- Title: David Copperfield
- Author: Charles Dickens
- Country: United Kingdom
- Genre: Novel, Bildungsroman
- Publication: 1850
David Copperfield is the pivotal character of the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. He is first introduced in the novel when he is born on a Friday in March in the early 19th century. The pet of his mother Clara Copperfield and faithful housekeeper Peggotty, David lives an idyllic life for the first few years of his life, even though he is fatherless–his father, David Copperfield Sr., died 6 months before his son’s birth. David’s happy childhood is marred by the arrival of his
tyrannical stepfather, Edward Murdstone, and David suffers both physical and mental abuse from his new guardian.
Although David narrates his story as an adult, he relays the impressions he had from a youthful point of view. We see how David’s perception of the world deepens as he comes of age. We see David’s initial innocence in the contrast between his interpretation of events and our own understanding of them.
In David’s first-person narration, Dickens conveys the wisdom of the older man implicitly, through the eyes of a child. David’s complex character allows for contradiction and development over the course of the novel.
David works hard to achieve financial security, working multiple jobs at the same time and eventually finding lasting success as a writer. The necessity of earning his own living has a beneficial effect on David’s character; as a child, David is fairly meek and passive, but the experiences he goes through force him to develop a more active and independent streak, in line with Victorian gender expectations. Nevertheless, many aspects of David’s personality remain constant over time—particularly his dreamy and sensitive nature, coupled with a vivid memory and a tendency toward nostalgia.
His personal life is tumultuous, largely because he unwisely marries Dora Spenlow at a young age. Although the two feel real affection for one another, Dora’s childishness prevents their relationship from maturing and deepening. It is only when Dora dies and David married Agnes Wickfield that he finds an emotional and intellectual companion.
Though he has many shortcomings, David has many good qualities that endear him to his friends and relatives. Though he is treated badly by his stepfather and by Creakle, he preserves his good nature and humanity and carries with him an atmosphere of cheer and goodwill wherever he goes. His nurse Peggotty, Ham, Mr. Peggotty and Emily all have great affection for him, and even Miss Betsey, who had been disappointed at his not being a girl, develops love for him. Miss Betsey advises him never to be mean, vulgar or cruel, and he never forgets this advice. There is no meanness or pettiness about his conduct. He is honest, kind and conscientious. David is a gifted young man and has always been fond of reading. These qualities help him to be a good writer.
We think Miss Betsey Trotwood says it best when she describes Mrs. Copperfield as “a very Baby” (1.18). Miss Betsey is commenting on Mrs. Copperfield’s appearance –her big blue eyes, her flossy golden hair, her childlike face – but she’s also babyishlyirresponsible. Indeed, before marrying Mr. Copperfield, Mrs. Copperfield works as a nursery-governess – a nanny. So, even when she is working to support herself, Mrs. Copperfield is strongly identified with babies and children. Her behavior in the novel reflects this association of ideas. Indeed, Mrs. Copperfield
dies as she lives: Peggotty comments that she passes away “like a child that had gone to sleep” (9.103).
Mrs. Copperfield is barely twenty when she gets married; her husband is a man twice her age and in poor health. Widowed before her son is even born, Mrs. Copperfield is left to raise David with the help of her housekeeper, Peggotty. When Peggotty tries to warn Mrs. Copperfield that Mr. Murdstone, her new boyfriend, is not a good man, Mrs. Copperfield throws a huge tantrum: “Was ever any poor girl so ill-used by her servants as I am!” (2.49), she exclaims. But she soon makes up with Peggotty and it’s as though the whole fight never happened. This cycle happens over and over again – Mrs. Copperfield is quick to get angry and quick to forget about it. But she never takes advice and she refuses to do anything against her own wishes.
Betsey Trotwood is David’s great-aunt on his father’s side. Although she disapproved of David Copperfield’s marriage to Clara, she is present for David’s birth because she hopes the child will be a girl. As a young woman, Miss Betsey married a man who abused her, and the relationship permanently soured her on the male sex. Nevertheless, she is moved by David’s plight when he comes to her after running away from the counting-house, and she refuses to send him back to Mr. Murdstone.
From that point onward, she becomes a parental figure for David, putting him through school and offering advice and support even after he has grown to adulthood. Outwardly, Miss Betsey is a no-nonsense and even gruff woman who intimidates Clara Copperfield, Peggotty, and (initially) even David himself.
