CHARLES DICKENS (1812–1870)
Charles Dickens was born at Landport, then a suburb of Portmouth, where his father held a clerkship in the Navy Pay Office. He spent his youth at Chatham and London where he had to submit to a life of great hardship. His father being imprisoned for debt, the boy was, for a time, packer in a London blacking warehouse. Later he was placed in a solicitor’s office, where he acquired the knowledge of legal affairs afterwards displayed in his novels. In 1831 Dickens obtained an engagement as parliamentary reporter. Before long he tried his hand at original composition, and wrote short descriptive essays on the London scenes familiar to him, collected as Sketches by Boz in 1835. The success of the Sketches decided the course of his life. The immense popularity of his next publication The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37) spread his fame all over Europe.
Dickens created a series of novels, specially notable for critical and for comic talent, for critical treatment of Victorian England. All Dickens’s great works – Oliver Twist (1837-38), Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1843-44), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (1846-48), The Personal History of David Copperfield (1849-50), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times for These Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-61) - carry a profound moral message. Dickens is at his best at depicting low and middle – class life and at inventing unforgettable striking characters. A great many of them have become recognized types in English fiction.
My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence – the unseen, unfelt progress of my life – from childhood up to youth! Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along its course, by which I can remember how it ran.
A moment and I occupy my place in the cathedral, where we all went together, every Sunday morning, assembling first at school for that purpose. The earthly smell, the sunless air, the sensation of the world being shut out, the resounding of the organ through the black and white arched galleries and aisles, are wings that take me back, and hold me hovering above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream.
I am not the last boy in the school. I have risen, in a few months, over several heads. But the first boy seems to me a mighty creature, dwelling afar off, whose giddy height is unattainable. He is not my private friend and public patron, as Steerforth was; but I hold him in a reverential respect. I chiefly wonder what he’ll be, when he leaves Doctor Strong’s, and what mankind will do to maintain any place against him.
But who is this that breaks upon me? This is Miss Shepherd, whom I love.
Miss Shepherd is a boarder at the Misses Nettingalls’ establishment. I adore Miss Shepherd. She is a little girl, in a spencer, with a round face and curly flaxen hair. The Misses Nettingalls’ young ladies come to the cathedral too. I cannot look upon my book, for I must look upon Miss Shepherd. In the service I mentally insert Miss Shepherd’s name; I put her name in among the Royal Family. At home, in my own room, I sometimes moved to cry out, “Oh, Miss Shepherd!” in a transport of love.
Miss Shepherd being the pervading theme and vision of my life, how do I ever come to break with her? I can’t conceive. And yet coolness grows between Miss Shepherd and myself. Whispers reach me of Miss Shepherd having said she wished I wouldn’t stare so, and having avowed a preference for Master Jones - for Jones 1 a boy of no merit whatever! The gulf between me and Miss Shepherd widens. At last, one day, I meet the Misses Nettingalls’ establishment out walking. Miss Shepherd makes a face as she goes by, and laughs at her companion. All is over. The devotion of a life – it seems a life, it is all the same – is at an end; Miss Shepherd comes out of the morning service, and the Royal Family know her no more.
I am higher in the school, and no one breaks my peace. I am not at all polite, now, to Misses Nettingalls’ young ladies, and shouldn’t dote on any of them, if they were twice as many and twenty as beautiful. I think the dancing-school a tiresome affair, and wonder why the girls can’t dance by themselves and leave us alone. I am growing great in Latin verses, and neglect the laces of my boots. Doctor Strong refers to me in public as a promising young scholar. Mr. Dick is wild with joy, and ray aunt remits me a guinea by the next post.
The shade of a young butcher rises, like the apparition of an armed head in Macbeth1. Who is this young butcher? He is the terror of the youth of Canterbury. There is a vague belief abroad, that the beef suet with which he anoints his hair gives him unnatural strength, and that he is a match for a man. He is a broad-faced, full-necked young butcher, with rough red cheeks, an ill-conditioned mind, and an injurious tongue. His main use of this tongue is, to disparage Doctor Strong’s young gentlemen. He says, publicly, that if they want anything he’ll give it “em. He names individuals among them (myself included), whom he could undertake to settle with one hand, and the other tied behind him. He waylays the smaller boys to punch their unprotected heads, and calls challenges after me in the open streets. For these sufficient reasons I resolve to fight the butcher.
It is a summer evening, down in a green hollow, at the corner of a wall. I meet the butcher by appointment. I am attended by a select body of our boys; the butcher, by two other butchers, a young publican, and a sweep. The preliminaries are adjusted, and the butcher and myself stand face to face. In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my eyebrow. In another moment, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is. I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.
I am taken home in a sad plight, and I have beef-steaks put to my eyes, and am rubbed with vinegar and brandy, and find a great white puffy place bursting but on my upper lip, which swells immoderately. For three or four days I remain at home, a very ill-looking subject, with a green shade over my eyes; and I should be very dull, but that Agnes is a sister to me, and condoles with me, and reads to me, and makes the time light and happy. Agnes has my confidence completely, always; I tell her all about the butcher, and the wrongs he has heaped upon me; she thinks I couldn’t have done otherwise than fight the butcher, while she shrinks and trembles at my having fought him.
