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David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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Blunderstone Rookery

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 sign that he welcomes her back home.

Yarmouth’s beach is also the scene of the tempest. The foundering ship is Steerforth’s “Little Em’ly,” and Ham swims out to rescue a lone survivor on its deck. Symbolically, both men are lost as the boat sinks, and when Steerforth’s body washes ashore, it lands on the very spot where the old houseboat, now wrecked, stood with its nightly candle.

Salem House

Salem House. Dr. Creakle’s school, where Murdstone sends the recalcitrant David. Dickens powerfully projects the unhappy boy, the lonely schoolroom, the wicked giant of a schoolmaster. When Ham and Peggotty come to visit David, Steerforth suggests that he would like to visit their boathouse. However, tragedy falls, and David is told that his mother and new brother are dead; he is removed from Salem House on his tenth birthday.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city, in which several sections of the novel are set. The first is at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse in the Blackfriars district waterfront. Here ten-year-old David pastes labels on wine bottles in much the same way the young Dickens had been sent out to work in a boot-blacking factory in London. David feels “thrown away” on a deadening job and unable to express his agony. A lighter note is provided by his stay with the Micawbers, a happy-go-lucky and improvident family. When Mr. Micawber is imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench Prison, David visits them, much as Dickens had done with his own family.

London is also the setting for David’s job as a proctor after he graduates from Dr. Strong’s school. He takes an apartment in Buckingham Street. It is from here that he courts Dora. After the wedding, they move into their new home in Highgate. It is a sweet, loving home, marred only by Dora’s ineptitude as a housekeeper: the food is raw, the pantry is empty, and the servants are ill-managed. Dora and her dog Jip die here.

The tense and unnatural Steerforth home is located in London, which is also the location of the Blackfriars Bridge scene. Here Dickens is powerful in evoking the dismal and defiled riverside, and in linking its miseries to a suicidal Martha Endell....

(This entire section contains 1092 words.)

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David’s encounter with this fallen woman ultimately leads Dan Peggotty to Em’ly, who has come to stay with Martha in a decaying old mansion in one of the worst sections of the city.


*Dover. Southeast England port that is home to Betsey Trotwood. When ten-year-old David can no longer stand the misery of his job at the warehouse in London, he decides to run away to seek out his great aunt Betsey Trotwood. He has never seen her before, but the shred of a tender memory once shared with him by his mother makes him hopeful of finding refuge with her. His six-day journey begins with the theft of his possessions, his nearly starving to death, and his frightening experiences with robbers and a malicious pawnbroker. This journey through the countryside from London to Dover is the occasion for Dickens to display his unique combination of suspense, humor, action, and pathos. In Dover at last, the child is welcomed by his aunt, bathed, and put to sleep in a snug bedroom.


*Europe. Peggotty plods his way through France, Italy, and Switzerland, determined to find and rescue his niece Em’ly. In Naples, when Steerforth tires of his seduction of Em’ly, he gives her over to his valet, Littimer. She manages to escape him and desperately makes her way back to London. David, too, wanders for three years in Europe, unhappy at his wife’s death and aimlessly searching for something that is missing in his life. In Switzerland, Agnes reaches him with a letter, and he is encouraged enough to write a novel and then return to Canterbury.


*Australia. Southern hemispheric continent to which Dan Peggotty, Em’ly, Martha, Mrs. Gummidge, and the whole Micawber family go in the hope of finding new beginnings to their lives. Dickens sends his characters there in order to wrap up the novel’s diverse narrative threads. At the time in which Dickens wrote, Australia was a collection of British colonies that were notorious as the destinations of convicted scoundrels, rogues, and adventure seekers. Mrs. Micawber suggests that “For a man who conducts himself well . . . and is industrious . . . It is evident to me that Australia is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr. Micawber!”


*Canterbury. Cathedral town in southeastern England to which David goes to attend the excellent school of Dr. Strong. David again has his own room in a house where he is loved. After he leaves here to work in London, he is troubled to hear that Uriah Heep, who is in control of the Wickfields, has taken David’s old room. Later, when David ultimately realizes that he loves Agnes, he returns from Europe and finds his old room is in readiness for his arrival. Like a little ragged boy heading to a safe harbor, David is at last home.

Historical Context

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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.

