David Copperfield is portrayed from childhood through maturity in the story. David was born six months after his father died in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England. With his loving, childish mother and kindly housekeeper, Clara Peggotty, David spends his early years in relative happiness.
Peggotty’s family is thrown into turmoil when Little Emily runs away with Copperfield’s former schoolmate, leaving Mr. Peggotty completely heartbroken. Dickens, however, provides some comic relief with the introduction of Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, as well as David’s love for his “child-wife,” Dora.
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Table of Contents
David Copperfield, writing his memoirs as an adult, reflects on his unsettled childhood and on the events that led to his becoming a successful novelist.
The widowed young Mrs. Clara Copperfield is awaiting the birth of her child when she receives a surprise visit from her late husband’s aunt, a gruff, spinsterish woman named Betsey Trotwood.
Mrs. Copperfield is so alarmed by this visit that she goes into labor and gives birth to a son, David Copperfield. When Mrs. Trotwood discovers that the baby is a boy, she storms off in a rage; having been ill-treated by her husband many years earlier, she has never since trusted men.
David has a delightful early childhood in Blunderstone Rookery, adored by his pretty mother and her devoted servant, Clara Peggotty. But when David is still a young child, Mrs. Copperfield begins dating the dark-haired, sinister Edward Murdstone, and a shadow falls over the household.
Murdstone pretends to be “firm,” but is actually cruel, and it is not long before David is sent on vacation with Peggotty to visit her brother, Daniel Peggotty, at Great Yarmouth on the coast. Daniel, a friendly fisherman, lives with his orphaned niece, Little Em’ly, and his orphaned nephew, Ham Peggotty, in a converted barge-boat.
David instantly develops a crush on Em’ly, who aspires to be a “lady” instead of a lowly commoner. By the end of his happy stay in Yarmouth, David is sad to leave Em’ly behind.
During David’s absence, his mother has married Murdstone, and David now has a stepfather. Murdstone’s equally nasty sister, Miss Jane Murdstone, moves into the house, and life becomes a nightmare for David.
Living with fear and intimidation, he retreats into a world of sadness. Murdstone beats him when he is unable to learn a math lesson, and David retaliates by biting Murdstone’s hand. For five days, David is imprisoned in his room, then is sent away to Salem House, a boarding school near London.
Barkis, the man who drives the carriage that takes David to school, is attracted to Peggotty and wants to marry her. He asks David to give her the message “Barkis is willin’.” At Salem House, David finds that the headmaster, Mr. Creakle, is a sadistic flogger of boys.
David, however, is protected by James Steerforth, the most handsome and popular older boy at the school. He also makes friends with Tommy Traddles, a loyal and persistent young boy who will help David later in life.
Peggotty and Ham visit David and report that Em’ly is “getting to be a woman.” At the end of the school year, David goes home for a holiday and finds things more or less the same, except that he now has a new little brother.
Though he spends a few happy moments alone with his mother, he is otherwise miserable because of the Murdstones. After returning to Salem House, David celebrates his 10th birthday in March, then is grief-stricken to learn one day that his mother has died of a broken heart—a victim of Murdstone’s harsh, loveless treatment of her.
David now feels like “an orphan in the wide world,” and is shocked to learn that Miss Murdstone has fired Peggotty.
Before long, Peggotty marries Barkis, and during a brief visit to Yarmouth, David sees that Em’ly has become more of a “lady.” Murdstone removes David from school at the age of 10 and sends him to work in London at the firm of Murdstone and Grinby, a warehouse where David washes and labels bottles.
He resents working alongside “commoners” such as Mealy Potatoes and Mick Walker, and the adult David wonders how he could “have been so easily thrown away at such an age.” He does, however, find lodgings with the delightful Micawber family. Mr. Wilkins Micawber, a spendthrift who is always in debt, believes optimistically that “something will turn up” to solve the family’s problems.
Mrs. Emma Micawber vows that she will never desert her husband, despite his financial woes. David likes them both very much and is sorry when the entire Micawber family, unable to hold their creditors at bay, are sent to debtors’ prison.
After the Micawbers arrange a deal to pay off their creditors, they move to the country “until something turns up.” Alone again, David decides to seek a home in Dover with his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood. He arrives exhausted, after a six- day journey on foot, and although his aunt seems almost witchlike, she takes David in.
David quickly learns that she is a kind woman, especially in her treatment of the childlike, slightly retarded Richard Babley (known as Mr. Dick), who boards with her. After David tells Aunt Betsey about his mother’s marriage to Murdstone and about the events leading to the present, she sets up a meeting with the Murdstones to discuss David’s future.
When Jane and Edward Murdstone arrive, they call David “the worst boy” in the world and the imperious Betsey banishes them from her property. She proclaims herself David’s official guardian, renames him Trotwood Copperfield—”Trot” for short—and forever wins David’s love.
