction, the projective novel, in which surface life reflects the inner self. David Copperfield belongs to that tradition. As the hero views the world, his feelings fuse with outward action, and his selection of events advances inward meaning. Franz Kafka saw this when he called Amerika his ‘Dickens novel’ in method and detail. By ‘method’ he apparently meant the dream-effects in Copperfield: the infantile perspective on a world controlled by elders, and the hero’s progress through that world toward ultimate redemption. As Kafka knew, the childlike view connects unconscious tensions with the conscious scene. Because the child lacks self-awareness, and because he fails to understand his elders, his bafflement aligns two realms of feeling; and in a world of harsh repression, his need for inner growth becomes directive and informing. In his early fiction, Kafka borrowed about six stages of that growth from Copperfield, plus two regressions. These ‘imitations’ alone suggest a formal sequence for the novel; but keeping them in reserve, consider simply the method which he so admired, especially as it strengthens early chapters.

In Kafka, inner states are projected through fantastic situations, then treated in precise detail; in Dickens, outer scenes are real, but are made to seem fantastic through projected feelings: in either case, the effect is of a surface charged with baffling implications. For Dickens, the creation of that surface came naturally, as part of his attempt to master childhood pain. In Copperfield he had summoned up the most anguished memories of youth: his wretched job in a blacking warehouse, his rejection by Maria Beadnell, and his earlier defeat within the home. With an artist’s instinct, he had given form and texture to those episodes; and with genial and expansive humour, he had eased their pain and enlarged their meaning. Thus David’s birth is to a world informed by sexual conflict— as heralded by his strident aunt, Miss Trotwood. Since her marriage to a younger man has ended badly, she has renounced the male sex and has even trained her maids to follow suit. Now she wants to train the approaching child, whose sex must be feminine and whose name must be her own: “There must be no mistakes in life and with this Betsey Trotwood. There must be no trifling with her affections”. But the babe’s name is David, a mistake which makes her vanish “like one of those supernatural beings” whom the boy is privileged to see by virtue of his birth on Friday midnight. From this renouncing spirit, he does see that marriage seldom works, and that the trouble seems to begin with sex in children; but her ghosthood is his own invention, and its comic form, his reaction to impending pain.

In Chapter 2 the pain begins. His first memories are of his mother and nurse Peggotty, as loving protectors. A fierce cock makes him shiver, and he dreams at night of geese with stretching necks, as a man might dream of threatening lions. There are two parlours in the house: in one he sits with Peggotty and his mother, in complete security; in the other he feels doleful, for Peggotty has told him of his father’s funeral there. When his mother reads to them, in the second parlour, “how Lazarus was raised up from the dead”, the boy becomes frightened; they are forced to quiet him, that night, by showing him the churchyard from his window, “with the dead all lying in their graves at rest, below the solemn moon”. His father lies in one of those graves, and David fears his resurrection. Another night he suddenly asks about marriage: “if you marry a person, and the person dies, why then you may marry another person, mayn’t you, Peggotty?” He is worried about the man who walks his mother home from church. When she returns that night, the man is with her, and the boy is jealous of his touch. His name is Murdstone, which David’s aunt compares with Murderer, to fit his surface rôle; but Murdstone also means the murdered man beneath his gravestone, who has risen now to assert his rights—and Dickens makes the tie with conscious skill. One day the boy agrees to a ride with Murdstone. Seated before him on his horse, he looks up at his face and thinks him handsome, especially in his mother’s eyes. Then they come to the hotel where Murdstone’s friends are waiting:

They both rolled on to their feet, in an untidy sort of manner, when we came in, and said, “Halloa, Murdstone! We thought you were dead!”

“Not yet,” siad Mr. Murdstone.

“And who’s this shaver?” said one of the gentlemen, taking hold of me.

“That’s Davy”, returned Mr. Murdstone. . . .

“What! Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield’s incumbrance?” cried the gentleman. “The pretty little widow?”

“Quinion”, said Mr. Murdstone, “take care, if you please. Somebody’s sharp”.

“Who is?” asked the gentleman, laughing. . . .

“Only Brooks of Sheffield”, said Mr. Murdstone.

I was quite relieved to find that it was only Brooks of Sheffield, for, at first, I really thought it was I. . . .

“And what is the opinion of Brooks of Sheffield, in reference to the projected business?”

“Why, I don’t know that Brooks understands much about it at present”, replied Mr. Murdstone; “but he is not generally favourable, I believe.”

