David Copperfield is the first of Charles Dickens’s books to be told in the first person. It is narrated by David Copperfield. Young David is a posthumous child. His father’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, shows up the night David is born. Disgusted to find that he is a boy, she “vanished like a discontented fairy … and never came back any more” (Ch. 1). Later on, however, she becomes very important in David’s life.
David is born to a young, vain, and childish, but very affectionate, mother, Clara Copperfield. Unfortunately, Clara’s vanity makes her an easy prey for flatterers. As a result, she is courted by and marries Mr. Murdstone, a harsh, austere man, when her son is about seven or eight years old. He takes it upon himself to instill what he calls “firmness” in Clara. In reality, he simply wears her away, principally through her affection for her son, whom he takes a great dislike to. After she dies, David is taken out of the abusive Mr. Creakle’s school, where Mr. Murdstone had placed him, and is sent to work at a wine factory.
David feels humiliated by working with what he considers low people. “No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; … and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom.” (Ch. 11). David was not yet ten, had recently been bereaved of his mother, and was now living on his own, with no one to teach him how to manage his finances — or, indeed, to teach him anything.
In London, where the wine-merchant’s House was, David lodges with, and is befriended by, the impecunious, but very friendly, Micawber family. When they leave London to seek their fortune elsewhere, David decides to run away to his aunt, emboldened by his mother’s memory of Aunt Betsey softly touching her hair the only time they ever met. Aunt Betsey is a forceful and forthright lady — rather sharp — but upright, kind, and just. She carefully considers David’s story and, after meeting the Murdstones, decides to take her chance with the boy. She tells Mr. Murdstone, “If he’s all you say he is, at least I can do as much for him then, as you have done. But I don’t believe a word of it.” (Ch. 14). The scene where she meets the Murdstones and confronts them with their treatment of Clara and young David is the most superb in the book, in my opinion. The Murdstones depart, thoroughly routed.
Aunt Betsey puts David in a school taught by Doctor Strong, leaving him with this advice: “Never,” said my aunt, “be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you.” (Ch. 15). He lodges with her lawyer, Mr. Wickfield, and his young daughter, Agnes. There he meets the “umble” Uriah Heep, Mr. Wickfield’s clerk. He grows up, and is articled to Spenlow and Jorkins to become a proctor. Invited to Mr. Spenlow’s house, he meets and falls desperately in love with his daughter, Dora. “All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction!” (Ch. 26). His aunt loses her fortune, and David is forced to exert himself. He works as a secretary and learns short-hand to enable him to report debates in Parliament, in addition to learning to be a proctor. He also begins to write pieces for magazines. “Altogether, I am well off, when I tell my income on the fingers of my left hand, I pass the third finger and take in the fourth to the middle joint.” (Ch. 43). When he is twenty-one, David marries Dora. (The wedding is described in a long passage liberally peppered with the word “Of”. In fact, the last two pages of chapter 43 contain no less than 44 clauses beginning with “of”, a style of writing of which Dickens was apparently rather fond.)
Dora is reminiscent of David’s mother, Clara. They are both pretty and childish. Aunt Betsey always calls Clara a “poor unfortunate Baby”, and Dora is treated as a charming plaything by those around her. They are both sweet, happy, ignorant, immature, affectionate girls, and both die young. Of course, there are dissimilarities between them. Clara is vain and her vanity leads her to much misery. Dora is not so vain, though she takes pleasure in her good looks — in delight at her husband’s admiration. It is interesting that, when David first meets Dora she is accompanied by Miss Murdstone as her companion. Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the similarities between Dora and David’s mother. Still, Dora is very loving and sweet and charming. She is ridiculously frightened of anything serious, however, and whenever David tries to talk to her about something she considers serious, she blows it all out of proportion, and becomes, in point of fact, quite obnoxious. She is not a suitable help meet — but it is strange that David, knowing exactly what she is (she has absolutely no disguises or pretenses about her), marries her and expects her to be different. He was not as old and mature as his father when the latter married Clara. He struggles in his marriage, but, for so young a man, I think he does a good job.