Her tough exterior, however, conceals deep compassion and respect for her family and friends. This is particularly evident in her relationship with Mr. Dick, a mentally disabled man whom Miss Betsey not only rescues from an asylum but then lives with and treats as an equal.
In fact, Miss Betsey displays tenderness and concern even towards people she professes to disapprove of. Although quite critical of Clara’s (and later Dora Spenlow’s) childishness and naiveté, Miss Betsey nevertheless speaks out for both women’s rights to be treated kindly and respectfully by their husbands.She’s one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, and makes a refreshing change from the many cruel, unscrupulous, and just plain nasty characters around. This is a lady who really is full of the milk of human kindness.
She takes in David after he runs away from his unhappy home; she takes good care of him, providing her great-nephew with a good education, and a warm, loving home. But her kindness doesn’t stop at David; Betsey also opens her modest home to the poor, unfortunate Mr. Dick, a man who’s seriously down on his luck. She also gives money to her estranged husband, a degenerate gambler who turns up on her doorstep every now and again, looking for hand-outs.
Miss Betsey is by no means perfect; she wouldn’t be half as interesting a character if she were. For one thing, she’s rather quick to judge other people. This leads her to refuse to become
David’s godmother because she disapproves of David Copperfield Sr.’s wife. Yet the most important thing about Betsey is that she always learns from her mistakes, and it’s this wisdom, combined with her great kindness and generosity, that makes her the perfect surrogate mother for young David.
The novel implies that some of Miss Betsey’s outer hardness is a matter of necessity; since she separated from her husband, she has been living as an entirelyindependent woman, which was not an easy feat in Victorian England.
Clara Peggotty, who goes by Peggotty, is the Copperfield family servant, acting as Clara Copperfield‘s housekeeper and David’s nurse. She is exceptionally loyal to the family and refuses to desert Clara Copperfield even after her marriage to Mr. Murdstone—a match Peggotty clearly disapproves of. This is partly a reflection of her affection for Clara herself, but it also speaks to the role she plays in David’s life as a second mother figure. Since Clara herself is largely unable to stand up for or even comfort her son after her remarriage, Peggotty fills the gap.
She is eventually fired by Miss Murdstone, and after living briefly with her brother, Mr. Peggotty, Clara decides to marry a cart driver named Mr. Barkis. The marriage is mostly practical one, since it makes it easier for her to remain in touch with David. She remains a steady, moral influence in David’s life for the remainder of the narrative. In this strongly class-segmented society, Peggotty seems to be a model of working-class womanhood. She loves looking after people, and she knows her place (a major point of contrast with the ill-fated Emily).
doesn’t have much of a character of her own – though she’s a lot more perceptive about the Murdstones than Mrs. Copperfield manages to be. Peggotty’s main role in the novel is to introduce David to a range of good, poor folk with whom he can hobnob, in contrast to his more prosperous days with Miss Betsey and in London. Peggotty is so loyal and self-sacrificing that she almost seems like a stereotype: the ideal of what a well-placed gentleman like David would want his servants to bePeggotty is a cheerful presence in David Copperfield’s early childhood years.
Peggotty is described as having cheeks like a red apple. She is gentle and caring, opening herself and her family to David whenever he is in need..She remains faithful to David Copperfield all her life, being like a second mother to him, never abandoning him, his mother, or his great-aunt Miss Betsey Trotwood..After the death of young David’s mother, Peggotty marries Barkis, the stage driver, but she sets aside a bedroom for David so he can stay with them whenever he likes. An important mother figure in David’s life, Peggotty continues to be a source of love and constancy for him.
Ham is Peggotty’s nephew, the son of her brother Joe Peggotty, who drowned when Ham was a child. So, Ham is an orphan who has been raised by Mr. Peggotty to followup in his footsteps as a fisherman.
Oddly, Ham is also present at David’s birth as a young boy: Peggotty had asked her nephew to be on hand to run errands during Mrs. Copperfield’s late pregnancy. He shares both his uncle’s generous nature and his reliance on the sea for a living: he is a boat-builder by trade. Despite being several years older than Emily, Ham is deeply in love with his cousin, and the two are at one point engaged to be married.
Little Em’ly, however, clearly has misgivings about the relationship, since she aspires to something beyond a working-class life. Ham therefore blames himself when Emily elopes with James Steerforth, saying he should have noticed Emily’s discomfort with the prospect of marrying him. Inspite of Emily’s betrayal he retains his kindness and nobility to the last, ultimately drowning in an attempt to rescue the passengers of a sinking boat—one of whom is Steerforth himself.