A blank, through which the warriors of poetry and history march on in stately hosts that seem to have no end – and what comes next! I am the head-boy, now! I look down on the line of boys below me, with a condescending interest in such of them as bring to my mind the boy I was myself, when I first came there. That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life – as something I have passed, rather than have actually been – and almost think of him as some one else.
What other changes have come upon me, besides the changes in my growth and looks, and in the knowledge I have garnered all this? I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat; and I use a great deal of bear’s grease – which, taken in conjunction with the ring, looks bad. Am I in love again? I am. I worship the eldest Miss Larkins.
The eldest Miss Larkins is not a little girl. She is a tall, dark, black-eyed, fine figure of a woman. The eldest Miss Larkins is not a chicken; for the youngest Miss Larkins is not that, and the eldest must be three or four years older. Perhaps the eldest Miss Larkins may be about thirty. My passion for her is beyond all bounds.
I repair to the enchanted house, where there are lights, chattering, music, flowers, officers (I am sorry to see), and the eldest Miss Larkins, a blaze of beauty. She is dressed in blue, with blue flowers in her hair forget-me-nots. As if she had any need to wear forget-me-nots 1 It is the first really grown-up party that I have ever been invited to, and I am a little uncomfortable; for I appear not to belong to anybody, and nobody appears to have anything to say to me, except Mr. Larkins, who asks me how school-fellows are, which he needn’t do, as I have not come there to be insulted.
But after I have stood in the doorway for some time, and feasted my eyes upon the goddess of my heart, she approaches me – she approaches me – she, the eldest Miss Larkins – and asks me pleasantly, if I dance?
I stammer, with a bow, “With you. Miss Larkins.”
“With no one else?” inquires Miss Larkins.
“I should have no pleasure in dancing with any one else.”
Miss Larkins laughs and blushes (or I think she blushes), and says, “Next time but one, I shall be very glad.”
The time arrives. “It is a waltz, I think,” Miss Larkins doubtfully observes, when I present myself. “Do you waltz? If not, Captain Bailey – ”
But I do waltz (pretty well, too, as it happens), and I take Miss Larkins out. I take her sternly from the side of Captain Bailey. He is wretched, too. I waltz with the eldest Miss Larkins! I don’t know where, among whom, or how long. I only know that I swim in space, with a blue angel, in a state of blissful delirium, until I find myself alone with her in a little room, resting on a sofa. She admires a flower (pink camelia japonica, price half-a-crown), in my button-hole. I give it her, and say:
“I ask an inestimable price for it. Miss Larkins.”
“Indeed! What is that?” returns Miss Larkins.
“A flower of yours, that I may treasure it as a miser does gold.”
“You’re a bold boy,” says Miss Larkins. “There.”
She gives it me, not displeased; and I put it to my lips, and then into my breast. Miss Larkins, laughing, draws her hand through my arm, and says, “Now take me back to Captain Bailey.”
I am lost in the recollection of this delicious interview, and the waltz, when she comes to me again, with a plain elderly gentleman, who has been playing whist all night, upon her arm, and says:
“Oh! here is my bold friend! Mr. Chestle wants to know you, Mr. Copperfield.”
I feel at once that he is a friend of the family, and I am much gratified.
“I admire your taste, sir,” says Mr. Chestle. “It does you credit. I suppose you don’t take much interest in hops; but I am a pretty large grower myself; and if you ever like to come over to our neighbourhood – neighbourhood of Ashford – and take a run about our place, we shall be glad for you to stop as long as you like.”
I thank Mr. Chestle warmly, and shake hands. I think I am in a happy dream. I waltz with the eldest Miss Larkins once again. She says I waltz so well! I go home in a state of unspeakable bliss, and waltz in imagination, all night long, with my arm round the blue waist of my dear divinity. For some days afterwards, I am lost in rapturous reflections; but I neither see her in the street, nor when I call. I am imperfectly consoled for this disappointment by the sacred pledge, the perished flower.
“Trotwood,” says Agnes, one day after dinner. “Who do you think is going to be married to-morrow? Some one you admire.”
“Not you, I suppose, Agnes?”
“Not me!” raising her cheerful face from the music she is copying. “Do you hear him. Papa? – The eldest Miss Larkins.”
“To – to Captain Bailey?” I have enough power to ask.
“No; to no Captain. To Mr. Chestle, a hop-grower.”
I am terribly dejected for about a week or two. I take off my ring, I wear my worst clothes, I use no bear’s grease, and I frequently lament over the late Miss Larkins’s faded flower. Being, by the time, rather tired of this kind of life, and having received new provocations from the butcher, I throw the flower away, go out with the butcher, and gloriously defeat him.
This, and the resumption of my ring, as well as of the bear’s grease in moderation, are the last marks I can discern, now, in my progress to seventeen.
1. Like the apparition of an armed head in Macbeth – the first apparition, an Armed Head, warns Macbeth to beware McDuffie, the Thane of Fife, in “Macbeth” by Shakespeare
Words and word combinations to be memorized:
adjust (v) lament (v)
apparition (n ) pledge (n)
avow (v) remit (v)
conceive (v) repair (v)
condole (v) resolve (v)
delicious (adj) unattainable (adj)
disparage (v) waylay (v)
glorious (adj) wretched (adj)
inestimable (adj) injurious (adj)
beyond all bounds, to dote on/upon somebody, a giddy height, to make (pull) a face (faces), a reverential respect, a sad plight, a tiresome affair, a transport of love.