Aunt Betsey sends David to an excellent school in Canterbury, run by the kindly headmaster Dr. Strong. She also arranges for David to have lodgings with Mr. Wickfield, a lawyer who lives with his young daughter, Agnes.
The clerk in Wickfield’s firm is Uriah Heep, a sly and hypocritical “youth of fifteen” who tries to convince people that he is “very ‘umble.” Mr. Wickfield has grown weak over the years because of a drinking problem, and Heep manipulates him to gain more influence in the business.
Dr.Strong has problems too: he is burdened with supporting his poor in-laws, and fears that his pretty, young wife of one year, Annie Strong, may be too fond of her cousin and childhood sweetheart, Jack Maldon.
Years pass, and when it comes time for David to graduate, he still has no plans for a career, so Aunt Betsey sends him on a vacation. In London, David has a chance meeting with Steerforth and is invited home to meet Steerforth’s overly devoted mother and her companion, the sharp-tongued, neurotic Miss Rosa Dartle, who is jealously in love with the handsome son.
David then invites Steerforth to visit the Peggottys for two weeks in Yarmouth, where everyone is celebrating the engagement of Ham Peggotty to Little Em’ly. Though Steerforth pretends to enjoy himself there, he privately scorns the Peggottys for their lowly status. He is, however, captivated by Em’ly’s beauty, and thinks she should not marry Ham: “I swear she was born to be a lady.”
David decides to become a proctor (lawyer who specializes in wills and marriages). His old boarding school chum, Tommy Traddles, is also preparing for a career in law. Aunt Betsey agrees to pay for his articling fees, though her former husband is blackmailing her for money (she continues to pay him so he will leave her alone).
David enters Doctors’ Commons, where he will study law, and is articled (hired as an apprentice) by the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins. He falls in love with Mr. Spenlow’s daughter, the beautiful but immature Dora Spenlow.
But as the weeks slip by, David, lonely and bored with the law, begins to write poetry. He rushes to Yarmouth when he learns that Barkis is dying, but an even greater tragedy awaits him when it is discovered that Little Em’ly has run away with Steerforth, aided by the dwarf hairdresser, Miss Mowcher.
The dwarf had been duped by Steerforth into thinking that the love letters, which she delivered to Em’ly as a go-between, came from David, not from Steerforth. Daniel Peggotty vows never to rest until he has found his niece.
Dora agrees to marry David only if her father gives his permission. This could be difficult to obtain since the conservative Mr. Spenlow does not always see eye to eye with David. To further complicate David’s life, Aunt Betsey arrives one day, bankrupt and homeless after being “ruined” by her former husband.
Depressed by the sudden loss of funds due to Betsey’s financial reverses, David makes plans for his aunt and Mr. Dick to stay at his rooming house. It troubles David to learn that Mr. Micawber is now a clerk for Uriah Heep, who has been so successful in influencing the weakening Wickfield that he is now a full partner. Worse yet, Heep is trying to court the saintly Agnes Wickfield.
David manages to find part-time work as Dr. Strong’s assistant on a dictionary project and, with Tommy Traddles’s help, learns shorthand so he can become a parliamentary reporter. Mr. Spenlow suddenly dies, thereby clearing the way for David to marry Dora.
At first, the marriage is blissful, but within a year David sees that Dora, now pregnant, is far too immature to succeed in her role as wife. He is now working successfully as a reporter and has plans for a novel.
Martha Endell, a poor young “fallen woman” (prostitute), reveals to David and Daniel Peggotty that Em’ly is now in London. After tiring of his new lover, Steerforth had abandoned Em’ly to survive on her own. The loving Daniel locates his niece and forgives her for running off. He believes she needs to start a new life, so he takes her to Australia.
David’s first novel is published and is a huge success. He hopes that his marriage can be improved by the birth of the baby, but the infant dies in childbirth. For weeks, Dora lies in bed, an invalid.
In the meantime, Micawber has discovered that Uriah Heep has committed deception, fraud, and conspiracy. Micawber exposes Heep’s villainy and Heep flees to London from Canterbury. Betsey Trotwood learns that Heep had embezzled her money, and when her fortune is returned, she offers to help the Micawbers, who are also moving to Australia.
Dora grows steadily worse and finally dies. A great storm occurs at Yarmouth and Ham Peggotty loses his life trying to rescue a passenger on a ship; the passenger is Steerforth, who also drowns.
David travels abroad for three years, and before returning to London, he comes to realize that he has always loved Agnes Wickfield. He meets Mr. Creakle, now a magistrate who operates a “model prison” in which, David notes, prisoners eat better than the poor working people who live outside. However, justice has been served: The prisoner in cell Number 27 is Uriah Heep. David asks Agnes to marry him, and she accepts.