Little Em’ly is the niece of Mr. Peggotty, who raises her and her cousin Ham (both are orphans whose fathers have died at sea). David meets her on a childhood trip to Yarmouth, where her relatives work in the fishing industry. The two quickly become friends and childhood sweethearts, but any possibility of a romance between the two ends when David introduces Emily—now a grown woman and Ham’s fiancée—to James Steerforth.
The two run off together but do not marry, permanently ruining Emily’s reputation. After several years living together, Steerforth abandons Emily and attempts to marry her off to his servant, Littimer. Emily refuses, however, and has nearly had to resort to prostitution to support herself by the time her uncle finds her.
Even before she becomes a permanent social outcast as a result of her seduction by Steerforth, Emily is willingly separating herself out from the society into which she was born. And as much as Dickens is willing to engage in criticism of that society (he’s got some pretty cutting things to say about England’s school and prison systems, after all), he still acknowledges that an individual can’t live happily totally outside of her community.
James Steerforth one of David’s classmates at Salem School. The two become close friends, but the relationship dynamic is uneven; Steerforth is charismatic, wealthy, and several years older than David, so many of their interactions involve an element of coercion. Nevertheless, Steerforth seems to truly harbor some affection for David, and David, for his part, idolizes Steerforth. The two reconnect as young adults but suffer a permanent falling out when Steerforth seduces and runs away with little Em’ly, whom David had introduced him to and harbored romantic feelings for. Steerforth eventually abandons Emily, attempting to marry her off to his servant, Littimer. He later
dies in the storm at sea that also results in the death of Ham Peggotty, who was attempting to save him.
Mr. Barkis is a cart driver who frequently takes David back and forth from the Rookery to Yarmouth. He rarely speaks (and then only in very short sentences), but he develops a lasting admiration for Peggotty, in part because he likes her cooking.
He therefore has David act as a go-between, asking him to inform Peggotty that “Barkis is willing [to be married].” The two eventually do marry, with David’s blessing, and have what seems to be a comfortable marriage overall. Although Peggotty remarks more than once that Barkis can be “near” (stingy), even this turns out to be a mark of his affection for his wife; after Barkis’s death, it emerges that he has saved up a small fortune, which he divides between his wife, Mr. Peggotty, little Em’ly, and David Himself.
Mr. Dick is a “distant connexion” of Miss Betsey who now lives with her. Technically, he is one of David’s guardians, but in practice he functions more as a friend than as a parent. Mr. Dick is friendly and good-natured, but he has an unspecified mental illness or disability, which among other things causes him to believe that he has assumed some of the “troubles” of King Charles I after the latter’s execution in 1649.
This preoccupation with Charles I is a source of distress to Mr. Dick, in part because it continuously intrudes into the “Memorial”—or memoir—that he is trying to write. As a result of his eccentricities, Mr. Dick has suffered at the hands of his family—particularly his brother, who attempted to place him in an asylum for life. Miss Betsey strongly implies that the trauma of this experience is at least partially responsible for Mr. Dick’s current condition, though she also staunchly defends his underlying wisdom. Her trust in Mr. Dick is not misplaced, since he eventually repays the favor, working to help support Miss Betsey when her finances suffer and mending the rift between Doctor Strong and his wife, Annie.
Agnes Wickfield is the daughter of Mr. Wickfield, a lawyer with whom David boards while attending Doctor Strong’s school. Agnes and David become good friends growing up together, although in Agnes’s case, this friendship masks deeper, romantic feelings.
Following Dora’s death, David eventually realizes that he loves Agnes as well, and the two marry and have several children together. Agnes is forced to grow up quickly due to her mother’s death and her father’s enduring alcoholism. When David meets her for the first time, Agnes acts as Mr. Wickfield’s “housekeeper,” more or less running the family’s domestic affairs and providing her father with emotional support. In this role, Agnes is competent, loyal, and compassionate, but the strain of taking care of her father does begin to wear on her—particularly when Mr. Wickfield’s apprentice,
Uriah Heep, uses his position to assume control of the legal practice and to attempt to pressure Agnes into marriage. She is also deeply saddened by David’s marriage to Dora Spenlow, not only because Agnes herself is in love with him, but also because she foresees that the marriage will not make David happy. Ultimately, however, Agnes’s patience and devotion are rewarded, and the book’s final pages depict her as the ideal Victorian woman and wife: selfless, supportive, wise, and virtuous.
