Dickens - David Copperfield

Dickens - David Copperfield

The Author

Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, the second of eight children. Dickens' childhood experiences were similar to those depicted in David Copperfield. His father, who was a government clerk, was imprisoned for dept and Dickens was briefly sent to work in a blacking warehouse at the age of twelve. He received little formal education, but taught himself shorthand and became a reporter of parliamentary debates for the Morning Chronicle. He began to publish sketches in various periodicals, which were subsequently republished as Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers were published in 1836-37 and after a slow start became a publishing phenomenon and Dickens' characters the centre of popular cult. Part of the secret of his success was the method of cheap serial publication which Dickens used for all his novels. He began Oliver Twist in 1837, followed by Nicholas Nickleby (1838) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). After finishing Barnaby Rudge (1841) Dickens set off for America; he went full of enthusiasm for the young republic but, in spite of a triumphant reception, he returned disillusioned. His experiences are recorded in American Notes (1842). Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) did not repeat its predecessors' success but this was quickly redressed by the huge popularity of the Christmas Books, of which the first A Christmas Carol, appeared in 1843, During 1844-46 Dickens travelled abroad and he began Dombey an Son while in Switzerland. This and David Copperfield (1849-50) were more serious in theme and more carefully planned than his early novels. In later works, such as Bleak House (1853) and Little Dorrit (1857), Dickens' social criticism became more radical and his comedy more savage. In 1850 Dickens started the weekly periodical Household Words, succeeded in 1859 by All the Year Round; in these he published Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860-61). Dickens' health was failing during the 1860s and the physical strain of the public readings which he began in 1858 hastened his decline, although Our Mutual Friend (1865) retained some of his best comedy. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never completed and he died on 9 June 1870. Public grief at his death was considerable and he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

The Summary

David Copperfield is David's narration in his maturity of the events and incidents through which he remembers his life and character developing, and through which his maturity was reached.

Six months before David Copperfield's birth, his father died. His aunt, Betsey Trotwood, arrives in Blunderstone on the night he is born, but immediately gives up all interest in him, as she had firmly expected a girl. With his gentle mother Clara Copperfield and his beloved nurse Peggotty, David's early childhood is very happy. Peggotty takes him on holiday to Yarmouth, where they stay in an old boat-house with her brother Mr Peggotty, his nephew Ham and pretty niece little Emily, and the forlorn widow Mrs Gummidge. David's happiness ends when he returns home to find his mother has re-married. Her new husband, Murdstone, and his sister Jane, drive Clara to an early grave with their cruel 'firmness'.

David is sent away to Salem House, a school run by a harsh, cruel headmaster, Creakle. He makes two friends there: the apparently charming Steerforth and the agreeable Traddles. But after his mother's death, he is sent instead to work in Murdstone's London warehouse, where he miserably experiences poverty, despair, and loneliness. He lodges with the family of the extraordinary Mr Micawber, whose continual financial difficulties lead to his eventual imprisonment for debt.

David decides to run away to his Aunt Betsey in Dover. Penniless and alone, he has to walk all the way. He finds her caring for Mr Dick, a pleasant simpleton. She is as eccentric as ever, but takes him in, as he had hoped, and dismisses the Murdstones from their responsibility for him. She also arranges for him to live in Canterbury with her lawyer, Mr Wickfield, and his lovely daughter, Agnes, and to attend old Doctor Strong's excellent school there. In Canterbury, David also meets Wickfield's sinister clerk, the 'umble' Uriah Heep, and renews his friendship with the Micawbers when they happen to pass through town.

David grows up, successfully completes his education, and is to spend some time 'looking about' for a career. Passing through London, he happens to meet Steerforth, who takes him to visit his mother and her ardent companion, Rosa Dartle. David was on his way to revisit Mr Peggotty and his household at Yarmouth, and now takes Steerforth with him. They find little Emily grown up and engaged to Ham. Peggotty has married Barkis the carrier: their courtship was aided by David occasionally acting as Barkis's messenger to Peggotty.

David is articled to Spenlow and Jorkins as an apprentice proctor in Doctors' Commons. He takes rooms in London, where he entertains Steerforth, drunkenly; and later invites the Micawbers, still short of money, and their new lodger, Traddles. David meets Dora Spenlow and instantly falls desperately in love with her. After her birthday picnic, they are secretly engaged.

David returns briefly to Yarmouth, as Barkis is dying. While he is there, Mr Peggotty's household is most unhappily upset by Emily's running away with Steerforth. Mr Peggotty resolves to follow her, find her, and bring her back. He meets, unsatisfactorily, proud Mrs Steerforth and the infuriated Rosa Dartle.

Aunt Betsey arrives in London with Mr Dick, and announces that she is ruined. David starts work with great determination, as a part- time secretary to Doctor Strong. At the same time he teaches himself shorthand. After many struggles, he becomes a parliamentary reporter. Mr Spenlow has learned of his daughter's secret engagement, through her companion, Jane Murdstone, and tells David he forbids it. But he dies suddenly that night, and Dora moves to live with her aunts. David is allowed to visit her there. Eventually his hopes are fulfilled and he and Dora are married.

Previously, Uriah Heep appeared in London, seeming to have Mr Wickfield in his power, and still hoping, as he has told David, to marry Agnes. After David's marriage, he returns, and, makes unpleasant suggestions concerning Doctor Strong's young wife Annie and her idle cousin Jack Maldon. Doctor Strong denies these, but a shadow falls between him and Annie. With the sensitive help of Mr Dick, the truth is revealed, and they are reconciled.