Nineteenth-century London 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, predominantly in the West End, fearing to venture into the remaining three-fourths of the city, especially in the rough East End, which was teeming with poverty, dense population, and corruption. The gulf between the rich and poor widened each year. New villages continually emerged, especially near the docks, but even though Londoners found work in the city’s busy port, wages were not high enough to adequately provide for workers. The extreme stratification of the English urban centers was studied by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Together, they wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848), and Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), in which he describes graphically the living conditions in the center of London and Manchester and how these contrast with the wealthy residences on the outskirts. Together, they outlined the causes, effects, and political solutions to the problem of poverty which became the inspiration for the communist revolutions of the twentieth century.

Benthamism Benthamism, also known as utilitarianism, became an important ideology in Victorian society, especially among the middle class. The term was associated with a philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), explained in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which was widely accepted among the Victorian middle class, affecting their habits and beliefs. By the 1820s, the philosophy gained a number of disciples who promoted Bentham’s theories in debates. Supporters gained political power in the 1830s when approximately one hundred were elected to the first reform-focused Parliament in England.

At the core of this philosophy was the belief in “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” a phrase borrowed from Joseph Priestley, a late eighteenth-century Unitarian theologian, which appeared in Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick explains:

utilitarianism was . . . wholly hedonistic; it made no allowance for the promptings of conscience, or for . . . the forces of generosity, mercy, compassion, self-sacrifice, love. Benthamite ethics had nothing to do with Christian morality.

At the heart of this belief was the supposition that self-interest should be one’s primary concern and that happiness could be attained by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, qualities that emerge in James Steerforth’s character.

Evangelicalism Another important middle-class movement in the nineteenth century was evangelicalism, a form of Protestant pietism. Evangelicalism focused less on doctrine and more on the day-to-day lives and eventual salvation of its followers. It set rigid patterns of conduct for its practitioners to follow in order that they might find atonement for their sins. Altick notes that “the Evangelical’s anxious eye was forever fixed upon the ‘eternal microscope’ which searched for every moral blemish and reported every motion of the soul.” Edward Murdstone and his sister’s treatment of David provides good examples of this type of rigid, moralistic code.

Both utilitarian and evangelical movements, however, are also noted for their involvement in humanitarian activities during the Victorian period and especially for their calls for social reforms. Benthamites supported universal suffrage and education while the evangelicals successfully fought for amelioration of brutal prison conditions.

A Victorian Woman’s Place During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women (like men) were confined to the classes in which they were born, unless their fathers or husbands moved up or down in the social hierarchy. The strict rules for each social class defined women and determined their lives. Women in the upper classes had the leisure to become educated; however, like their counterparts in the lower classes, upper-class women were not expected to think for themselves and were not often listened to when they did. Urges for independence and self-determination were suppressed in women from all classes. The strict social morality of the period demanded that middle-class women and those in classes above exhibit the standards of polite femininity, culminating in the ideals of marriage and motherhood. David Copperfield both reenforces (David’s mother, Dora) and challenges (Betsey Trotwood) the period’s attitudes toward women. Most female characters, however, operate within the confines of the middle class. Miss Trotwood’s quick mind and independent spirit is tolerated because she is considered eccentric and is a widow.

Realism Realism as a movement first appeared in Paris in the early 1800s as an effort to insure that art would not merely imitate life but would instead be an exact representation of it. In this sense, realistic works could be considered the literature of truth. Realism became a popular form of painting, for example in works by Gustave Courbet, and some literature in the mid-nineteenth century, for example in the novels of Gustave Flaubert. Novelists in this movement turned away from what they considered the artificiality of romanticism to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected idealism and the celebration of the imagination typical of romantic novels and instead took a serious look at believable characters and their often problematic social interactions.

In order to accomplish this goal, realist novels focus on the commonplace and eliminate the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism characteristic of romanticism. Novelists such as Thomas Hardy discarded traditional sentimental elements as they chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult personal and social problems. Writers who embraced realism use setting and plot details that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates as far as possible the natural speech patterns of individuals in various classes.

One realistic part of David Copperfield is Dickens’s portrait of the harsh conditions in London among the lower classes. Dickens was one of the first to chronicle in his fiction the monotonous, harsh, and sordid life of this group of people. Some scholars, however, determine that the endings of his novels, including the ending of David Copperfield, follow the romantic tradition.


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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 Blackheath. He becomes thoroughly acquainted with the capital less than two years later when employed at Murdstone and Grinby, where he washes and labels wine bottles. He comes to know the streets much more intimately. Later, having apprenticed himself to Mr. Spenlow in order to train as a proctor in the Commons and also as a parliamentary reporter, his knowledge of London is further increased. Dickens, thanks to similar experiences, knew London as few writers ever succeeded in doing. Even in his maturity, while working out his plots and characters, he would walk the streets late at night. The Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse is by the Thames, but the river becomes a setting of the novel only later when the prostitute Martha Endell is saved by David and Dan'l Peggotty from committing suicide in it.