A. TEXT EXERCISES
I Explain and expand on the following.
1. My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence – the unseen, unfelt progress of my life – from childhood up to youth! Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along its course, by which I can remember how it ran. 2. A blank, through which the warriors of poetry and history march on in a stately hosts that seem to have no end – and what comes next! I am the headboy, now! 3. I repair to the enchanted house, where there are lights, chattering, music, flowers, officers (I am sorry to see), and the eldest Miss Larkins, a blaze of beauty. 4. Miss Larkins is dressed in blue, with blue flowers in her hair - forget-me-nots. As if she had any need to wear forget-me-nots! 5. It is the first really grown-up party that I have ever been invited to, and I am a little uncomfortable; for I appear not to belong to anybody, and nobody appears to have anything to say to me, except Mr. Larkins, who asks me how school-fellows are, which he needn’t do, as I have not come there to be insulted. 6. But I do waltz (pretty well, too, as it happens) and I take Miss Larkins out. I take her sternly from the side of Captain Bailey. He is wretched, too.
II. Give definitions of the following words using an English-English dictionary.
unattainable, conceive, avow, dote on/upon, remit, disparage, waylay, adjust, plight, repair, pledge
III. Arrange the following words in pairs of synonyms and explain the difference in their usage and meaning. Use them in sentences of your own.
condole, injurious, glorious, conceive, sympathize, resolve, mischievous, distinguished, decide, mourn, apprehend, disparage, wretched, avow, lament, ghost, delicious, unhappy, acknowledge, apparition, delightful, underestimate
IV. Arrange the following words in pairs of antonyms and use them in sentences of your own.
disparage, valueless, lament, depress, approve, console, inestimable, rejoice
V. Explain the meaning of the underlined word-groups in the following sentences and supply their Russian equivalents. Use them in sentences of your own.
1. But the first boy seems to me a mighty creature, dwelling afar off, whose giddy height is unattainable. 2. He is not my private friend and public patron; but I hold him in a reverential respect. 3. At home, in my own room, I sometimes moved to cry out, “Oh, Miss Shepherd!” in a transport of love. 4. Miss Shepherd makes a face as she goes by, and laughs at her companion. 5. I think the dancing-school a tiresome affair, and wonder why the girls can’t dance by themselves and leave us alone. 6. I am taken home in a sad plight, and have beef-steaks put to my eyes, and am rubbed with vinegar and brandy, and find a great white puffy place bursting out on my upper lip, which swells immoderately. 7. My passion for her is beyond all bounds. 8. I repair to the enchanted house, where there are lights, music, chattering, flowers, officers, and the eldest Miss Larkins, a blaze of beauty. 9. I only know that I swim in space, with a blue angel, in a state of blissful delirium.
VI. Paraphrase these sentences using words and expressions from the text.
1. She bemoaned her unhappy life. 2. He intended to change the situation, no matter how difficult it could be. 3. That aim was very difficult to reach. 4. I could not imagine that he would behave in such a way. 5. His words were unjust and hurt her feelings. 6. The dinner was lovely and the guests were very pleased with the party. 7.She expressed sympathy for her friend whose car had been stolen. 8. The students went to the nearest school to help teachers. 9. The ghost of an old woman loomed in the distance.
VIII. Comment on the stylistic devices used in the following fragments. Point out cases of metaphor, simile, epithet, allusion, alliteration, and, if possible, explain the effect produced by the device.
1. The earthly smell, the sunless air, the sensation of the world being shut out, the resounding of the organ through the black and white galleries and aisles, are wings that take me back, and hold me hovering above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream.
2. The shade of a young butcher rises, like the apparition of an armed head in Macbeth.
3. He is a broad-faced, full-necked young butcher, with rough red cheeks, an ill-conditioned mind, and an injurious tongue.
4. In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my eyebrow.
5. I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.
6. She is a tall, dark, black-eyed, fine figure of a woman.
7. But after I have stood in the door-way for some time, and feasted my eyes upon the goddess of my heart, she approaches me.
