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.
Dickens sees the evils of prostitution as the result of a male-dominated society. Martha Endell and Little Em’ly are victims of that society, but there is no editorializing on the evils of prostitution per se.
While reporting the activities of Parliament, Dickens developed a contemptuous attitude toward that branch of the English government and toward the legal profession generally. He satirizes Doctors’ Commons, which was abolished in 1857 and its precincts torn down. It was an amalgam of many courts including those of the Admiralty and the Prerogative Office, where wills were registered and filed, Mr. Spenlow’s specialty. Spenlow is so convinced of the importance of his profession that he makes the Commons virtually the necessary foundation of English civilization: “Touch the Commons and down goes the nation.” The satire, mostly confined to this part of the novel, is mild. Copperfield becomes amused with the proceeding in the Commons, but not indignant. His description of the frantic efforts of some lawyers to gain clients is hilarious.
Emigration was an important solution for many people of the period. It provided opportunities for many who could find none in England. Annie Strong’s cousin, Mr. Jack Maldon, goes to make his fortune in India. He returns and lives off the Doctor’s charity instead. Australia offered a haven for those who had disgraced themselves at home, women such as Martha Endell and Little Em’ly. Wilkins Micawber, who had not succeeded in making a mark for himself, despite many attempts, goes to Australia, becomes a journalist and ultimately a magistrate. This is rather surprising, and may be due to the desire to give happy endings to his characters in accordance to his love of fairy tales-“They lived happily ever after.” Dan’l Peggotty takes Martha and Em’ly to Australia and becomes a wealthy farmer there, a reward for his very virtuous life.
Possibly the sharpest satire is reserved for the model prison system based on Pentonville. Here the prisoners lived in isolation. Dickens had visited the Eastern Penitentiary near Philadelphia in March 1842, and the mental effects of solitary imprisonment had shocked him. The same Mr. Creakle, former headmaster of Salem House, administered this model prison. Creakle’s model prisoners were the two arch hypocrites, Mr. Lattimer, that highly “respectable” valet for James Steerforth, who had helped procure Little Em’ly for his employer, and Uriah Heep. Both read prepared statements that show no evidence of reform whatever, but indicate that hypocrisy can easily deceive the none too bright Creakle.