Betsy Trotwood's cottage where David finally finds refuge is near the sea in Dover, and the novel briefly becomes a picaresque story as David walks from London to his aunt's home. He lives for only a short time with his aunt and her protege Mr. Dick. Aunt Betsy soon arranges for David to attend school in Canterbury, the ancient cathedral city that is to the Anglican Church what Rome is to the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the primate of the Anglican Communion, and his seat is here. Dickens captures the atmosphere of the city with its serenity and medieval beauty. The bells of the cathedral ring constantly. Even the rooks walk about as if they are an important part of the scene, as important as the towers themselves. It is a city of gardens as well, such as the one where Dr. Strong, David's headmaster in his second school, takes daily walks while planning his dictionary.

After his education is finished, David goes back to London to establish himself in a career. Visits to Yarmouth and Canterbury occur several more times and Dickens does a masterful job of describing the great storm at Yarmouth when both Ham Peggotty and James Steerforth perish. Tolstoy believed it to be one of the finest episodes in fiction. Dickens' flair for drama is seen at its best here.

Mourning the loss of Dora and the death of his school friend, Steerforth, Copperfield wanders in Europe, finally staying for an extended period in the Lausanne region in Switzerland. Dickens had visited Lausanne with his family in 1846, and loved the quiet town and the majestic Alps that formed its background. Here Copperfield's literary alter ego comes to terms with his losses, finds peace, and returns to England to resume his life.

Literary Style

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Chapter DesignDavid 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 where he meets the Peggottys who will have a crucial effect on his development. The end of chapter 2 nicely sets up this change as it shows David’s apprehension over leaving his mother and going off with Peggotty to a new place. Others, such as chapter 4, not only note a new development in David’s life, but also suggest the effect that it will have on him. The title announces, “I Fall Into Disgrace,” announcing the upcoming change in his household as well as the change in his relationship with his mother and the end of his idyllic childhood. Dickens constructs the end of the previous chapter to anticipate this upcoming change when he ends it with David’s being frightened by Murdstone’s ferocious dog. Dickens’s chapter construction was affected by artistic issues and finances; the author created a plot that could handle these divisions, and he knew he would make more money on affordable installments than on attempting to market the novel in one or more, much more costly volumes.

BildungsromanDavid Copperfield is a bildungsroman, a novel that tells the story of maturation, of growing up. This novel presents itself as an autobiography with the mature David Copperfield writing his life story beginning with what he has been told about his birth. He wonders in the first lines of the novel if he will prove to be the hero of his own tale, but in this novel form the central character moving through adolescence into adulthood is most certainly its hero, the protagonist. The structure of the bildungsroman involves a movement from naïve innocence and total inexperience through a series of mishaps and apprenticeships toward a more mature state of experienced knowledge about the world and self-confidence. Though David Copperfield’s world is a mixture of sweetness and corruption, he is not corrupted, though he is temporarily misled, as in trusting Steerforth, for example. The mature narrator shares the adult reader’s worldly view of the novel’s characters, sorry for the ways in which the child David is mistreated and happy about how bad people get what they deserve, as is the case with Uriah Heep, and about how good people come along to be all right in the end, as is the case with the Peggottys and the Micawbers in their new lives in Australia. At the same time, the narrator sympathetically portrays the world from the child’s point of view, drawing in youthful readers by telling a story about a hero with whom they can identify.

Literary Qualities

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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 the only point of view given in this novel. He suffers at the hands of the Murdstones who try to prevent him from being anything but a little wretch. Steerforth at Salem House, several years his senior, offers some protection against the terrible cruelty of Creakle. He is a boarder with the Micawber family while at Murdstone and Grimby's warehouse. This improvident family, Mr. Micawber in particular, provides some humor to brighten what would otherwise be a totally dark period. Aunt Betsy Trotwood and her protege, Mr. Dick, finally give him the security and affection expected of true parents. Aunt Betsy is masculine enough in some ways to be a substitute father in her own right. After his adoption by her, a new life begins for David. Life at Dr. Strong's school is essentially calm and happy. He boards with the Wickfields and is immediately highly impressed with Agnes Wickfield, whom Dickens at the very offset plans to make the heroine of the novel. Future problems are foreshadowed by Mr. Wickfield's alcoholism, and by the presence of Uriah Heep. His education completed, Copperfield must make a career for himself. He is apprenticed with the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. He meets what he believes to be his true love, Dora Spenlow. Dickens shows great skill in creating the mad raptures of young love, the total absorption in fantasy of early romance. Marriage with Dora proves to be a mistake/but David tries to make the best of it. He is moving toward his true profession when he learns shorthand and becomes a parliamentary reporter. He begins writing stories, and becomes a novelist. These episodes are a brilliant blend of Dickens' experience and fiction. He, of course, did not marry Maria Beadnell, the woman on whom Dora's character was based.