1. Answer the following questions.
1. What does the narrator compare his school-days with?
2. What is his first recollection?
3. What is his attitude to the top student in the school?
4. How does the narrator treat Miss Shepherd?
5. What kind of feeling does he experience towards Miss Shepherd?
6. What makes him break with her?
7. Has his position in the school changed? In what way?
8. Who is the terror of the youth of Canterbury?
9. Why is the young butcher a match for a man?
10. What makes the butcher unnaturally strong?
11. What evidence can you give to show that the young butcher had an injurious tongue?
12. Why does the narrator decide to fight the butcher? How does it characterize David Copperfield?
13. What is an outcome of their fight?
14. Do you agree that it was necessary to fight the young butcher?
15. What is the narrator’s attitude to the boys below him when he becomes the headboy and to himself as a little fellow?
16. What changes have happened to him?
17. Who is he in love with at this time?
18. What kind of feeling does the narrator have towards Miss Larkins?
19. What is D. Copperfield’s mood when he first attends a grown-up party? Why is it so?
20. How does he behave when Miss Larkins asks him if he dances?
21. With what does D. Copperfield compare his waltz with Miss Larkins?
22. Why do you think Captain Bailey is wretched too? What does this “too” imply?
23. What things do David and Miss Larkins exchange?
24. What does David intend to do with Miss Larkins' flower?
25. Who else is D. Copperfield introduced to at the party? What have you learnt about Mr. Chestle?
26. What kind of disappointment does David experience?
27. What news has he heard from his sister? In what state is he after hearing the news?
28. How long has D. Copperfield been in that state?
29. What makes him forget Miss Larkins?
30. Why does the narrator resume wearing his gold ring and the bear’s grease in moderation till he becomes seventeen? What do the words “in moderation” emphasize?
II. Define the extract as a form of writing. What genre of a story is it?
III. Comment on the general atmosphere and mood of the extract.
Mood can be cheerful, genial, good, happy, jovial, joyful; gloomy, sullen; nostalgic; pensive, tranquil, melancholy; angry, bad, foul; bellicose; bilious; resentful; mellow; mercurial, etc.
Atmosphere can be formal; friendly; informal, relaxed; stifling; stultifying; tense, etc.
Do the atmosphere and mood answer the situation described in the text? If you find that the mood of the extract corresponds to the situation, prove it by examples. If you don’t, explain the reasons for the incongruity.
IV. Discuss the point of view from which the story is told.
1. What is the way the story is told? In whose person?
2. Define the narrator. Does the narrator’s personality affect his ability to interpret the events or the characters correctly?
3. Why does the narrator tell his story in the present while recollecting the past events? What does the author try to achieve using the Historical Present Tense?
4. How would you formulate the “leading motive” of the story?
5. What is the narrator’s attitude to what he is telling us? To the reader?
6. Why do you think the author has chosen precisely this point of view?
V. Discuss the characters of the story.
1. How is the story populated?
2. How are the characters introduced and developed by the author?
3. Which are the main characters? Are they flat or round?
4. Say everything you can about David Copperfield. What kind of character is he? Is this character given statically or in development? What kind of conflict separates David Copperfield and other characters?
5. Say everything you can about David Copperfield’s opponent (a young butcher)? What artistic means are used to characterize that personage? What role does this character play in the development of the plot?
6. Say everything you can about the women’s characters in the story? What is the relationship between D. Copperfield and the girls in the extract? What are the methods of the girls’ portrayal in the text? Are these characters well developed in the story? Compare the ways of the description of Miss Shepherd and Miss Larkins.
7. What is the role of the characters’ speech in the extract? In what way does it help to describe the characters? What information do we learn from the conversation?
8. Which character do the readers sympathize with and why?
VI. Discuss the composition and style of the story.
1. Comment on the title of the chapter under discussion. What does the title presuppose?
2. How does the author begin the story? Which of the methods is used in this extract?
3. Is the composition of the story complicated or simple? Into what distinct parts does the story fall? How do they follow each other in time? Can we divide the extract into two relatively independent parts, ending the first one with the sentence: “Agnes has my confidence completely, always”? Aren’t these two parts alike in their composition? What episode does not allow these two parts to be absolutely independent? Compare the endings of the both parts. How does the author end the story, and what does he accentuate in the ending?
4. What can you say about the language of the story? Is it simple or complicated? Is it literary or colloquial? What emotional and expressive elements of the language have you observed? Write out the words that denote the notion “a retrospect”. What is their role in the text? Comment on the use of lexical stylistic devices (metaphors, similes, epithets).
VII. Summarize your observations on the text.
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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 has 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 mother dead, he is sent to Murdstone’s business in London as his stepfather hates him. He lodges with the amiable Micawber family. He then 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, Agnes’ father’s obsequious clerk. He studies law under Mr. Spenlow and falls in love with 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.
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 recaptured not only the physical scene where early events took place but their emotions as well. The feel of the past lent that quality of magic so often attributed to the writing of the first part of David Copperfield. It is unlikely that Dickens knew the term bildungsroman but he set up his novel along the lines of the classics in that genre. The events of an individual’s life from childhood to a successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he faces and overcomes in childhood and youth forms an integral part of these works. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person’s story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is the only point of view given in this novel.
“Absence” is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. David’s life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. The letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his great grief would become not endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases. David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr. Strong’s young wife, Annie, when she confesses to her husband a brief infatuation she has had for her cousin Maldon. She has not wronged her husband, and the scene has been described by some critics as typical of the distraught sentimentality too frequent in Dickens. But David realizes that his own heart is as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to the maturity that his life with Agnes has achieved, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.
Charles Dickens has been one of my favorite authors since I was forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, but this work, David Copperfield, is truly extraordinary. Like all of Dickens' novels, this one contains an amazing number of complex and colorful characters. The novel is in the first person narration, with the voice looking back as an older man at the entirety of his life. Dicken's creates an incredible cast of characters and paints a strong portrait of 19th-century England. Aside from fulfilling those important elements of writing a novel, Dickens told a terrific story. In the end everything of course comes together beautifully and the characters all get their just desserts. This is yet another clinic by Dickens in how to write a well organized, though unpredictable, novel that maintains the interest of a reader through approximate 900 pages of writing. It is a wonderful experience that all lovers of good fiction should at least attempt.
