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.
Copperfield’s father died before his birth. He was quite content spending his early years with his mother and the family’s beloved housekeeper, Peggotty. He was the center of their lives, but this situation was not to last. Edward Murdstone, a character akin to the stereotypical Victorian villain, woos his mother. Dickens combined the works “murder” and “stone” to form the name, and Murdstone is murderous in his attitude toward the small boy and his overly pliant mother, Clara. Upon returning from his first visit to Peggotty’s home in Yarmouth, David learns of his mother’s marriage, and Murdstone immediately takes charge of the boy. He has the firmness of stone, and firmness is the quality he expects in the people around him. The relationship between children and parents is a theme in many of Dickens’ books. David and his mother are in the hands of a sadist, of two sadists because Murdstone’s sister, who is cast in the same mold as her brother, soon joins the family. David is soon informed that any resistance to his stepfather will lead to a beating. The threat is carried out a few days later when David is whipped within an inch of his life for being slow to learn his lessons. In the process he enrages Murdstone further by biting his tormentor’s hand.
The contrast between Peggotty’s kindly family and the Murdstones is striking. Dan’l Peggotty, the housekeeper’s brother, is kindliness personified. He has adopted a young niece, Em’ly, who is David’s age, and an older nephew, Ham, who like this uncle has become a fisherman. Dan’l is an ideal father. David loves the members of this family as he does their home, a home in the shape of a boat. Dickens had carefully studied a book on the Suffolk dialect to give the Peggotty’s authentic speech. David’s own home, Blunderstone Rookery, no longer has even a trace of the gaiety and laughter he finds in Yarmouth, and used to know before with his mother and Peggotty. A child is helpless when forced to deal with malignancy and evil.
Shortly after biting Murdstone’s hand, David is sent to a school, Salem House Academy, whose headmaster, Creakle, is not only sadistic but stupid as well. Incapable of either learning or teaching, all Creakle knows how to do is wield a cane at the slightest provocation. Since Creakle speaks only in hoarse whispers, his assistant, the one-legged Tungay, roars out the headmaster’s orders. Dickens shows his usual skill in creating a duo of grotesque monsters. Why such a pair should be running a school, and with such unmitigated brutality, a modern reader might wonder. But sadistic schoolmasters have been all too common in the history of education. Saint Augustine in his Confessions tells us the fear of being beaten was a threat he had to live with during his early schools days. Dickens used this theme in Nicholas Nickleby. His own education was all too sketchy, but education was a lifelong concern for him. Salem House does not really educate David or anyone else. Cowed with fear the students profit little from their lessons. David makes two friends: Tommy Traddles, a kindly, gentle boy who is one of Creakle’s favorite victims, and James Steerforth, a young aristocrat whose presence in the school is never explained. He befriends David, and is the only student who stands up to Creakle and Tungay. He also exploits Copperfield, spending the younger boy’s money, and even when David is tired, has him read stories aloud late into the night. Only much later does David realize why Steerforth asks him if he has a sister. David sees him as a truly superior being as noble as he is handsome. But he also watches as Steerforth destroys the career of an inoffensive teacher, Mr. Mell, by an arrogant charge against him made to Creakle.
David’s mother dies as a result of the tyranny of the Murdstones, and the new baby succumbs soon afterward. After the funeral, David does not return to Salem House. Murdstone sends him to London to work in his warehouse in the lowliest job available, washing and labeling bottles. He boards with the Micawber family, Wilkens and Emma Micawber, two of the novel’s most memorable characters. The firm of Murdstone and Grimby, and Copperfield’s work there, is based on the most humiliating experience in Dickens’ life, the several months he had spent at Warren’s Blacking factory, Hungerford Stairs, London. It was menial, monotonous work Dickens neither forgot nor forgave. His parents, deep in debt, could no longer afford to keep him in school. In David Copperfield, Dickens constructed the Micawbers from certain traits of their characters. Mr. Micawber, although shabbily dressed, always projects an air of gentility. His speech patterns are heavily loaded with Latinate terms and are said to reflect John Dickens’ manner of speech. Grandiloquent sentences are always followed by “in short” a translation into everyday English. He is always expecting “something to turn up,” but nothing does. His wife Emma never doubts that her husband has many talents, and she always insists “I will never desert Mr. Micawber.” Here is a typical bit of Mr. Micawber’s conversation: “It was at Canterbury where we last met. Within the shadow, I may figuratively say, of that religious edifice, immortalized by Chaucer, which was anciently the resort of pilgrims from the remotest corners of-in short,” said Mr. Micawber, “in the immediate neighborhood of the cathedral.” The Micawbers provide some relief from the misery the young boy is experiencing.
David remembers that his mother had talked about a great-aunt who had visited Blunderstone Rookery the night he was born. Furious that he was not born a girl, she vanished like a “fairy,” and the family heard nothing more from her. Dickens liked to give some of his characters certain traits of the people in fairy tales that had been among his favorite reading as a child. Aunty Betsey Trotwood is a sort of fairy godmother. She is blunt in her speech tolerating no nonsense in anyone. The Murdstones may be seen as the cruel monsters that are also part of fairy tale tradition. David walks from London to his aunt’s cottage near Dover, and he presents himself to her. She already has one protege, Mr. Richard Bably, usually called Mr. Dick. Essentially a very simple person, he has, according to Aunt Betsey, depths that only she can see. She consults Mr. Dick about what she should do about David. He provides practical advice, a bath, bed, and clean clothes. She writes to Murdstone that David is with her. They are willing to take David back to the life he has fled. Betsey Trotwood is more than a match for them. She unmasks Murdstone and shows that she instinctively knows him for the sadistic brute he is. He does not try to contradict her. Evil has met its match in this frail older woman. A bully can be faced down by simple goodness. Aunt Betsey decides to adopt David and makes Mr. Dick his guardian as well.