Dora Spenlow is young, pretty, and totally impractical. David Copperfield falls in love with her at first sight. His determination to marry Dora inspires David to work hard to achieve financial stability and success. Dora Spenlow is David’s first wife and Mr. Spenlow’s daughter. Mr. Spenlow is a proctor for whom David is working when he and Dora first meet.
She and David develop a youthful infatuation with one another and eventually marry, though not until after Mr. Spenlow, who objects to the match, has died. Although Mr. Spenlow ultimately proves to have exaggerated his fortune, it is true that Dora lived an extremely easy and luxurious life growing up as her father’s only child. As a result, she is somewhat spoiled and frivolous.Dora’s childishness and David’s own naïveté cause their marriage to be less than fulfilling.
Much to David’s dismay, she has never learned to budget money or keep accounts. These tendencies are exacerbated by Victorian gender norms, which, for women of Dora’s social standing, tended to stress the acquisition of ornamental skills over practical or intellectual ones. Dora thus loves music, dancing, and teaching her dog, Jip, tricks, but she lacks the ability to run her husband’s household or even fully empathize with his interests and pursuits.
David initially finds this frustrating and attempts to reshape Dora’s character to be more serious and mature. These efforts only distress Dora, however, and David eventually reconciles himself to accepting his wife for who she is. Nevertheless, Dora remains conscious of the fact that she has been a disappointment to her husband, and this knowledge perhaps contributes to her decline and death. Dora suggests on her deathbed that it would have been better if she and David had “loved each other as a boy and girl, and forgotten it.”
Edward Murdstone is Clara Copperfield’s second husband, whom she marries when David is roughly eight. Murdstone is handsome and capable of being quite charming, although David instinctively distrusts him from the start (probably in part because of his own jealousy). After the marriage, however, it quickly becomes clear that Murdstone is dictatorial and cruel. Together with his sister, Miss Murdstone, he attempts to teach Clara “firmness”—supposedly for her own good, but more likely because he enjoys bending people to his will. He is even nastier to David, whom he uses as a means of manipulating Clara and eventually beats for botching his lessons. After Clara’s death, he pulls David out of school and sends him to work at a counting-house he partially
owns. David loses touch with Mr. Murdstone after running away to Miss Betsey’s, but he learns years later that he has married another naïve and impressionable young woman he can control. With all that said, there is a hint of humanity to Mr. Murdstone: his love for Clara is possessive and twisted, but he does seem genuinely grieved by her death.
Uriah Heep is one of the novel’s primary antagonists, becoming the main villain shortly after David escapes from Mr. Murdstone’s control. He is initially introduced as an apprentice at Mr. Wickfield’s legal practice, but he eventually becomes Mr. Wickfield’s partner. It turns out, however, that Uriah has secured his position through a variety of underhanded and illegal means: in addition to encouraging Mr. Wickfield’s drinking habit, he exploited his employer’s resulting confusion by forging his signature on multiple questionable business dealings, and then threatening to expose Mr. Wickfield’s supposed crimes.
Throughout this period, Uriah has also been attempting to force Mr. Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes, to marry him as a way of cementing his power in the household. Uriah comes from a working-class background that he has not been able to fully cast off even in his position at Mr.
Wickfield’s legal practice. For instance, he retains the speech patterns of a lower-class person (dropping the initial H in words). To complicate matters further, the constraints of the Victorian class system mean that Uriah can only express his hopes for advancement in a backhanded way by insisting that he is too “umble” to have any ambitions at all. As a result, Uriah intensely resents anyone who occupies a more respected or privileged position in society—particularly David, perhaps because the two men are otherwise so similar.
In fact, Dickens implies that Uriah wishes to marry Agnes at least in part because he senses that David is in love with her, and hopes to cause his rival pain. As the novel ends, Uriah is in prison, claiming to have been reformed. His protestations ring hollow, however, because they refer to the same “humbleness” that Uriah has used throughout the novel as a way of advancing socially.
Now a grown man, David Copperfield tells the story of his youth. As a young boy, he lives happily with his mother and his nurse, Peggotty. His father died before he was born. During David’s early childhood, his mother marries the violent Mr. Murdstone, who brings his strict sister, Miss Murdstone, into the house. The Murdstones treat David cruelly, and David bites Mr. Murdstone’s hand during one beating.