I don’t think that David should have married Dora. Her father had broken off their engagement, and, after his death, her aunts did not allow an engagement for some time. Dora loved David very much, but she would have gotten over it. She was happy with her aunts, and was just not suited to being a wife, as she herself admits before she dies. I am surprised that no one cautioned David against marrying her — not even Aunt Betsey, though she does call him blind: “Poor little couple! And so you think you were formed for one another, and are to go through a party-supper-table kind of life, like two pretty pieces of confectionary, do you, Trot? … Ah, Trot! … blind, blind, blind!” (Ch. 35). Also, while engaged, David tells Agnes Wickfield that his reliance is on her, and she tells him, “But it must not be on me, Trotwood, … It must be on [Dora].” (Ch. 39). David is a bit embarrassed. “Why, I have not mentioned, Agnes, … that Dora is rather difficult to—I would not, for the world, say, to rely upon, because she is the soul of purity and truth—but rather difficult to—I hardly know how to express it, really, Agnes. She is a timid little thing, and easily disturbed and frightened.” When he explains, Agnes commiserates with “Poor Dora!” and that is an end of that.
David and Dora’s courtship lasted several years — certainly enough time for David to know what she was like. Perhaps he shouldn’t have married her, but he knew what she was and had no right to expect that she would be different after he married her. David wanted a wife that would be superior to him — to improve him. “I could have wished my wife had been my counsellor; had had more character and purpose, to sustain me and improve me by”. Dickens really seemed to like the idea of a perfect woman who ennobles and improves her husband without having to correct him — just by her sweet influence, or something. I guess it would save him the trouble of having to improve himself.
Before his mother remarried, David meets the family of her servant, Clara Peggotty — her brother, Mr. Peggotty, and his orphaned niece, little Em’ly, his orphaned nephew, Ham, and the widowed Mrs. Gummidge, all of whom Mr. Peggotty has taken in. They live in Yarmouth, a sea-faring village. David remains on friendly terms with them. While thinking what profession he would like to pursue, David goes to Yarmouth to visit Peggotty, now Mrs. Barkis. He meets an old schoolfellow, James Steerforth, on the way and invites him to accompany him. Steerforth was kind to the much younger David when they were in Mr. Creakle’s school. He is a very charismatic young man, and David is devoted to him. Unfortunately, though he is very charming and irresistible to many, Steerforth doesn’t have any positive virtues. He is attracted by the now-grown-up Emily, who has just become engaged to her cousin Ham. Steerforth is a tragic character, for he sees his flaws and has a longing to be better, but without the principle and self-discipline to correct himself. He tells David, “I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years! … I wish with all my soul I had been better guided! … I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!” (Ch. 22). He doesn’t resist temptation, however, and seduces Emily, who, for her part, has always longed to be a lady, and is not content in what she considers her lowly situation. They run away together, leaving much misery behind. Mr. Peggotty, who has always loved Emily like a daughter, leaves his home to go search for her. Steerforth eventually abandons Emily and Mr. Peggotty finds her.
Uriah Heep gets a hold over Mr. Wickfield through deceit (he is able to do this quite easily as Mr. Wickfield is habitually intemperate in his drinking) and becomes his partner. His treachery and illegal doings are revealed (leading to the recovery, among other things, of Aunt Betsey’s fortune) by Mr. Micawber. David’s wife grows weak after a miscarriage, and eventually dies. Ham Peggotty dies in a failed attempt to rescue a man during a huge storm. The man turns out to be Steerforth. Mr. Peggotty and a repentant Emily and the Micawbers all emigrate to Australia. David goes abroad to recover from his grief over his wife’s death. He writes books, becomes famous, realizes that he is in love with Agnes Wickfield, and returns home.