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I ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The most popular author of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens was both a 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. Mr Micawber, for example, one of the most outstanding characters in David Copperfield, remains his improvident, amiable self throughout the novel until he goes to Australia. Yet as a comic character, he has made an indelible impression, much in the same way as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.
Dickens was born in 1812 at Landport, near Portsmouth, to John Dickens, a navy pay clerk, and Catherine Dickens, née Barrow. The family moved to London in 1815 and in 1817 to Chatham, where Dickens spent the happiest years of his childhood. Neither of his parents was particularly mature in financial matters, and after returning to London in 1822, the family became destitute. In 1824 John Dickens was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. During the previous year, Charles had been taken out of school and sent to work in Warren’s blacking factory, a warehouse managed by a relative. This was the most traumatic event in Dickens’s young life. After his father’s release from prison, Dickens returned to school briefly but his formal education ended when he was 15. A succession of jobs followed including work as a solicitor’s clerk, a shorthand reporter in the law courts, and a parliamentary reporter. In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines that would be collected to form his first book, Sketches by Boz. In 1836 began the serialization of The Pickwick Papers, which became immensely popular. While The Pickwick Papers was still appearing, Dickens, as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, was contributing instalments of Oliver Twist to the magazine. In April 1836 he married Catherine Hogarth, who between 1837 and 1852 bore him ten children. Serial publication suited Dickens, and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1843-1844), and Barnaby Rudge (1841) all appeared in this format. A visit to the United States in 1842 resulted in American Notes (1843) and a lengthy episode in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844). The first of the five “Christmas Books”, A Christmas Carol, appeared in 1843, and became the most famous Christmas story in the English language. Dombey and Son was serialized in 1846-1848, followed in 1849-1850 by the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, Dickens’s “favourite child”. Then came Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855-1857). Dickens also edited and contributed to the journals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870). He bought a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Rochester in 1856, was separated from his wife in 1858, and in 1859 his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities was published. Great Expectations (1860-1861) was his third book to use a first-person narrator, and both it and the historical novel were serialized in All the Year Round. Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, was published in 1864-1865. Edwin Drood was left unfinished at Dickens’s death on June 9, 1870.
David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, the story of the narrator’s life from early childhood to maturity. 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 12 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 of David’s mother breaks her 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 work for 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 with and marries his daughter Dora. Micawber and Traddles ultimately expose Uriah Heep as a thief, and the Micawber family emigrates to Australia. David himself eventually becomes a skilled journalist, but shortly after he has found success, his wife Dora dies. Following 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 nest 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.
Before this second marriage, David goes with his nurse, Peggotty, to the place of her birth, the seacoast near Yarmouth. With its miles of flat coast, even sea, and coastal marshes, Yarmouth, Dickens told his friend, John Forster, was “the strangest place in the wide world”. Peggotty’s brother Dan’l lives in a small house that has a roof made from the bottom of a boat. Dickens had a lifelong fascination with the sea which figures prominently in several of his books, including Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. David and Peggotty’s niece Em’ly spend many hours collecting seashells and stones together along the coast, and during the days he spends in Yarmouth David falls innocently in love with her. The sea dominates the lives of Dan’l and his fellow fishermen, and they believe that many of their deaths will take place as the tide ebbs. David pays several visits to Yarmouth as the novel continues.
En route to his first school, Salem House Academy, David sees London for the first time. He is awestruck, but his stay there is brief. Salem House is six miles outside the city at Blackheath. He becomes thoroughly acquainted with the capital less than two years later when he is employed at Murdstone and Grinby, where he washes and labels wine bottles. He comes to know the streets much more intimately. Later, having apprenticed himself to Mr Spenlow in order to train as a proctor in the Commons and also as a parliamentary reporter, his knowledge of London is further increased. Dickens, thanks to similar experiences, knew London as few writers ever succeeded in doing. Even in his maturity, while working out his plots and characters, he would walk the streets late at night. The Murdstone and Grinby warehouse is situated by the Thames, and the river recurs as a setting later when the prostitute Martha Endell is saved by David and Dan’l Peggotty from committing suicide.
Betsey Trotwood’s cottage where David finally finds refuge is near the sea at Dover, and the novel briefly becomes a picaresque story as David walks from London to his aunt’s home. He lives for a short time with his aunt and her protégé Mr Dick until Aunt Betsey arranges for him to attend school in the ancient cathedral city of Canterbury. Dickens captures the atmosphere of the city with its serenity and medieval beauty. The bells of the cathedral ring constantly. Even the rooks walk about with a sense of importance. Canterbury is also a city of gardens, such as the one where Dr Strong, David’s headmaster at his second school, takes daily walks while planning his dictionary.
After the completion of his education, David goes back to London to establish himself in a career. Visits to Yarmouth and Canterbury occur several more times and Dickens does a masterful job of describing the great storm at Yarmouth when both Ham Peggotty and James Steerforth perish. Tolstoy believed it to be one of the finest episodes in fiction. Dickens’s flair for drama is seen at its best here.
