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

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

Class Consciousness
Characters in the novel represent different classes and illustrate the wide gulf between the classes in Victorian England. The most damaging effect from an awareness of the separation between the lower and middle classes occurs when Em’ly runs off with Steerforth. Em’ly is quite aware of the difference between her class and David’s when he first meets her. When David notes that both of them are orphans, she calls his attention to one important difference: she tells him, “your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter.” By this statement, Em’ly means that her antecedents worked hard to maintain a minimal standard of living, while David’s parents had some measure of inherited wealth. Even at such a young age, Em’ly understands how money can radically affect one’s life. Later, when she hopes to become a lady by marrying Steerforth, she is forced to realize how entrenched economically based prejudices can be. Mrs. Steerforth blames her for the situation, insisting that any association with Em’ly would “ruin his prospects.”

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David is also aware of class divisions and is distressed when he faces the possibility that he will never regain entry into the middle class. When he goes to work in the warehouse with his new associates there, he reveals “the secret agony of [his] soul, claiming, “[M]y hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man [were] crushed in my bosom,” and he is left broken-hearted. He does not associate with the other boys at the warehouse, thinking them beneath him. When David’s fortunes change, he enjoys his status as a gentleman and is desperate to keep people from knowing how poor he had once been.

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David’s attitudes toward the lower class, however, are much different from the Steerforths’. Peggotty becomes his surrogate mother and the other members of her family his good friends. He even falls in love for a time with Little Em’ly, never considering that a match with her would be unacceptable. Yet he does maintain and reinforce class divisions when he never corrects Peggotty and her family when they refer to him as “Master Davy.” Dickens appears to have mixed feelings about class consciousness as he has David maintain some distance from the Peggottys, but he portrays this family with an honesty and goodness of nature that is lacking in many upper-class characters. His attitude illustrates the progressive yet cautious attitude that was emerging in the more liberal circles of Victorian England: an effort to narrow the gap between the classes, but not to close it entirely.

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Criticism of Social Institutions
The novel attacks social institutions Dickens viewed as unjust and cruel. The first is the boarding school system that permitted sadistic men, like Creakle, to be in charge. No one checks his power or tries to stop his cruelty; as a result, the children under his care are tormented physically and emotionally. Dickens also highlights the abusive situation that can result in the home where the man holds all power over the household, and no law or agency can be exerted on behalf of a wife or child. No one rebukes Murdstone for his tyranny over David and his savage beating of him. Even after David’s mother dies, Murdstone has complete control over the boy until Aunt Betsey intervenes. There are also no child labor laws to make illegal the employment of a ten-year-old boy for long hours of work in a warehouse.

The prison system also comes under attack in the novel when David and Traddles accept an invitation from Mr. Creakle, who has become a magistrate, to see the successful results of “the only true system of prison discipline; the only unchallengeable way of making sincere and lasting converts and penitents . . . solitary confinement.” David and Traddles find the system not so solitary, since they observe the prisoners communicating with each other. They also discover its ineffectiveness when they meet Creakle’s “Model Prisoner,” whom he calls “Number Twenty Seven,” who turns out to be Uriah Heep. After going through the prison’s system of discipline, Uriah remains still his “umble” self and swears that he has been rehabilitated and would not relapse if he were released. David sees through this façade, and so recognizes the failure of the system, when the conniving Uriah mentions David’s striking him, which gains him sympathy from the prison officials. Though this scene may come across as humorous, the fact is that the penal system was subjective, biased, easily manipulated. It may be fair to say it operated much of the time on the assumption that poverty is proof of corruption.

Dickens exposes inequities but offers no solutions. The tranquil domestic scene at the end of the novel is not disturbed by the memory of what David has suffered from social injustices. Yet Dickens’s realistic portrayal of them calls readers’ attention to the real damage they caused in Victorian England.

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