David has always called Agnes his “good angel”, relying on her and looking up to her. He is always at peace with her. Her sweet influence and virtue pervade every place she goes, quietly putting everything right. Since David has always treated Agnes as a sister, he is afraid that his chance with her is over. In my opinion, however, it doesn’t matter how much he protests, he was just as eligible then as he was before he married Dora. He had no reason — no sensible reason, anyway — to think that he could have won Agnes before but that he cannot win her now. He is richer now, more famous, more mature, &c. She had no other attachment and was being courted by no other man. Why couldn’t he have tried to win her? Instead he only finds out that she loves him through a misunderstanding — he becomes convinced she is in love with someone else and tries to force a confidence from her. It all turns out well in the end, but I think he could have gone about it with a little sense. Aunt Betsey is delighted with their engagement, as she has always been very fond of Agnes and thinks very well of her.
Aunt Betsey is my favorite character. She is shrewd and discerning, but kind. She sees through the Murdstones. She is generous to Mr. Dick, a simpleminded man whose family wanted to put him in a madhouse. Though he is simple, he is harmless, cheerful, and gratefully devoted to Aunt Betsey. She takes in David, and does the best she can for him. She doesn’t mince words. When “poor” Emily runs away with Steerforth, she maintains, “Oh, don’t talk to me about poor,” returned my aunt. “She should have though of that before she caused so much misery.” (Ch. 35). When David falls in love with Dora, she asks him, “And you mean to say the little thing is very fascinating, I suppose? … And not silly? … Not light-headed? … Ah, Trot!” said my aunt, shaking her head and smiling gravely, “blind, blind, blind!” (Ch. 35). To the slimy Uriah Heep, who is always writhing around, she says, “[W]hat’s he about?—Don’t be galvanic, sir! … If you’re an eel, sir, conduct yourself like one; if you’re a man, control your limbs, sir! …” said my aunt, with great indignation, “I am not going to be serpentined and corkscrewed out of my senses.” (Ch. 35). When David marries and has trouble with his wife, she refuses to interfere, but gives him good, sensible, affectionate advice. “These are early days, Trot,” she pursued, “and Rome was not built in a day, nor in a year. You have chosen freely for yourself”; a cloud passed over her face for a moment, I thought; “and you have chosen a very pretty and a very affectionate creature. It will be your duty, and it will be your pleasure too—of course I know that; I am not delivering a lecture—to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have. The latter you must develop in her, if you can. And if you cannot, child,” here my aunt rubbed her nose, “you must just accustom yourself to do without ’em. But remember, my dear, your future is between you two. No one can assist you; you are to work it out for yourselves. This is marriage, Trot; and Heaven bless you both, in it, for a pair of babes in the wood as you are!” (Ch. 44). She is very tender with the weak Dora, whom she calls “Little Blossom”.
Aunt Betsey has her quirks, which make her all the more delightful. She allows NO donkeys on the patch of green near her home. Once she goes to visit David in London, leaving Mr. Dick. As a result, she is in a fidgety state until her return. “I am convinced,” said my aunt, laying her hand with melancholy firmness on the table, “that Dick’s character is not a character to keep the donkeys off. I am confident he wants strength of purpose. I ought to have left Janet at home, instead, and then my mind might perhaps have been at ease. If ever there was a donkey trespassing on my green,” said my aunt, with emphasis, “there was one this afternoon at four o’clock. A cold feeling came over me from head to foot, and I know it was a donkey!” (Ch. 23). Not even Miss Murdstone can get away with riding a donkey on Aunt Betsey’s green. “Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again, and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders, I’ll knock your bonnet off, and tread upon it!” she tells the outraged and signally defeated Miss Murdstone (Ch. 14).
The opening lines of David Copperfield pose the question, is David the hero of his own story? If not, who is? I rather think that, if it isn’t David himself, it is his aunt Betsey Trotwood (the other option being Agnes Wickfield). She gave him the love, support, education, and principles he needed to become the man he became.
I also really liked Tommy Traddles. Traddles attended Mr. Creakle’s school, along with David and Steerforth. Mr. Creakle beat him on a daily basis, but Traddles doesn’t complain. He is always good-humored. When the popular Steerforth causes trouble for and makes fun of their teacher, Mr. Mell, because he is poor and his mother lives in the poorhouse, Traddles is the only one to side with the humiliated and now unemployed Mr. Mell, declaring, “Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!” (Ch. 7). When he becomes a man, he works steadily, living very frugally, until he is finally able to marry “the dearest girl in the world”, and they live together as happily as they deserve to be. His good sense, cheerful disposition, and willingness to help, make him a good friend to David. He helps him to practice learning short-hand after his aunt loses his fortune.