There was more laughter at this, and Mr. Quinion said he would ring the bell for some sherry in which to drink to Brooks. This he did; and when the wine came, he made me have a little, with a biscuit, and, before I drank it, stand up and say, “Confusion to Brooks of Sheffield!” The toast was received with great applause, and such hearty laughter that it made me laugh too; at which they laughed the more. In short, we quite enjoyed ourselves.

David is indeed confused by Murdstone’s friends. That night he tells his mother of their talk, which pleases her immensely. Later, kneeling playfully by his bed, she makes him repeat their words, “Bewitching Mrs. Copperfield” and “pretty little widow”. Again she responds with pleasure, and though she kisses him repeatedly, the scene conveys his bafflement at powers which keep her out of range, in areas where Murdstone is decidedly ‘not dead’.

The next memory is of a trip to Yarmouth, arranged with special mystery. He meets Peggotty’s family there, and the comedy turns on Mrs. Gummidge, the “lone lorn creetur” who exploits her husband’s death for sympathy. With the orphan, little Em’ly, David soon achieves the security of childhood love, with no “provision for growing older”, and with greater purity and disinterestedness “than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” His ideal, then, is sexless love with Em’ly or his mother; he even indicates that Em’ly should have toppled into the sea one day, and joined her father beneath the waves, to avoid her sinful future. Thus Yarmouth scenes advance the major conflict: beneath the peaceful surface and light comedy, pain and loss continue, and on the return trip home, they erupt with sudden force. His nurse becomes so ill at ease, on nearing home, that David calls in fear for his mother. He believes she too is dead, but Peggotty cries No! and tries to explain her agitation:

“Master Davy”, said Peggotty, untying her bonnet with a shaking hand, and speaking in a breathless sort of way. “What do you think? You have got a Pa!”

I trembled, and turned white. Something—I don’t know what or how—connected with the grave in the churchyard, and the raising of the dead, seemed to strike me like an unwholesome wind.

“A new one”, said Peggotty.

“A new one?” I repeated.

Peggotty gave a gasp, as if she were swallowing something that was very hard, and putting out her hand, said:

“Come and see him”.

“I don’t want to see him”.

The shock jars loose his graveyard fears. He now shakes hands with Lazarus and greets his mother, but he cannot face them. The house seems altered. Later, when he roams into the yard, his feelings suffer full projection: “I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog-kennel was filled up with a great dog—deep-mounthed and black-browed like Him—and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprang out to get me”.

This is brilliant psychological fiction. Murdstone has become the risen and revengeful father; his powers involve the mysteries of sex, and somehow pull the mother out of range. In the meantime, the boy’s hostility and fear suffuse the outward scene. The projective artistry is unmatched, and most of it seems conscious; in Chapter IV, moreover, it comes to full dramatic focus in a scene which Kafka found intriguing. Kept uninformed by nurse and mother, David has suffered deeply from the news of marriage. The shock might have been lessened, if Murdstone had responded with encouragement. Instead he offers ‘firmness’ and distrust. Idyllic spelling lessons, once directed by the mother, become drudgery under Murdstone and his sister. David stumbles in their presence, and when Murdstone brings cane to help his memory, the boy goes blank. In the struggle which follows, he bites the hand which touched his mother; he is beaten then with a vengeance and locked inside his room, where he rages helplessly upon the floor. Outside the wild household commotion is stilled. In the unnatural quiet, David crawls to the mirror and sees his face in the glass, “so swollen, red, and ugly that it almost frightened me. My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been the most atrocious criminal”.

This spectacle of a son locked in his room, shut off from his mother, and guilty of a crime against the father, appealed to Kafka; he used it in The Metamorphosis for his central situation, reshaping it to suit his needs—as the events themselves attest. Thus David lies by the window now, his head upon the sill, when Miss Murdstone brings in “bread and meat and milk”. She glares at him with exemplary firmness, then locks him in again. His imprisonment lasts five days, which “occupy the place of years” in his remembrance. He listens to the household sounds of day, confuses time at night, and feels weighed down on awakening “by the stale and dismal oppression of remembrance”. He is ashamed to show himself at the window, lest the boys outside should see him. During evening prayers he is allowed to stand alone, near the parlour doors, and look out on the averted faces of the family. On the last night of his restraint, he hears his name repeated in a whisper. The voice is Peggotty’s; it reaches him through the keyhole, to which he puts his own lips in response, so that a mouth-to-ear communication begins on David’s future (at one point, mouth-to-mouth). Then both fall to kissing and patting the keyhole, and David feels within him an indefinable love for Peggotty. She has reached him, he asserts, with “as much feeling and earnestness as a keyhole has ever been the medium of communicating”. Kafka seems to challenge his assumption with key-manipulations by his giant insect, whose shape derives from Dostoevsky, but whose crime and punishment begin with Dickens. The strange ordeal of Gregor Samsa, an older and certainly a more regressive outcast, repeats the intensities of guilt, exclusion and frustration which Daivd undergoes; and the comparison affirms the unexpected depth of Dickens’ ‘method’.