Mourning the loss of Dora and the death of his school friend, Steerforth, David wanders throughout Europe, finally staying for an extended period in the Lausanne region in Switzerland. Dickens had visited Lausanne with his family in 1846, and loved the quiet town and the majestic Alps that formed its background. Here Dickens’s literary alter ego comes to terms with his losses and finds peace, before returning to England to resume his life.
IV THEMES AND CHARACTERS
The title character in David Copperfield presents himself, his life, and the people and experiences that 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 or her mind closely observes the surrounding world. 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 from what one might expect from a story that is 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 centre 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 words “murder” and “stone” to form the name, and Murdstone is murderous in his attitude towards the small boy and his overly pliant mother, Clara. On 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’s 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 mould, soon joins the family. David is 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 his 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 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. However, sadistic schoolmasters have been all too common in the history of education. St Augustine in his Confessions tells us the fear of being beaten was a threat he had to live with during his early school 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 favourite 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. However, he also watches as Steerforth destroys the career of an inoffensive teacher, Mr Mell, by making an arrogant charge against him to Creakle.
David’s mother dies as a result of the tyranny of the Murdstones, and the new baby succumbs soon afterwards. 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 labelling 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 that Dickens never forgot. 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 his parents’ 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’s manner of speech. Grandiloquent sentences are always followed by “in short” and 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 speech typical 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 neighbourhood 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 kind found in the fairy tales that had been among his favourite reading as a child. Aunty Betsey Trotwood is a sort of fairy godmother. She is blunt in her speech and tolerates no nonsense from 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 presents himself to her. She already has one protégé, 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 with 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.
David 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. James Steerforth is another manifestation. He has irresistible charm and complete assurance in his own superiority. Beneath the charm he is a terrible egotist. Nobody has ever opposed Steerforth, and everyone 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 mould 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 only achieves much later, is his confidante during these years. He admires deeply her goodness and serenity. Aunt Betsey, watching their relationship, is more aware of Agnes’ devotion to David than David himself, who 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’s earliest great love for Maria Beadnell, a banker’s daughter, who could not have taken seriously a youth under 19, a mere shorthand reporter in the law courts. However, 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 callousness, 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 scoundrel that Heep, below his hypocritical claims of humility, really is. Micawber reads the indictment that he has written up. It is his finest hour and illustrates one of Dickens’s favourite 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 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 by 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 and renames it “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 the worst storms in living memory. Ham, trying to rescue him, perishes as well.
David 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. 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 writes his autobiography ten years after his marriage to Agnes, and he enjoys a serenity that Dickens himself was never to achieve.
Dickens in David Copperfield is not as concerned as he usually is with “the condition of England question”, Thomas Carlyle’s term for Dickens’s 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. The depiction of Salem House Academy with its sadistic schoolmasters is as brutal as that of 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. However, Dickens presents Salem House and the students’ lives there without criticism of 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 towards that branch of the English government and 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 speciality. 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 is amused at 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 those 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 has not succeeded in making his mark, despite many attempts, goes to Australia, and becomes a journalist and ultimately a magistrate. Dan’l Peggotty takes Martha and Em’ly to Australia and becomes a wealthy farmer there, a reward for his 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.
V LITERARY TECHNIQUE
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, account. David Copperfield, on one level at least, is a fictionalized version of some of these episodes. Dickens succeeded in recreating the mind of a child and young man in a complex psychological portrait. He was a close observer of the world around him from childhood and had a strong memory of events in his life, as does the character of David Copperfield. Dickens’s imagination allied with the memories of that period in his own life recaptures not only the physical events themselves, but also their emotional resonance. This evocation of the past lends the first part of David Copperfield an almost magical quality.
Dickens sets up the novel along the lines of a typical bildungsroman. The events of an individual’s life from childhood to successful maturity with special emphasis on the difficulties he or she faced and overcame in childhood and youth form an integral part of the genre. Difficulties with parents occur in the early years of the person’s story. Fatherless at birth and an orphan before his teen years, David Copperfield has a succession of father substitutes. His is the only point of view given in the novel. He suffers at the hands of the Murdstones who try to prevent him from being anything but a little wretch. Steerforth at Salem House, several years his senior, offers some protection against the terrible cruelty of Creakle. He is a boarder with the Micawber family while at Murdstone and Grimby’s warehouse. This improvident family, Mr Micawber in particular, provides some humour to brighten what would otherwise be an unremittingly dark period. Aunt Betsey Trotwood and her protégé Mr Dick finally give David security and affection. Aunt Betsey is masculine enough in some ways to be a substitute father in her own right. After his adoption by her, a new life begins for David. Life at Dr Strong’s school is essentially calm and happy. He boards with the Wickfields and is immediately highly impressed with Agnes Wickfield, whom Dickens at the very offset plans to make the heroine of the novel. Future problems are foreshadowed by Mr Wickfield’s alcoholism, and by the presence of Uriah Heep. His education completed, Copperfield must make a career for himself. He is apprenticed with the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins, and meets the woman he believes to be his true love, Dora Spenlow. Dickens shows great skill in depicting the mad raptures of young love, the total absorption in fantasy of early romance. Marriage with Dora proves to be a mistake, but David tries to make the best of it. He takes a significant step towards his true profession when he learns shorthand and gains work as a parliamentary reporter. He starts to write stories and becomes a novelist. These episodes are a brilliant blend of Dickens’s own experiences and fiction, although he did not marry Maria Beadnell, the woman on whom Dora’s character was based.