Within the next 10 years, they have numerous children and David becomes a famous writer. In Australia, Em’ly has never married; Daniel Peggotty remains hale and hearty; and Micawber has become a district magistrate, having moved his family to that country. Now that David has completed his memoirs, he ends the “novel.”
David Copperfield: Narrator, hero of the novel. Persevering, earnest, and sensitive. His early years alternate between devoted love of mother and nursemaid and cold neglect by his stepfather. He tells the story from childhood to adulthood when he has become a successful writer.
Clara Copperfield: David’s pretty, loving but weak-willed mother. When David’s father dies, she marries Murdstone, who destroys her spirit.
Clara Peggotty: David’s nurse and housekeeper, called “Peggotty.” Simple and devoted to David, she is his only true friend after his mother’s death. She marries Barkis.
Edward Murdstone: David’s stepfather. Dark, handsome, sadistic, cruel. He abuses David and drives him from the household.
Daniel Peggotty: Brother of Clara Peggotty. Fisherman at Yarmouth. Simple, unselfish, friendly, and offers his barge-boat to needy people.
Little Em’ly: Orphan and niece of Daniel Peggotty, with whom she lives. She is a quiet, pretty, loving girl who wants to be a “lady.”
Ham Peggotty: Orphan and nephew of Daniel Peggotty. He is good-natured, kind, honest, quiet, hardworking, and lives with his uncle. He is a fisherman and builds boats. Engaged to Little Em’ly, who deserts him for Steerforth. He waits patiently for her return.
James Steerforth: School chum of David at Salem House. He is handsome and aristocratic. On the surface, he is charming and well-mannered, but underneath he is spoiled, egotistical, and destructive. He ruins David’s trust by running off with Little Em’ly, then abandoning her. He drowns in a storm at Yarmouth.
Betsey Trotwood: David’s paternal great-aunt. Outwardly severe and eccentric, she is actually a kind woman who loves David. She becomes his guardian and provides money for his education.
Wilkins Micawber: An optimistic, happy-go-lucky man who is always in debt. He is a comic figure who talks and writes in flowery language. He exposes Uriah Heep’s wrongdoings and moves to Australia, where he becomes a successful magistrate.
Mr. Wickfield: Betsey’s attorney and Agnes’s father. After the death of his wife, he begins to drink excessively and gradually falls prey to Uriah Heep’s schemes.
Uriah Heep: Law clerk in the office of Mr. Wickfield. He is a hypocritical villain who pretends to be “‘umble” but is actually taking over Wickfield’s practice through cheating and manipulation. He wants to marry Agnes. He comes from a lower class and is bitter toward upper-class people who have snubbed him. He goes to jail for forgery.
Dora Spenlow: David’s first wife. She is beautiful but simple-minded and unable to run a household.
Agnes Wickfield: David’s longtime friend and angelic second wife. She is earnest, humble, hardworking, dutiful, and devoted to David. She is the perfect mate and always surrounded by a glow of peace and light.
Themes and Ideas
1. Autobiographical elements
In David Copperfield, Dickens draws heavily from his own life experiences. Both David and Dickens had similar childhoods, working in a filthy warehouse-factory and experiencing their parents’ imprisonment for debt. They both also initially planned to become lawyers but turned to writing. It’s interesting to note that David’s initials are the reverse of Dickens’s.
2. Orphans and half-orphans
Most young characters in the novel lack one or both parents, including David who lost his mother early in the story. Many characters are orphans, while others have no mothers or fathers. Dickens’s own difficult childhood inspired him to write about the vulnerability and insecurity of children and helped bring about changes in England’s child labor laws.
3. Role of women
Like many Victorian authors, Dickens struggled to create complex female characters in an age when women were expected to be passive and domestic. Agnes Wickfield is praised for her virtues of patience, humility, and moral sense, while Dora Spenlow is satirized for her inability to function as a housekeeper. Despite her flaws, Dora’s energy and verve make her a more interesting character than the saintly Agnes.
4. Class snobbery
Dickens shows how tragedy can occur when people from different social classes fail to respect each other. Little Em’ly’s desire to become a “lady” and escape her humble origins ultimately leads to her downfall. Dickens sympathizes with the lower middle class, including the Micawbers, as he grew up in a family that struggled to maintain respectability.
5. The mistreated child
David is the best example of an abused child in the novel, as he suffers from the cruel treatment of his stepfather and the coldness of Jane Murdstone. Even the novel’s villains, Steerforth and Heep, are products of mistreatment by their overbearing mothers, leading to dangerous egotism.