After shock, whipping and exclusion, some kind of psychic damage seems inevitable, and the next ten chapters show its form. At Salem House, an older student, Steerforth, becomes the boy’s protector. David loves and admires him, and serves him by reciting stories, “like the Sultana Scheherezade”. Steerforth seems to like this girlish adoration. “If you had a sister”, he tells him, “I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her”. David’s only ‘sister’, at this stage, is Em’ly; he will later bring these two together, and speak of his ‘unconscious part’ in their elopement. At the moment her budding womanhood disturbs him, and he is afraid to mention her. Steerforth’s manhood is another matter; he admires him for his poise and charm, for powers which conquer elders. When Steerforth badgers Mr. Mell, the master (Creakle) promptly fires his helper—and David cheers his hero. In Kafka’s novel, Amerika, Steerforth’s counterpart is Mr. Mack, a sophisticated, patronizing figure who attracts and baffles young Karl Rossmann. Karl’s attraction is an adolescent crush, like David’s, but the sexual note has been enhanced by “sharper lights . . . from the times”, which show Mack in collusion with his elders. Still, the lights in Copperfield seem sharp enough: Steerforth later joins the fathers, as sadist and destroyer, and is now an adolescent sultan.

From Steerforth David seeks vicarious confidence, knowledge and seductive power; in the future, he will even blind himself to get them. But the projective paths to mother-love are varied. On his return from school, for instance, his route is more direct. Hearing his mother sing in the parlour, he remembers how she sang to him in infancy. When he finds her there with Murdstone’s baby, she puts his head upon her bosom, “near the little creature that was nestling there”, and David longs for blissful death. He identifies himself with Murdstone’s child, and with nurse and mother beside him, it seems “as if the old days were come back”. Then the Murdstones return and break the spell. When he leaves for school again, his mother stands at the gate alone, holding the babe before her; and afterwards, in his sleep at Salem House, he sees her near his bed, “looking at [him] with the same intent face—holding up her baby in her arms”. Her gesture seems to affirm his infant love, to fix it permanently in his mind. Thus, when mother and baby die, he remembers only “the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. . . . The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom”. In harsher terms, David has just appeased his guilt.

His projections take a comic turn with Barkis, the laconic carrier, who wants to marry Peggotty. When the boy first goes to school, Barkis waits in silence as the nurse embraces David and loads him down with pastry. Her buttons pop with every squeeze, and she leaves “without a solitary button on her gown”; but Barkis, like a grownup child, is more concerned with cakes than sex. They have roused his marital appetite, and with David as protective agent, he can risk the cryptic message: “Barkis is willing”. So too is David willing. In a later chapter, he waits outside with Em’ly, in vicarious embrace, while Barkis and the nurse are married. He dreams that night about dragons, and wakens, in the morning, with Peggotty calling from below, as if Barkis were a dream “from first to last”. Such proxy dealings might have appealed to Kafka. In “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, young Eduard Raban wants to send his body ahead to meet his country sweetheart; in the meantime, he will rest in bed, as he had always done in childhood “in matters that were dangerous”. Barkis too avoids the risks of courtship, like a frightened child; he also clings to boxes with the insecurity of Raban and Karl Rossmann, who seem to seek emotional support from baggage. Of course, he acts from slighter motives; but in marrying David’s nurse, and in clinging to internal burdens, he reveals the boy’s vicarious urges. In this sense, his death resembles that of Murdstone’s child: it fixes David’s attitude toward his nurse, just as Steerforth’s death will fix his love for Em’ly. In each case, these characters die in their own right; but some of David’s guilt dies with them, since they have allowed him to ‘possess’ his mother, nurse and ‘sister’—all objects of the sexless love of childhood, with its hidden sexual base. Thus, as Barkis dies, he rests mutely on his box, which gives his form its only meaning; but at the last his mind begins to wander, as if under “the mysterious influence” of David’s presence: he talks of driving him to school, and then speaks his comic phrase, “Barkis is willin’ ”, which carries hidden weight.