The villainy of Uriah Heep is revealed and his threat to Agnes removed. Dora dies, and David’s idol Steerforth, having betrayed him by eloping with little Em’ly, is drowned. Copperfield learns some painful lessons about love and the nature of his own personality. He wanders for three years in Italy and Switzerland in despair, finally coming to terms with his “undisciplined heart” in Switzerland. He returns home and finds his real love in Agnes. A happy marriage and a successful career is the situation from which he has surveyed his life. Dickens was at the peak of his ability as a novelist when he sat down to write David Copperfield, and the novel caused him less difficulty than almost anything else he produced. His contemporary and to an extent his rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, believed that Dickens had improved his style by imitating his own novel Vanity Fair (1847-1848). He was “foregoing the use of fine words”, pruning some of the excesses that had characterized his early writing. This seems to be true. Dickens had mastered the art of using fewer words, especially in sombre scenes in the book. The death of Dora is described with much less sentiment than that of, for example, Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son or Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.
“That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!
It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.”
One particular stylistic device in David Copperfield is the “Retrospects”, four in number, in which David interrupts his narrative and comments on the progress he and the other characters are making. He compares his life up until the point when he has almost completed his schooldays with “flowing water” and he “hovers above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream”. The past in David’s memory, as he admits, sometimes has an unreal quality. Looking back he sees himself as a “shadow”. At this point he is 21. He has overcome the difficult art of shorthand and is reporting the activities of Parliament for a morning newspaper. His marriage to Dora takes place. All now seems like “phantoms”. He has reached the legal age of adult maturity. Chapter LIII is “Another Retrospect”. David’s child-wife Dora dies with Agnes as a sort of mother confessor at her side. Death brings the passage of time to a temporary standstill. In “A Last Retrospect”, the shortest of the four, with his autobiographical narrative finished, David gives a report on those who have figured prominently in it. Following his marriage to Agnes, he is fulfilled and his personality fully realized.
Copperfield has more than mastered shorthand: he has become a master of language. David recalls certain events with extraordinary detail, and more than one critic has noted that some parts of the novel anticipate Proust. For example, certain religious prints that David had seen in Mr Peggotty’s boathouse have but to be seen again to bring back to mind the entire interior of that home. Again, the very name Yarmouth forever reminds him “of a certain Sunday morning on the beach, the bells ringing of church, little Em’ly leaning on my shoulder, Ham lazily dropping stones into the water, and the sun, away at sea, just breaking through the heavy mist…”. Peggotty is always associated with her work box with the picture of St Paul’s Cathedral on its cover. These memories are from happier times before the appearance of the Murdstones.
The sea is a potent symbol in all of Dickens’ novels after Dombey and Son (1846-1848). Life is seen as a river that flows to the sea—death. Mr Barkis, Peggotty’s husband, dies when the tide ebbs, according to a local superstition. The sea is a mysterious force that is destructive at times. One of the climaxes of the novel is the great storm that smashes into Yarmouth, “Tempest”. “I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.” Both Ham and Steerforth are victims of the savage wind and water. A good young man and a wicked egoist share a common fate. Ham was to have married Little Em’ly but Steerforth seduced and eloped with her. Ham dies trying to rescue Steerforth while he clings desperately to the mast of a founding ship. It becomes the subject of Copperfield’s nightmares for the rest of his life, and the mention of the seashore brings the memory of the fierce gale back. The storm has destroyed much that was meaningful in his past—Ham, Steerforth, even Dan’l Peggotty’s boathouse. The waves bear Steerforth ashore and he lies finally at David’s feet. Steerforth’s head rests on his arm as David remembers seeing him sleeping during their days at Salem House. He still loves and even admires Steerforth although in terms of what he might have become, not the seducer he actually is.
Dickens may have had Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in mind when he has David wander in Italy and Switzerland in such despair that he passes ancient monuments with scarcely a glance. This kind of dark period occurs in many Victorian writings—in Tennyson’s In Memoriam and later in the autobiographies of John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle describes an emotional crisis that he calls the “Everlasting No”, a mood of the darkest depression. Copperfield describes his Everlasting No in the chapter entitled “Absence”. “Listlessness to everything but brooding sorrow was the night that fell on my undisciplined heart.” Dora and Steerforth are gone, other friends are now in Australia, and David is alone with bitter memories and the conviction that his life and everything associated with it is a meaningless failure. His will cannot cope with this sense of utter futility. Neither Dickens nor his hero turns to conventional religion in times of crisis. In the Swiss Alps a consciousness of the mountains’ beauty marks a turning point for Copperfield. In a very Wordsworthian passage, as he descends into a valley, the voices of singing shepherds seem to speak to him. The sublimeness and awe-inspiring nature of the scenery had been working on his consciousness and he was aware that “great Nature spoke to me…” inspiring a sense of hope and raising his desolate spirits. This could be seen as another use of pathetic fallacy, as in Dombey and Son, for example, when little Paul hears the sea calling him. The English Romantics believed that they could commune with Nature and that she, like a kindly nurse, could heal them. The next phase, described by Carlyle as “The Everlasting Aye” has begun. David lies on the grass and weeps “…as I had not yet wept since Dora died!”