From Steerforth's servant, Littimer, David hears that Steerforth has abandoned Emily. He passes this news on to Mr Peggotty, who occasionally returns to London during his quest for his niece. Together, they find her unfortunate friend, Martha Endell, and ask her to help them. When Emily returns to London, Martha finds her, and at last she and Mr Peggotty are happily re-united. They decide to emigrate to Australia, taking with them Mrs Gummidge and, eventually, Martha as well.

For some time, Micawber, now working as a clerk for Heep, behaves strangely. Then he calls David and his aunt to Canterbury, and, with his usual great eloquence, accuses Heep of many frauds and crimes against Mr Wickfield. With the help of the reliable Traddles, Uriah Heep is crushed. Micawber is lent money to ease his financial difficulties; he and his family accept the suggestion of emigrating.

David has become a successful author, and gives up his job as a parliamentary reporter. His marriage to Dora, though happy, is marred because she is so completely impractical. Realising that it is selfish to try to 'form her mind', David is reconciled and loves her for herself, but still feels a sense of loss and incompleteness in their relationship. Dora loses a child and is afterwards very ill. Her illness continues: she weakens slowly, and dies.

David decides to take his grief abroad. But first, he takes a message from Emily to Ham in Yarmouth. He arrives there during a great storm, and witnesses the drowning of Steerforth in a wreck just off the coast, and the death of Ham in attempting to rescue him. He breaks the news to Mrs Steerforth and Rosa Dartle, but conceals it from Mr Peggotty and Emily. He says farewell to them, and to the Micawbers, before they all depart for Australia.

David wanders sadly abroad. His reputation as a novelist grows. He is consoled by a letter from Agnes, and returns to Britain where he finds Traddles now practising as a lawyer and happily married at last to his Sophy. With Traddles, he visits a prison and finds that two of the convicts are Heep and Littimer.

David realises what he had long been blind to: that he has always loved Agnes Wickfield, and that she has always been the light of his life. His 'undisciplined heart' had led him astray. Now he is sure that Agnes is involved with someone else, and decides he must not interfere. At last this misunderstanding is cleared up. David and Agnes declare their mutual love, and are married. Agnes reveals that this was Dora's dying wish.

Ten years later, Mr Peggotty returns from Australia, with news of the emigrants, who have all made a success of their new lives. Micawber has even become a magistrate. David remains very happily married to Agnes. Aunt Betsey and Peggotty help to look after their children. With Agnes, David Copperfield has established himself and achieved his happiness.


Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield is about his development as a man, and the lessons he has to learn before he can be completely happy. Some parts of this dramatic novel are autobiographical.

The central figure David Copperfield is sensitive, honest and loving as a child, and remains so all his life. He is also intelligent and observant, but he learns the harder facts of life very slowly. For example, it took him a long time to recognize the truth about Steerforth. He is often too innocent, trusting and thoughtless. He also lacks firmness and self-discipline. Qualities, his aunt is very well aware.

David falls in love with Dora at the first sight, before she even speaks, and before he has any idea of what sort of person she is. Later he recognises that she is the wrong companion for him. After her death, David begins to remember how many mistakes he has made. He notices that all his life it has made sense for him to be with Agnes, although he was too blind to see to see this. She is able to understand him, and so the perfect women for him.

Mr Micawber is a positive character of this novel. His weakness is that he has a large family but never has money. His strength is that he never loses the hope that better times will come. Nevertheless his moods change from joy to misery often and also very quickly. Despite his difficulties, he keeps up an impressive appearance. His talent for speaking and writing letters in elaborate, eloquent language, overcomes Uriah Heep and helps to defeat all his other problems. All in all he is a good and loving husband and father.

Uriah Heep hates the society that has forced this pretence on him. He is greedy, very dishonest, and extremely nasty. Uriah will use any means to get what he wants. But he is not only a negative person, some sympathy is saved for him when he describes his poor, difficult childhood.

Steerforth is charming, handsome, and seems friendly, generous and noble. David greatly admires him because he seems to have all the social strengths and graces David lacks. Later when Steerforth runs off with Emily David recognises that his friend is also proud, irresponsible and selfish.

David's aunt Betsy Trotwood has stopped trusting men because of many disappointments in past. She hopes that Clara Copperfield's child will be a girl. Disappointed again, she looks after Mr Dick instead. When David comes to her, she becomes a second mother to him. She always asks Mr Dick for his advice. Although she seems to be independent, she is really unselfish: she shields Mr Wickfield, and allows David his own way even when she knows he is wrong. She is a good judge of character and is delighted by his marriage to Agnes.

Dora Spenlow is beautiful, sweet, attractive and happy, but also empty-headed and impractical. Her pretty sweetness impresses David from the moment he first sees her, but he learns, slowly and sadly, why everyone treats her like a child or a toy. When married to David, she is completely unable to look after their house, and unreasonably afraid of any attempt to teach her to improve. He can never understand to follow his advice. When she is dying, she suggests that their marriage could not have continued to be happy.

Agnes Wickfield is beautiful and attractive, like Dora, but in many ways she is Dora's opposite. Agnes is calm, reliable, responsible and patient, all qualities Dora lacks. David always asks her for a help and advice because she is so sensible, reasonable and wise. The secret that Agnes has loved David all her life is only revealed in the end when David realises how long she has been his guide and support, and now his life has always been directed towards her. She seems to be perfect, and so sometimes not very realistic.

With the love-story between David and Agnes, Charles Dickens wants to show how love can be real, and how it can be true.