The most popular Victorian author in Great Britain and the United States, Charles Dickens was both gifted humorist and critic of the social evils of his time. His characters are frequently eccentric, almost caricatures. They change very little or not at all in the course of the narrative, but they are nonetheless memorable. For example, Mr. Micawber is one of the outstanding characters in David Copperfield, and remains his improvident, amiable self all through the novel until he goes to Australia. Yet he is a comic character almost in the same league as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.
David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, the story of the narrator’s life from early childhood to maturity. In it Copperfield describes the obstacles he overcame and the unhappy events he lived through before becoming a successful novelist in later years. The book is an expert blend of fiction and autobiography. While Dickens was not an orphan, he felt abandoned by his parents during the harsh experiences of his early years. David Copperfield’s father has died before his birth and his mother dies when he is twelve years old. David had led a happy life with his mother and the housekeeper Peggotty until his mother’s second marriage to Murdstone, who beats David severely and whose treatment breaks his mother’s spirit and finally causes her death. Before her death, Murdstone sends David to Salem House, a school presided over by a master as cruel as Murdstone himself. It is here, however, that David meets two lifelong friends, James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles. With his wife dead, Murdstone, who hates David, sends him to his business in London. He lodges with the amiable Micawber family. David runs away from the hated warehouse and becomes the ward of his great-aunt Betsy Trotwood, who sends him to school in Canterbury, a vast improvement over Salem House. Here he lodges with the Wickfields and is attracted to Agnes Wickfield, but dislikes Uriah Heep, her father’s obsequious clerk. He studies law under Mr. Spenlow and falls in love and marries his daughter Dora. Micawber and Traddles ultimately expose Uriah Heep as a thief, and the Micawber family immigrates to Australia. David himself eventually becomes a skilled journalist, but shortly after he finds success, his wife Dora dies. After a period of wandering, David begins his career as a popular novelist and marries Agnes.
David Copperfield begins in Blunderstone Rookery, a house in rural Suffolk. The rooks no longer nested on the property, but David’s father had liked the idea of living near a rookery. This home is an ideal setting in the years before his mother’s second marriage. After she marries Murdstone, it becomes a prison with Murdstone and his equally “firm” sister as keepers.
The title character in David Copperfield presents himself, his life, and the people and experiences who have helped shape his personality by reconstructing them from memory. Copperfield becomes a novelist, after following a career in journalism for a number of years. Henry James insisted that a novelist is someone who forgets nothing in his lifetime. From childhood onward his mind closely observes the world about him. Every child is a close observer, Dickens also insists. Feeling that he is a mature writer, Copperfield wishes to learn how he became the unique individual he knows himself to be. David’s first statement, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else these pages must show,” seems to indicate a certain modesty and is quite different than what one might expect for a story which contains a partial autobiography of Charles Dickens. Dickens has to be considered one of the most flamboyant of English writers, a man who loved theatrical performances which he often directed and in which he played leading roles.
Dickens attempted to write his autobiography, but found that some episodes in his early life were too painful to relive in an autobiographical, or confessional fashion. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized account of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in an unsurpassed psychological portrait. Copperfield obviously depends on the memory of others to give an account of his birth and baby years. Dickens was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life. David Copperfield has this quality too. Dickens’ imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptures not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lends that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield.
Dickens in David Copperfield is not as concerned as he usually is with “the condition of England question,” Thomas Carlyle’s term for Dickens’ concern with the problems of contemporary English society. The overall tone of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations, differs very much from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Dombey and Son, which preceded David Copperfield, and from Bleak House and Little Dorrit, which came after it. The bildungsroman shows Dickens exploring his personality, tracing its origin and development. Social concerns do enter into the novel however. Salem House Academy is a school as brutal in its depiction of sadistic schoolmasters as the Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby. Dr. Strong’s school in Canterbury seems to have been the exception rather than the rule in England during the first half of the 19th century. But Dickens presents Salem House and the students’ lives there without tirades against the obvious abuses of such an institution.
1. Is David Copperfield’s childhood at all like that of American children in the 19th century?
2. Could an Edward Murdstone exploit today a young naive woman like Clara Copperfield? How has human nature and the legal system in England or America changed since 1850?
1. Freud admired Dickens both as a writer and for his insights into the mystery of the human personality. David Copperfield was his favorite novel by Dickens. A Freudian critic, Lawrence Frank, sees in certain passages of the novel material that matches Freud’s “The Wolf Man,” From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, and Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis. Is he right? Compare these writings.
Ten years after completing David Copperfield Dickens wrote his second bildungsroman, Great Expectations (1860-1861). There is little optimism despite the title in this work, and its hero, Pip (Phillip Pirrip) has a character that is much more like Dickens than David Copperfield. Unlike David Pip is not patient and easy-going. He also becomes a snob who is embarrassed that his benefactor, Magwitch, is an escaped criminal. Another orphan character created by Dickens is Oliver Twist, and his story forms Dickens’ third novel about a child caught in the underworld of London. Most of the characters in the major novels are either orphans or children who grow up in a single parent home like Steerforth in David Copperfield.