Dickens believed in the transformative power of education and portrayed both the best and worst of schools. Mr. Creakle’s Salem House is an accurate portrait of the brutal schoolmasters of Dickens’s day, while Dr. Strong’s school in Canterbury is a model of good education where students are treated with kindness and respect.
7. Social reforms
Dickens tackles several topical social issues in the novel, including the mistreatment of mentally handicapped people, the plight of young women from broken homes, the failings of the correctional system, and the corruption of the legal profession.
Dickens’s treatment of sexual relationships is often considered a weakness in his writing due to the repressed attitudes towards sex in Victorian England. The novel includes several examples of unconventional relationships, including David’s attraction to Steerforth and Daniel Peggotty’s obsessive “love” for Little Em’ly.
9. Emigration to Australia
At the end of the novel, many characters emigrate to Australia in search of a new start. For Dickens, Australia represented a classless society where people could pursue their dreams without being held back by social snobbery.
1. The sea
While the sea possesses a cleansing power, it can also be terrifying and tragic. Peggotty’s barge-boat serves as a haven for young David, but the sea claims the lives of many of his loved ones, including Little Em’ly, Ham, and Steerforth. Dickens’s vivid description of the storm in which Steerforth and Ham perish is considered one of the greatest descriptive passages he ever wrote.
2. Symbolic names
Dickens had a knack for giving his characters names that reflect their personalities. Murdstone’s name combines “murder” and “stone” to convey his cruel and unyielding nature, while Uriah Heep’s name suggests his hypocritical and immoral character. The names of the novel’s virtuous characters, such as Betsey Trotwood and the Peggottys, convey energy, vitality, and life-affirming qualities.
Betsey Trotwood despises the donkeys that trample her front yard, seeing them as a symbol of her fear of losing control over what belongs to her. This fear stems from her past experience of being taken advantage of by her gambler husband and continually being drained of money by him even after their separation.
1. Memorable Characters
Dickens was a master at creating memorable characters, and David Copperfield is no exception. One of the most notable characters is Uriah Heep, a villain whose power over others is astonishing and eerie. Another memorable character is James Steerforth, a charming and natural winner whose insight Dickens presents with subtlety and skill. The book also features the warm and lovable Peggotty family, who add depth and warmth to the story. Dickens’s ability to create characters that readers can bond with emotionally is unparalleled.
2. Descriptive Writing
One of the things that sets Dickens apart from other writers is his skill in descriptive writing. The storm scene near the end of the book is a prime example of this. The vivid and powerful language used to describe the storm is something that stays with readers long after they have finished reading the book. Dickens’s use of language is so powerful that it is impossible not to be moved by it.
3. Emotional Depth
David Copperfield is a story that is full of emotional depth. From the tragic childhood of David Copperfield to his struggles in adolescence and adulthood, the book explores a wide range of human emotions. Dickens’s depiction of characters who are struggling to transcend the suffering brought about by a controlling stepfather, a cruel headmaster, and personal tragedy is truly exceptional. The emotional ebb and flow of the book is so powerful that it can leave readers in tears at times, but also feeling ultimately satisfied.
1. Too long, too many storylines
David Copperfield is a mammoth of a book, and its length can be a turn-off for some readers. Additionally, the book has too many storylines, each with their own conflict and climax. This makes it hard for readers to keep track of everything and can leave them feeling fatigued.
2. Forced coincidences and one-dimensional characters
The coincidences in David Copperfield are abundant, and this can detract from the story’s credibility. The side characters, while likable, are also very one-dimensional. Only Aunt Betsey is an exception. Even the protagonist, David Copperfield, can come off as unlikable at times. While it’s unclear if this is intentional, some readers may not appreciate the character’s prickly nature.
3. Beautiful writing, but not compelling enough
One of the best things about David Copperfield is Dickens’ writing style. The book is beautifully written, with moments of humor and entertainment. However, this may not be enough to keep readers interested in the long run. While the book is entertaining on a shallow level, it may not have enough depth to sustain readers’ attention throughout.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is a book that elicits both admiration and criticism. While the novel contains memorable characters and beautiful writing, the length of the book and the forced coincidences may be off-putting to some readers.
However, it is clear that Dickens has a unique talent for creating emotional bonds between his characters and readers. Despite its flaws, David Copperfield remains a classic of English literature, and for those who appreciate Dickens’ style and storytelling, it is definitely worth reading.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 near Portsmouth where his father was a clerk in the navy pay office. The family moved to London in 1823, but their fortunes were severely impaired. Dickens was sent to work in a blacking-warehouse when his father was imprisoned for debt. Both experiences deeply affected the future novelist.
In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines, and in 1836 started the serial publication of Pickwick Papers.
Thereafter, Dickens published his major novels over the course of the next twenty years, from Nicholas Nickleby to Little Dorrit. He also edited the journals Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens died in June 1870.
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