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

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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What is the main theme of David Copperfield?

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One of the themes of David Copperfield is the way in which the poor suffer but conduct themselves with great honesty and nobility. For example, Ham lives in a house made out of a boat and has little money, but he is an honorable man who lives neatly and respectfully. David Copperfield describes Ham's simple house as "the perfect abode" because it is so tidy and welcoming. Mr. Peggotty, Ham's uncle, is (according to Peggotty, David's housekeeper) incredibly generous. She describes Mr. Peggotty, her brother, in the following way:

"The only subject, she informed me, on which he ever showed a violent temper or swore an oath, was this generosity of his; and if it were ever referred to, by any one of them, he struck the table a heavy blow with his right hand."

Mr. Peggotty is poor but generous; he is also so humble that he hates for others to even refer to his generosity.

The poor in the novel are generally far more virtuous than the rich; for example, the rich James Steerforth, while once a good friend to David Copperfield, seduces the innocent Emily and then tries to convince her to marry one of his servants. It is generally among the poor that David finds virtue in this novel, even though the poor suffer. David himself suffers a great deal from poverty before his great aunt helps him, and Dickens suggests that the suffering of the poor makes them nobler than the rich. 

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One of the central themes in this novel is that of marriage and what a good marriage looks like. The novel presents the reader with various examples, but interestingly, it is important to note that Dr. Strong and Annie act as a kind of example of a good marriage. After Mr. Dick manages to bring them together again to foil the schemes of the evil Uriah Heep in trying to separate them, Annie makes the following comment that could be regarded as the central motto of the story:

There can be no disparity of marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.

These words strike David to the very core of his being, as he realises that his marriage to Dora is not based on equality of mind and purpose because they are completely different characters who will never be able to be reconciled to each other. Dickens is thus arguing that true marriage can rest on equality of mind and purpose alone, and that these factors are more important than age or class or other differences, as is shown by the massive age gap between Annie and Doctor Strong. Of course, once Dora is fortunately killed off by Dickens, David is free to enjoy the kind of marriage he dreams about with Agnes.

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What are the themes and symbols in David Copperfield?

Clearly, a work that is as long as this novel is will have a number of themes and will contain a number of different symbols. The answer given above refers to a number of the themes, so I will consider an important symbol as an example to help you go back to the novel and identify some others. One of the most notable symbols that appears in this book is that of the sea. Interestingly, the sea in a number of different works of literature is a symbol of mystery or of the unknown, such as in The Awakening. However, in this novel, the sea is a symbol of a powerful force that is connected with death. If we think about it, it is the sea that took Little Em'ly's father in an accident over which she had no control whatsover. Also, it is the sea that is responsible for the death of Ham and Steerforth. The sea is also used to give us insight into different characters, most importantly when the sea washes the corpse of Steerforth up on the shore, which symbolises the moral vacuum that characterised him, as he is treated like any other bit of wreckage that is moved around by the tide:

And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children--on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind--among the ruins of the home he had wronged--I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

If we think about the storm that appears in the last few chapters of teh novel, we can see that it symbolises the danger of ignoring the power of the sea and also signals the way in which the conflicts in the novel have reached their dangerous, tempestuous climax. Again and again, like death, the sea is shown to be beyond human control and power. For those who are dependent upon the sea, they ignore the dangers that the sea represents at their peril and must evince a healthy level of respect in order to survive.

Hopefully this will help you identify and comment upon other symbols in this novel.


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