Mrs. Micawber is a fun character. This quotation just about sums up her character: “I am a wife and a mother, and I never will desert Mr. Micawber. … That,” said Mrs. Micawber, “that, at least, is my view, my dear Mr. Copperfield and Mr. Traddles, of the obligation which I took upon myself when I repeated the irrevocable words, ‘I, Emma, take thee, Wilkins.’ I read the service over with a flat candle on the previous night, and the conclusion I derived from it was, that I never could desert Mr. Micawber. And,” said Mrs. Micawber, “though it is possible I may be mistaken in my view of the ceremony, I never will! … I should not allow myself to be swerved from the path of duty, Mr. Copperfield, even by my papa and mamma, were they still living.” (Ch. 36).
Her husband, Mr. Micawber, is a man of many words. At one point, David muses about how common a failing this is. He says, “I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.” (Ch. 52). “[T]oo large a retinue of words”?! I thought that was pretty rich coming from Dickens!
There were a few characters that I didn’t like, or that I thought were poorly drawn. Mrs. Gummidge is a “lone lorn creetur’” who thinks that “everything goes contrary with” her. Despite Mr. Peggotty’s kindness in taking her in, she mopes around, complaining. Surprisingly, however, when little Emily runs away, she suddenly becomes an uncomplaining, helpful woman. When little Emily is found, Mrs. Gummidge insists on going to Australia with her and Mr. Peggotty to work for them. I find it very unlikely that she could have changed so easily. After practicing discontent for so many years, the habit would have been harder to break than that. On the ship on the way to Australia, the ship’s cook asks Mrs. Gummidge to marry him. Much to Mr. Peggotty and David and Agnes’s amusement, instead of accepting him, Mrs. Gummidge “up’d with a bucket as was standing by, and laid it over that theer ship’s cook’s head ’till he sung out fur help”. I don’t quite understand the humor of this incident — to me it appears quite rude, though more consistent with her former habitual ingratitude.
Another frustrating character is Doctor Strong, along with his wife, Annie. She is about forty years younger than her husband. The fact that she married him is taken advantage of by her greedy relatives. Because of her embarrassment over this, and her extreme youth, she is suspected of being in love with her cousin. Unfortunately, she acted guilty. If she had been forthright, she would have saved herself a lot of trouble. Instead, she hides her troubles from her husband. Also, the Doctor should not have assumed that she regretted marrying him. Though he never believed that Annie has been unfaithful to him, he put her at a distance from himself after hearing the suspicions against her, instead of asking her for the truth, and caused her great unhappiness. His mother-in-law, the meddling Mrs. Markleham says to the Doctor, “You have studied Annie’s character, and you understand it. That’s what I find so charming!” (Ch. 45). Not! The Doctor was oblivious to Annie’s character. They were an ill-suited couple.
Another character that could have benefitted from a bit of forthrightness is Agnes’s father, Mr. Wickfield. If he had owned his misdoing (or, rather, what Uriah convinces him is his misdoing), things would probably have been cleared up much sooner. Instead, he agreed with Uriah to cover it up, and became more and more enmeshed and miserable.
David’s modest disclaimers were superfluous, I think. Several times he states that he is only telling us something because that is where it goes, not out of conceit. I think he tells of his achievements modestly enough to not need these protestations. The other downside to Dickens’s use of first person narrative is that Dickens likes to include a large medley of characters and situations, not all of which does it make sense for the hero to be a part of. Besides these, I think it was done well. David is a likable character and his growth into a man is fairly well portrayed.
“Now, I know I’m going to break your hearts, but I am forced to leave you. You must call up all your fortitude, and try to bear it.” (Ch. 22).
I read David Copperfield March 26 – April 5, 2013.
Illustrations by Frank Reynolds.