During the early phase, emotional growth is blocked by further punishment. At Salem House, David is forced to wear the placard, “Take care of him. He bites”, and the master whips him freshly for his crime. Mr. Creakle is another Murdstone: he turns his son out for protesting cruelty in the school and “usage of his mother”. He prides himself on firmness, tweaks ears to make his point, and bursts from his chair like Murdstone’s dog. With the zest of a “craving appetite”, he delights in beating chubby boys like David. In London, David later works for Quinion, the manager of Murdstone’s warehouse, who still refers to him as ‘Brooks’ and jokes about his sharpness. Through Creakle and Quinion, then, the father’s power extends to realms beyond the home. This principle must have excited Kafka. In Amerika he joins David’s ‘menial labour’ with his life at school, to create “The Hotel Occidental”. Here Rossmann works for harsh parental figures, and sleeps in a dorm with other liftboys. His ultimate dismissal resembles Mr. Mell’s: for, in line with Dickens, the social scene repeats the indignities of childhood; the world belongs to fathers, and each phase of youth is an attempt to get beyond them.

This section of the novel ends with David’s flight to Dover, a flight which seems to summarize his past. His trunk is stolen by a youth who calls him a “pollis case” and threatens to expose him; he sleeps behind his school and dreams of Steerforth; an old-clothes dealer seizes him, with wild “goroos”, like Creakle gone berserk; and a tinker steals his kerchief, then beats a kindly wife, as if the world were full of Murdstones. Throughout the journey, he keeps before him an image of his mother “in her youth and beauty”; but when he reaches Dover, where he hopes to find security with his aunt, the image disappears. In Amerika Karl Rossmann has troubles with his box, and with two unruly mechanics, on the road to Rameses. According to one critic, “Karl’s inner world determines the character of his experiences”, while David’s world is “full of things and persons . . . essentially separate from his inward self, only temporarily and accidentally related to it”. Kafka’s ‘imitation’ tells us otherwise: to integrate this journey, he drew from Dickens “the story of the trunk” (involving David’s fear of further confinement), the clothes-exchange (involving bestial treatment), a schoolroom scene (suggesting Creakle and Steerforth), the stolen kerchief (involving Murdstone and Clara), and the image of the mother (involving infancy), which disappears with an older woman’s kindness (suggesting inner peace). In other words, he followed Dickens’ scheme of psychic integration, which is neither accidental nor temporary, but part of the sustained method from which these fourteen chapters draw direction, power, depth and meaning: the method, in short, which yields a truly brilliant stretch of psychological fiction.

Admittedly, the stretch abruptly ends with David’s “new beginning”—and for the next five chapters, the novel seems to flounder. In his diaries, Kafka writes of “passages of awful insipidity” in which Dickens wearily repeats achieved effects; he speaks of “heartlessness” behind his sentimental style, and of rude characterizations which obstruct the story. The indictment is severe, but such chapters seem to confirm it. Thin characters like Mr. Dick and Dr. Strong, whose childlike traits are overpraised, suggest a form of fake emotion; and the repetitious effects are surely there. It seems more pertinent, however, that Dickens loses power when the projective method stops: for in these five chapters David reaches psychic rest; his inner troubles cease, and his connections with the outward scene are casual; at best, they extend the breadth of the novel, as he puzzles over the marriage of an old man and a young woman, a father’s too-intense devotion to his daughter, a scapegrace husband, and a badly treated sister. These problems are thematic, but they leave him unengaged, and the novel seems impeded by their weight. Still, the expansive quality of David’s style, his use of double perspective to forgive as parent while he errs as child, allows for excess baggage. Light comedy is in order: there is room for the Micawbers’ economic dance, and for gargoyles like Uriah Heep. The trouble is, the comedy thrives upon the original psychic thrust, and Dickens’ readers often miss the force behind it. One critic says the story happens around the hero, not within him. But the projective method shows otherwise: it provides the novel with its basic strength, and sustains even the excess baggage—apt, crude, fresh, insipid—if only by extended force.