Copperfield is sent by his aunt to Dr. Strong’s school in Canterbury, a sharp contrast to Salem House Academy. The doctor is the most humane of teachers and, unlike Creakle, a distinguished scholar. David boards with Mr. Wickfield, a lawyer who manages his aunt’s finances. His housekeeper is also his daughter. Agnes Wickfield impresses David even at their first meeting as a saintly figure, as someone who might be represented in a radiant stained-glass window. Wickfield’s clerk is Uriah Heep.
Heep writhes and belittles himself constantly. He will eventually be seen as a diabolical figure with the satanic ability to insinuate himself into a position of power. A grotesque skeleton of a man, his malignancy is not immediately apparent beneath his “umble” manner. The forms that evil can assume fascinated Dickens although he cannot equal Shakespeare or even his contemporary Robert Browning in penetrating its depths. James Steerforth is another manifestation of it. He has irresistible charm and complete assurance in his own superiority. Beneath the charm is almost total egotism. Nobody has ever opposed Steerforth, and everybody easily succumbs to the spell of his personality. Uriah Heep, on the other hand, is the product of a foundation school for boys, a charitable institution that placed him at the bottom of the class system and attempted to forge his will into as abject a mold as possible. This formula could only produce a hatred of all those people who assumed they were his betters.
Mr. Wickfield, an alcoholic, allows Uriah to take over his business affairs. Heep also aspires to make Agnes his own. David instinctively loathes Uriah, who, as he constantly watches Agnes, reminds him of an “ugly and rebellious genie watching a good spirit.”
David receives an excellent education at Dr. Strong’s school. Agnes Wickfield, who seems to have attained early in life a maturity that David achieves much later, is his confidante during these years. He admires deeply her goodness and serenity. His Aunt Betsey, watching their relationship, is more aware of Agnes’ devotion to David than he is. He is too self-absorbed to notice.
Copperfield leaves Canterbury for London and decides that he wants a legal career. He is apprenticed to a Mr. Spenlow in the Commons. Spenlow has a daughter, Dora, who has been educated in France. Copperfield meets and falls in love with this beautiful little woman. “She was a fairy, a sylph.” His infatuation with her is based on Dickens’ earliest great love for Maria Beadnell, a banker’s daughter, who could not have taken seriously a youth under nineteen, a mere shorthand reporter in the law courts. But he was rapturously in love with her, and found her absolutely flawless, and David’s feelings for Dora Spenlow mirror these emotions. Maria would later dismiss Dickens as a “boy”; her fictional counterpart, Dora, lacks Maria’s malice, and she and David are finally married. Aunt Betsey, being told of her nephew’s wedding plans, comments “blind, blind, blind.” She knows whom he should marry. David continues to love Dora, but soon learns that she lacks most practical skills. She can neither cook nor manage household finances. As his career progresses she cannot share any of his intellectual interests. She dies after they have been married for only a few years.
Meeting his old school friend Tommy Traddles, David learns that Tommy lives as a lodger with the Micawbers. Traddles is such a gentle, sweet-natured person that he even looks back on Creakle with affection despite the man’s brutality. Dickens uses an alliance between Mr. Micawber and Traddles as a means of exposing Uriah Heep. Heep, a full partner with Mr. Wickfield, has hired Micawber as his clerk. Micawber, however improvident he may be, is anything but stupid and he soon learns how dishonest Heep is. He tells Tommy what he has discovered and together they reveal the total scoundrel that Heep, below his hypocritical claims of humility, really is. Micawber reads the indictment that he has written up as one of the letters he habitually writes. It is his finest hour and illustrates one of Dickens’ favorite themes: the good and the brave can triumph over treachery and cruelty.
Having taken his friend Steerforth down to Yarmouth to meet his fisherman friends, David has innocently set the Peggottys up for a tragedy. Em’ly, his childhood playmate, has become a beautiful young woman. She had said years ago that she wanted to become a lady, something that could only happen if she married someone such as Steerforth, who is in a social position much higher than hers. He plans her seduction soon after they meet. His egoism is only occasionally revealed during David’s acquaintance with him. Visiting Steerforth’s mother, David meets her companion, Rosa Dartle, whom Steerforth had disfigured in a childish rage throwing a hammer that left her mouth deeply scarred. Rosa gets Steerforth to admit his contempt for people of the lower classes. Despite everything, Rosa adores Steerforth. He knows himself, and wishes he had a father who might have helped him build a better character. He buys a boat that he renames “The Little Em’ly.” Em’ly elopes with him only to be discarded in Italy where Steerforth gives her to his valet, Mr. Littermer, who had assisted in the elopement. She eventually makes her way back to England and is rescued by her uncle from the London slum where she is living. Steerforth drowns off the Yarmouth coast as a result of one of worst storms that people on the coast can recall. Ham, trying to rescue him, perishes as well.
Copperfield himself emerges as a fully rounded character who finally comes to terms with his “undisciplined heart.” After a period during which he finds solace in the wild beauty of the Swiss Alps, he goes back to England and marries Agnes, who has loved him all of her life. Like most of the other characters in the novel, she changes little, if at all. She seems almost too good to be human. Tommy Traddles, who takes up law and finally becomes a judge, has an equally angelic personality. Most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best. Copperfield, while sharing some of Dickens’ experiences, is too mild and passive to be an exact replica of the fiery, bustling Dickens. He becomes a novelist, but the exact nature of what he writes is never given. He is writing his autobiography ten years after his marriage to Agnes, and he enjoys a serenity that Dickens himself was never to achieve.