The villainy of Uriah Heep is revealed and his threat to Agnes removed. Dora dies, and David's idol Steerforth, having betrayed him by eloping with little Em'ly, is drowned after he has dropped her when his passion for her ends. Copperfield is learning some painful lessons about love and the nature of his own personality. He wanders for three years in Italy and Switzerland in despair, finally coming to terms with his "undisciplined heart" in Switzerland. He returns home and finds his real love in Agnes. A happy marriage and a successful career is the situation from which he has surveyed his life. All bildungsromans do not end happily, and Dickens ten years later produces one which almost reverses the story he tells in David Copperfield.

The writing of this novel caused Dickens less difficulty than almost anything else he produced. He was at the peak of his ability as a novelist, and while some great books would come in the future, in some respects he never surpassed David Copperfield. He had developed a mature style that was a marked improvement over that of his earlier works. His contemporary, to an extent his rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, believed that Dickens had improved his style by imitating Vanity Fair. He was "foregoing the use of fine words," pruning some of the excesses which had characterized his early writing. This seems to be true. Dickens had mastered the art of using fewer words, especially in somber scenes in the book. The death of Dora is described without the sentimental indulgences seen in the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son and of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

That face so full of pity and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised to heave.


It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

Some of this chapter is almost Hemingwayesque. Dickens has not omitted all passages of tearful sentimentality from this book. The passages dealing with the prostitute Martha Endell in which she drags herself through the streets of London and threatens suicide in the Thames seem wildly exaggerated to a modern reader. Little Em'ly, after her affair with James Steerforth, writes tearful letters and proclaims herself beyond redemption. Both women go to Australia with Dan'l Peggotty and begin new lives.

A stylistic device in David Copperfield are the "Retrospects," four in number in which David interrupts his narrative and comments on the progress he and the other characters are making. He compares his life up until he has almost completed his school days with "flowing water" and he "hovers above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream." The past in David's memory, as he admits, sometimes has an unreal quality. Two young loves and a fight with a bully happen at that time. In "Another Retrospect" David reflects, "Once again let me pause upon a memorable period in my life." Looking back he sees himself as a "shadow." The passage of time, as remembered, flows through the seasons running toward the sea. He was twenty-one at that point, has overcome the difficult art of shorthand and is reporting the activities of Parliament for a morning newspaper. His marriage to Dora takes place. All now seems like "phantoms." He has become a legally adult male. Chapter LIII is "Another Retrospect." His child-wife Dora dies with Agnes as a sort of mother confessor at her side. Death brings the passage of time to a temporary standstill. In "A Last Retrospect" the shortest of the four, his autobiographical narrative has been finished and he gives a report on those people who have figured prominently in it. With his marriage to Agnes, his life was fulfilled, his personality fully realized.

Copperfield has more than mastered shorthand: he has become a master of language. Autobiography is of necessity a verbal accomplishment. David recalls certain events with extraordinary detail, and more than one critic has noted that some parts of this novel anticipate Proust. For example, certain religious prints that David had seen in Mr. Peggotty's boathouse have but to be seen again to bring back to mind the entire interior of that home. Again, the very name Yarmouth forever reminds him "of a certain Sunday morning on the beach, the bells ringing of church, little Em'ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones into the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist...." Peggotty is always associated with her work box with the picture of St. Paul's Cathedral on its cover. These memories are from those happy days before the Murdstones appear.

The sea is a potent symbol in all of Dickens' novels after Dombey and Son (1846-48). Life is seen as a river that flows to the sea, death. Mr. Barkis, Peggotty's husband, dies when the tide ebbs, according to a local superstition. The sea is a mysterious force that is destructive at times. One of the climaxes of the novel is the great storm that smashes into Yarmouth, "Tempest." "I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me." Both Ham and Steerforth are victims of the savage wind and water. A good young man and a wicked egoist share a common fate. Ham was to have married Little Em'ly before Steerforth seduced and eloped with her. Ham dies trying to rescue Steerforth who was clinging desperately to the mast of a foundering ship. It becomes the subject of Copperfield's nightmares for the rest of his life, and the mention of the seashore brings the memory of the fierce gale back. The storm has destroyed much that was meaningful in his past—Ham, Steerforth, even Dan'l Peggotty's boathouse. It may be too much of a coincidence that the waves bear Steerforth ashore and that he finally lies at David's feet. In the very posture he remembers so well, his head rests on his arm as David remembers seeing him sleeping during the days at Salem House. He still loves and even admires Steerforth, although in terms of what he might have become, not the seducer that he actually is.