Plainly the major plots relate to David’s inner life. With Steerforth, for instance, he is again obsessed with self-distrust. Before their reunion, he is forced to yield his coach-seat to an older gentleman; he passes by the lane where the ‘goroo’ man seized him; he passes Salem House, where Creakle “laid about him with a heavy hand”. As on his first trip to school, a waiter treats him poorly. But with Steerforth’s appearance, the waiter knows his place. The hero has returned in all his glory: hence David’s shame at being beardless, his rechristening as ‘Daisy’, and his regressions with the servant Littimer, who makes him feel “about eight years old”. At Steerforth’s home, these hints are clarified through Rosa Dartle, whose scarred lip signals rage, and whose rage is based on sheer frustration. Brought up with Steerforth, and jealously in love with him, she bears the hammermark of his rejection. Once she strikes him, “with the fury of a wildcat”, when he coaxes her to play the harp, then taunts her with the hope of future love. Her scar pursues David to his bed, now, and even invades his dreams, though he tries to escape it. Kafka’s wildcat in Amerika is the amorous Clara Pollunder, who pursues Karl Rossmann to his bedroom, throws him down on the sofa, and nearly chokes him. Karl even calls her a wildcat, in his rage and shame. Later he plays the piano, when suddenly Mr. Mack cajoles him from a nearby room, where he waits for Clara in his nightshirt. Like David, Karl is immersed in sexual ambiguity and violence, which fascinate and repel him—and highlight his incompetence. For David too is sexually inadequate: repelled by violence, and blinded by vicarious desire, he can only follow Steerforth to the shoreline at Yarmouth, where he links his childhood love for Em’ly with the hero’s death. His long pursuit may run to melodramatic claptrap; but projection lends it strength and point.

Indulgent humour marks the Dora plot. Through the double perspective, David’s folly is accepted and forgiven. The doll-like Dora, the child-wife of the nineteenth century, is taken as a delightful hoax, a toy which breaks with possession, a sweet impossibility; and David’s love is called “the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart”. But again the plot goes deeper. As critics often note, the girl resembles David’s mother; her father, David’s employer, is a businessman like Murdstone; and her paid companion is Miss Murdstone—as if Dickens had deliberately regrouped his early cast. In courting Dora, then, David reenacts the terms of childhood tension. When Miss Murdstone intercepts his letters, she shows them to the employer-father. As with the early spelling lessons, these figures disapprove of David’s words and cut him off from his beloved. By David’s own confession: “Miss Murdstone . . . looked so exactly as she used to look . . . in our parlour at Blunderstone, that I could have fancied I had been breaking down in my spelling lessons again, and that the dead weight on my mind was that horrible old spelling-book with oval woodcuts”. Here Dora joins the mother, nurse and sister as objects of forbidden love. David’s folly, his blindness to her incompetence, begins with spelling lessons at Blunderstone, and ends with a disastrous marriage and another death. Kafka seems to have caught these implications. In Amerika Rossmann travels with a businessman, Mr. Pollunder, to meet his daughter Clara. Clara herself resembles Rosa Dartle; but her sexual charade with Karl compares with David’s country courtship. In each case, commercial bondage is expressed through sexual means; the fathers’ powers have interfused, and the sons remain in double servitude.

In Amerika this theme extends to a later chapter, where Karl is trapped in an apartment drawn from Dickens’ tenements. In the closing scene, however, he seems to find an escape from childhood. At the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, he is accepted without question, just as David is received by Agnes Wickfield. Both endings seem unreal, and Kafka himself complains of Dickens’ formal ‘senselessness’. But his borrowed scenes belie him: they reveal projective loves and deaths which unify the novel and insure its progress. From his mother’s death, through those of Barkis, Steerforth and Dora, David moves steadily away from childhood loves; and seems to reach maturity with Agnes. Dickens’ authority here is weak, but so is Kafka’s, in Amerika, when Rossmann seems to near adulthood. Significantly, both authors move toward darker novels. Pip, Richard Carstone and Arthur Clennam, Joseph K. and K., are older Karls and Davids whom the world imprisons. Here Dickens joins with other pioneer novelists, like Stendhal and Dostoevsky, for whom moral and spiritual maturity seem thwarted by the world’s deficient fathers. One psychological critic undercuts this kinship; he holds that Copperfield “is never a hero of a modern novel, never a Raskolnikov, nor a . . . Julien Sorel”. But as Kafka shows, David is another kind of modern hero—an Eduard Raban or Karl Rossmann, a younger Gregor Samsa; and Dickens’ novel is one of our first and best examples of projective fiction. The wealth of comic action, the nostalgic tone, the author’s great humour, have made the novel unpopular; but like David’s progress, they all relate to childhood anguish and help to ease its pain.

Source: Mark Spilka, “David Copperfield as Psychological Fiction,” in “David Copperfield”: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Jerome Hamilton Buckley, W. W. Norton, 1990, pp. 817–26.


Critical Overview