The Murdstones send David away to school. Peggotty takes David to visit her family in Yarmouth, where David meets Peggotty’s brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his two adopted children, Ham and Little Em’ly. Mr. Peggotty’s family lives in a boat turned upside down—a space they share with Mrs. Gummidge, the widowed wife of Mr. Peggotty’s brother. After this visit, David attends school at Salem House, which is run by a man named Mr. Creakle.
David befriends and idolizes an egotistical young man named James Steerforth. David also befriends Tommy Traddles, an unfortunate, fat young boy who is beaten more than the others.
David’s mother dies, and David returns home, where the Murdstones neglect him. He works at Mr. Murdstone’s wine-bottling business and moves in with Mr. Micawber, who mismanages his finances. When Mr. Micawber leaves London to escape his creditors, David decides to search for his father’s sister, Miss Betsey Trotwood—his only living relative. He walks a long distance to Miss Betsey’s home,and she takes him in on the advice of her mentally unstable friend, Mr. Dick.
Miss Betsey sends David to a school run by a man named Doctor Strong. David moves in with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes, while he attends school. Agnes and David become best friends. Among Wickfield’s hoarders is Uriah Heep, a snakelike young man who often involves himself in matters that are none of his business. David graduates and goes to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty, who is now married to Mr. Barkis, the carrier. David reflects on what profession he should pursue.
On his way to Yarmouth, David encounters James Steerforth, and they take a detour to visit Steerforth’s mother. They arrive in Yarmouth, where Steerforth and the Peggottys become fond of one another. When they return from Yarmouth, Miss Betsey persuades David to pursue a career as a proctor, a kind of lawyer. David apprentices himself at the London firm of Spenlow and Jorkins and takes up lodgings with a woman named Mrs. Crupp. Mr. Spenlow invites David to his house for a weekend. There, David meets Spenlow’s daughter, Dora, and quickly falls in love with her.
In London, David is reunited with Tommy Traddles and Mr. Micawber. Word reaches David, through Steerforth, that Mr. Barkis is terminally ill. David journeys to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty in her hour of need. Little Em’ly and Ham, now engaged, are to be married upon Mr. Barkis’s death. David, however, finds Little Em’ly upset over her impending marriage. When Mr. Barkis dies, Little Em’ly runs off with Steerforth, who she believes will make her a lady. Mr. Peggotty is devastated but vows to find Little Em’ly and bring her home.
Miss Betsey visits London to inform David that her financial security has been ruined because Mr. Wickfield has joined into a partnership with Uriah Heep. David, who has become increasingly infatuated with Dora, vows to work as hard as he can to make their life together possible. Mr. Spenlow, however, forbids Dora from marrying David. Mr. Spenlow dies in a carriage accident that night, and Dora goes to live with her two aunts. Meanwhile, Uriah Heep informs Doctor Strong that he suspects Doctor Strong’s wife, Annie, of having an affair with her young cousin, Jack Maldon.
Dora and David marry, and Dora proves a terrible housewife, incompetent in her chores. David loves her anyway and is generally happy. Mr. Dick facilitates a reconciliation between Doctor
Strong and Annie, who was not, in fact, cheating on her husband. Miss Dartle, Mrs. Steerforth’s ward, summons David and informs him that Steerforth has left Little Em’ly. Miss Dartle adds that Steerforth’s servant, Littimer, has proposed to her and that Little Em’ly has run away. David and
Mr. Peggotty enlist the help of Little Em’ly’s childhood friend Martha, who locates Little Em’ly and brings Mr. Peggotty to her. Little Em’ly and Mr. Peggotty decide to move to Australia, as do the Micawbers, who first save the day for Agnes and Miss Betsey by exposing Uriah Heep’s fraud against Mr. Wickfield.
A powerful storm hits Yarmouth and kills Ham while he attempts to rescue a shipwrecked sailor. The sailor turns out to be Steerforth. Meanwhile, Dora falls ill and dies. David leaves the country to travel abroad. His love for Agnes grows. When David returns, he and Agnes, who has long harbored a secret love for him, get married and have several children. David pursues his writing career with increasing commercial success.
A Charles Dickens’ novel explores all the elements in detail and helps the reader imagine descriptively. A Bildungsroman novel is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood. In which character change is important. Dickens has justified the genre suitably. Novels by Charles Dickens are a must read as they accurately portray the era and give descriptive analysis of the problems faced during that time.