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 December 20, 2023.

Autobiography and Personal Development

David Copperfield opens by posing the question, "whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life," and the process of reconstructing and narrating memories is a central focus throughout the novel. Given the autobiographical content of the work, many of David's reflections on the relationship between writing and recollection can be read as applying to Dickens himself. The process of completing the novel becomes inextricably tied up with the process of self-realization and the passage to maturity narrated on its pages.

In the bildungsroman tradition, David gradually recounts the various errors, false starts, and formative experiences that brought him to become the man he was at the time of writing. Mr Murdstone's arrival leaves David with a sense of being in exile. He feels cast adrift at home, school, and the factory until he finally finds a true home and a proper start in life with Aunt Betsey and Dr. Strong. 

David attempts various careers, as a factory worker, a proctor, and a secretary, before finally finding his true vocation as a professional writer. Again, he experiences his childhood infatuation with little Em'ly and his less-than-prudent marriage to Dora before finally finding romantic happiness and a stable family home with Agnes.

Outsiders and Eccentrics

Eccentricity, for Dickens, is a means for characters to mentally extract themselves from the cruel and corrupt society in which they live. Most of the characters who provide refuge and assistance to David and his friends in the novel, redeeming what might otherwise have been a very bleak narrative, can be described as eccentrics.

David's first place of refuge after his mother attracts the attention of Mr. Murdstone is the curious house – a boat on the beach in Yarmouth, which is home to Peggotty's family. This highly unorthodox abode provides the security and love that are increasingly lacking in David's more conventional household. The boat's position at the edge of the sea places it symbolically on the border between life and death, foreshadowing Martha and Em'ly's suicidal thoughts and the drowning of Steerforth and Ham.

Mr. Micawber wilfully refuses to be dragged down by his increasingly bleak financial situation. His unwavering optimism and flamboyant positivity again constitute a refusal to mentally occupy the brutal, uncompromising world in which he finds himself.

The childlike quality of Mr. Micawber's resilient innocence is reflected more markedly in the portrayal of Mr. Dick and Dora, both of whom are explicitly described as children. Mr. Dick's love of kite flying is symbolic of his mental removal from the corrupt machinations of the world below. His "childlike" state frees him from the strictures and taboos of convention, leading him to exhibit a straightforward wisdom lacking in many of the more socially entangled characters. Thus, when faced with the arrival of the exhausted, starving, and filthy David in Dover, Mr. Dick proposes giving him a bath, a meal, and a warm bed.

The Vulnerable Position of Women

The plight of so-called "fallen women" and the extreme vulnerability of women in society are major concerns in Dickens' novel. The powerlessness of David's mother in the face of Murdstone's extreme psychological cruelty and controlling behavior is illustrative of the economic and social vulnerability of young widows in Victorian society. His remarriage to another young widow after Clara's death suggests that the situation is endemic and allows predators such as Murdstone to flourish at the expense of vulnerable young women.

The narratives of Little Em'ly and Martha Endell illustrate the unfair, incoherent attitudes of Victorian society towards female...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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sexuality. Both of these women are branded "fallen" and cut off from society after being exploited by upper-class men, who suffer no consequences as a result of their actions. 

The characterization of Steerforth's unmarried cousin, Rosa Dartle, is illustrative of the conflicted, hypocritical attitudes towards gender roles and the attribution of blame in the world of the novel. Dartle has been scarred for life since Steerforth threw a hammer at her face in a fit of rage, yet she continues to idolize and adore him. By contrast, her condemnation of Em'ly is brutal and uncompromising:

I would have her branded on the face, dressed in rags and cast out on the streets to starve. If I had the power to sit in judgment on her, I would see it done. See it done? I would do it! I detest her.

The novel offers no practical resolutions to the plight of women in society. Dickens' troubled female characters find relief through the kindness of others, through migration and death. David's first wife, Dora, remains suspended in a kind of unworldly, eternal childhood and cannot interact with or survive in modern society. Like David's mother, she finds peace and resolution only in death. 

The novel's two "fallen women," Em'ly and Martha, find new hope only in abandoning England altogether and beginning a new life in Australia. Agnes and David end the novel happily married with children, with Agnes being saved from Uriah's predatory intentions by Mr. Micawber's intervention. However, Agnes is so saintly a character that she seems to be scarcely of this world, as note the Christian associations of her name ("agnes dei" – lamb of God).