Dickens may have had Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus in mind when he has David wander in Italy and Switzerland in such despair that he passes ancient monuments with scarcely a glance. This kind of dark period occurs in many Victorian writings— in Tennyson's In Memorium and later in the autobiographies of John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle describes an emotional crisis that he calls the "Everlasting No," a mood of the darkest depression. Copperfield describes his Everlasting No in the chapter entitled, "Absence." David writes, "Listlessness to everything but brooding sorrow was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart." Dora and Steerforth are gone, other friends are now in Australia, and he is alone with bitter memories and the conviction that his life and everything associated with it is a meaningless failure. His will cannot cope with this sense of utter futility. Neither Dickens nor his hero turns to conventional religion in times of crisis. In the Swiss Alps a consciousness of their beauty mark a turning point for him. In a very Wordsworthian passage, as he descends into a valley, the voices of singing shepherds seem to speak to him. The sublimity and awe of the scenery had been working on his consciousness and now he was aware that "great Nature spoke to me," opening a sense of hope for his desolate spirit. This could be called another use of the pathetic fallacy resorted to by Dickens in his other novels, for example, in Dombey and Son, when little Paul hears the sea calling him. But the English Romantics believed that they could commune with Nature and that she, like a kindly nurse, could heal them. The next phrase described by Carlyle as "The Everlasting Aye" has begun. David lies on the grass and weeps " . . . as I had not yet wept since Dora died!"

"Absence" is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. Some of this is seen in the "Retrospect Chapters." David's life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. The letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his great grief would become not endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases.

Many critics however, see Agnes as one of the weaknesses of the novel. As the critic Robert R. Garnet recently suggested, her character functions more as a symbol in this book than as a believable flesh and blood woman. She seems to have been perfect in every way from childhood on. She resembles the image with which Goethe concluded the second half of his Faust: "The Eternal-Feminine/Lures us to perfection." She is a sort of English Madonna who has such a high spiritual level that David has always stood in awe of her. In reviewing her character, author George Orwell called her "the real legless angel of Victorian romance." In fact, she is an example of Dickensian saintliness, an idealization, and a spiritual guide to Copperfield. An earlier image is the one presented by Steerforth; a model of all that David thought was noble. But Steerforth is a Byronic figure who appears to have been born skeptical and cynical. To follow his example would be disastrous. Agnes, however, helps him ascend to her level of virtue, although he has to order his "undisciplined heart" before he can make Agnes his own. Her image is always pointing upward in his imagination, as she was when she silently indicated that Dora was dead. As Chapter XL concludes, the memory of her "pointing upward" is with him again, and he hopes he may one day join her in heaven and there declare his love for her. But she also loves him, has loved him all of her life. They become married and have three children. As the novel ends, the final image he presents is of her even at the end of his life "near me, pointing upward."

David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr. Strong's young wife, Annie, when she confessed to her husband a brief infatuation she had had for her cousin Maldon. She describes it ". . . as the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart." She did not wrong her husband, and the scene has been described by some critics as typical of the distraught sentimentality too frequent in Dickens. But David realized that his own heart was as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to the maturity that his life with Agnes has achieved, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.

Social Sensitivity

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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 Doctors' Commons, which was abolished in 1857 and its precincts torn down. It was an amalgam of many courts including those of the Admiralty and the Prerogative Office, where wills were registered and filed, Mr. Spenlow's specialty. Spenlow is so convinced of the importance of his profession that makes the Commons virtually the necessary foundation of English civilization: "Touch the Commons and down goes the nation." The satire, mostly confined to this part of the novel, is mild. Copperfield becomes amused with the proceeding in the Commons, but not indignant. His description of the frantic efforts of some lawyers to gain clients is hilarious. They are comparable to the worst examples of ambulance chasing by our present-day shysters.