“Absence” is the most lyrical chapter in David Copperfield, and shows how versatile Dickens could be in his prose styling. Some of this is seen in the Retrospect chapters. David’s life is coming into focus for him again. In the village to which he descends, letters are waiting for him. A letter from Agnes reconfirming her faith in him further aids the healing process. She assures him that his grief will not turn into endless sorrow, but the source of new strength. His love for her increases.
The critic Robert R. Garnet has suggested that Agnes’s character functions more as a symbol in the book than as a flesh-and-blood woman. She seems to have been perfect in every way from childhood on. She resembles the image with which Goethe concluded the second half of his Faust: “The Eternal-Feminine/Lures us to perfection” (trans. Walter Kaufmann). She is like an English Madonna who is so spiritual that David has always stood in awe of her. In reviewing her character, George Orwell called her “the real legless angel of Victorian romance”. In fact, she is an example of Dickensian saintliness, an idealization, and a spiritual guide to Copperfield. An earlier image is the one presented by Steerforth; a model of all that David thought was noble. But Steerforth is a Byronic figure who appears to have been born sceptical and cynical. To follow his example would be disastrous. Agnes, however, helps David ascend to her level of virtue, although he has to order his “undisciplined heart” before he can make Agnes his own. Her image is always pointing upward in his imagination, as she was when she silently indicated that Dora was dead. As Chapter XL concludes, the memory of her “pointing upward” is with him again, and he hopes he may one day join her in heaven and there declare his love for her. She too loves him, and has loved him all of her life. They marry and have three children. As the novel ends, the final image David presents is of her even at the end of his life “near me, pointing upward”.
David Copperfield remembers frequently a phrase used by Dr Strong’s young wife, Annie, when she confessed to her husband a brief infatuation she had had for her cousin Maldon. She describes it “…as the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart”. She did not wrong her husband, but David realizes that his own heart was as poorly disciplined. Disciplining his emotions has been an important part of his self-realization, the successful conclusion of his bildungsroman. Having come to maturity in his life with Agnes, he can look on himself as an achiever in life and in his chosen profession as a writer.
VI TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
Could a man like Edward Murdstone exploit a young naive woman like Clara Copperfield in today’s world? How has human nature and the legal system in Britain changed since 1850?
Dan’l Peggotty and his family are lower class. Does Dickens present them realistically?
While England, even in 1850, was a democracy to an extent, it still had a rigid class system. How does Dickens present this in David Copperfield?
Dickens is noted for his ability to create character in his fiction. How typically does he present minor characters in David Copperfield?
Is Dickens more skilled in presenting men than women? How has his experience influenced his views on human personalities?
How is London seen in David Copperfield? It was the world’s largest city in 1850.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, is the model Dickens had in mind when he created James Steerforth. Is his character accurately depicted in David’s friend?
Wilkins Micawber is usually regarded as one of the supreme comic characters in English literature. By what standards is he comic? Have our views of what constitutes humour changed since Dickens’s time?
The term “fallen woman” seems rather incongruous today. Do we value the feminine personality higher today than most Victorians did?
Some critics prefer the “child bride” Dora to Agnes Wickfield. Why?
Uriah Heep is an arch hypocrite. Is he also comic?
Comment on David’s friend Tommy Traddles. What is his function in the novel?
Comment on Aunt Betsey Trotwood. In one sense she is as eccentric as many others of Dickens’s characters, but she is also a stable person with a wisdom unmatched by other characters in the novel with the possible exception of Agnes Wickfield. Is she, despite Dickens’s intentions, as much a heroine as Agnes?
Sigmund Freud admired Dickens both as a writer and for his insights into the mystery of the human personality. David Copperfield was his favourite 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, 1918). Is he right? Compare these writings.
Dickens was always careful to make certain that the speech patterns of his characters were accurate, whether they were Suffolk fishermen or London Cockneys. Comment on the speech patterns in David Copperfield.
Dickens obviously had great sympathy for women who had become prostitutes. For many years he advised Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had founded the Home for Homeless Women. He also helped her run the charity. How is this experience in his life reflected in David Copperfield?
Dickens’ own education was meagre, but education was a life-long concern for him. Compare his treatment of this theme in Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times with that in David Copperfield.
Dickens respected the working people of England and insisted that their dignity should be protected. Is this born out in his writing? Compare his portrait of Dan’l Peggotty with that of Steven Blackpool in Hard Times, or workers in other Dickens’ novels.
The Kings Bench Prison in David Copperfield is based on the Marshalsea Prison where Dickens’s father was sent. The Marshalsea itself figures prominently in his later novel, Little Dorritt, which George Bernard Shaw called a more seditious book than Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Compare the satires on prisons in David Copperfield and Little Dorritt.
VIII RELATED TITLES AND ADAPTATIONS
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’s 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.
A film version of David Copperfield was made by MGM in 1935 with a cast that included Lionel Barrymore, W. C. Fields, Edna May Oliver, and Basil Rathbone.
Source: Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Copyright by Gale Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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