Emigration was an important solution for many people of the period. It provided opportunities for many who could find none in England. Annie Strong's cousin, Mr. Jack Maldon, goes to make his fortune in India. He returns and lives off the Doctor's charity instead. Australia offered a haven for those who had disgraced themselves at home, women such as Martha Endell and Little Em'ly. Wilkins Micawber, who had not succeeded in making a mark for himself, despite many attempts, goes to Australia, becomes a journalist and ultimately a magistrate. This is rather surprising, and may be due to Dickens' desire to give happy endings to his characters in accordance to his love of fairy tales—"They lived happily ever after." Dan'l Peggotty takes Martha and Em'ly to Australia and becomes a wealthy farmer there, a reward for his very virtuous life.

Possibly the sharpest satire is reserved for the model prison system based on Pentonville. Here the prisoners lived in isolation. Dickens had visited the Eastern Penitentiary near Philadelphia in March 1842, and the mental effects of solitary imprisonment had shocked him. The same Mr. Creakle, former headmaster of Salem House, administered this model prison. Creakle's model prisoners were the two arch hypocrites, Mr. Lattimer, that highly "respectable" valet for James Steerforth, who had helped procure Little Em'ly for his employer, and Uriah Heep. Both read prepared statements that show no evidence of reform whatever, but indicate that hypocrisy can easily deceive the none too bright Creakle.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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,” which identifies the speaker as part of the upper classes, to regional dialects, to Punjabi, the predominant language of Pakistanis, who make up a large portion of England’s immigrant population. Slang and profanity are an accepted part of the English language as it is used on the streets.

Media Adaptations

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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.

For Further Reference

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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 Nebraska Press, 1984. A Freudian analysis. Dickens, for Frank, stands between the writers of Romantic autobiography such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas de Quincy, and Freud. David Copperfield is "poet of the memory, the heir of Rousseau and de Quincy. Freud writes with both Rousseau and Dickens in mind."

Garnett, Robert R. "Why not Sophy? Desire and Agnes in David Copperfield." Dickens Quarterly, (spring 1998): 213-231. The saintly Agnes has not been treated kindly by critics who have made such remarks about her as those by Michael Slater: "a nullity" and "lifeless." But Dickens in a memoranda for the fifth number of the book's monthly installments says "Introduction of the real heroine." In her, he created the ideal to which Copperfield must ascend to finally realize himself.

House, Humphrey. The Dickens World. London: Oxford University Press, 1941. Indispensable as a source of background material on Dickens and his era.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. Two volumes. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. The first great modern biography of Dickens. Good critiques of the major works. Chapter Six, Volume Two, "His Favorite Child," is an excellent commentary on David Copperfield.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1988. Somewhat more concise than Johnson's and Ackroyd's biographies. A penetrating analysis of David Copperfield in Chapter Eight.

Monod, Sylvere. Dickens the Novelist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968. Originally a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris. A close analysis of Dickens as a writer which opposes the view that Dickens was not a skilled craftsman. David Copperfield is the novel which Demonstrates Dickens' craft at its finest. The best analysis of Dickens' writing currently available.

Storey, Graham. David Copperfield: Interweaving Truth and Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991. Storey is one of the editors of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens' Letters. This book is one of the Twayne Masterworks Series, and it covers in its brief format the essentials of Dickens' life, accomplishment, and the historical background of his works.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Further Reading Kaplan, Fred, Dickens: A Biography, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. This highly praised biography examines the relationships between Dickens’s personal life and his art, especially the experiences of his youth. Kaplan also focuses on Dickens’s view of himself and how he was seen by others as an artist and social reformer.

Myers, Margaret, “The Lost Self: Gender in David Copperfield,” in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986, pp. 120–32. In this essay, Myers claims that David is able to establish a firm sense of self only after allowing the feminine to integrate with the masculine in his personality.

Needham, Gwendolyn B., “The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, September 1954, pp. 81–107. Needham explores the emotional development of David’s character and its relationship to the novel’s theme and structure.

Stone, Harry, “Fairy Tales and Ogres: Dickens’ Imagination and David Copperfield,” in Criticism, Vol. 6, 1954, pp. 324–30. Stone examines Dickens’s imaginative use of fairy tales in the novel, including the development of Betsey Trotwood’s character in the clothes shop scene, highlighting the complexity of David’s responses to his experiences.


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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 childhood. Includes a bibliography and chronology.

Vogel, Jane. Allegory in Dickens. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977. In the chapters about David Copperfield, which make up a great deal of the book, the author proposes that the novel can be read—and was written—as a Christian allegory of the spiritual journey from Creation to Heaven. Thought-provoking, though not always convincing.


Critical Essays