David Copperfield: Essay Q&A
1. How does Dickens use pairs of characters in David Copperfield?
Dickens frequently uses pairs of characters, or characters in parallel situations, to draw out contrasts between the two. Where characters are paired, they have some similarities, but it is in the differences that Dickens makes his point. For example, Uriah Heep is from a similar poor background to David's, and both boys and their mothers had to struggle to achieve success. Both train in law, and both desire Agnes. But there, the similarity ends. David maintains his loving heart and integrity and achieves success through hard work and the occasional helping hand from friends such as Betsey and Agnes. Uriah, in contrast, becomes bitter, conniving and corrupt, and resorts to underhand behavior and fraud to achieve his ends. It is true that Uriah lacks a Betsey to finance his schooling and training, and an Agnes to point him towards a job as Dr. Strong's secretary, but David's good nature will always attract loving friends, whereas Uriah repulses honest people. When Uriah accuses David of always going against him, David counters, "it is you who have always been, in your greed and cunning, against all the world."
In his role as David's friend, Steerforth is paired with Agnes and Traddles. But whereas Agnes and Traddles are true friends, being loyal and always ready to help David and his friends and loved ones, Steerforth is a false friend. He belittles David and exploits his closeness to Mr. Peggotty by seducing Little Em'ly. Where Agnes and Traddles are selfless, Steerforth is selfish.
Another character pair is formed by the authority figures who look after David as a boy. David's loving, gentle mother and nurse, Clara Copperfield and Clara Peggotty, are contrasted with the cruel and brutal Mr. and Miss Murdstone. David's wives are also contrasted: the frivolous, childlike Dora is set against the mature, wise Agnes.
Dickens's point in creating these pairs of characters and parallel situations is to show that people have a choice as to how they behave and what they are. A poverty-stricken child can choose to become a David or a Uriah Heep. A parent or guardian of a child can choose to be a gentle Clara Copperfield or a cruel Mr. Murdstone. A friend can be true, like Agnes and Traddles, or false, like Steerforth. While Dora cannot change her nature and become an Agnes, David is certainly free to exercise good judgment in his choice of wife; this he fails to do with his first marriage, but succeeds with the second.
2. In telling the story of her marriage, Annie Strong says that she is grateful to her husband for saving her from "the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart." How does this phrase apply to the novel as a whole?
David Copperfield is a bildungsroman, the dictionary definition of which is "a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character. As such, its major theme is the disciplining of David's emotions and morals. He learns not to trust "the first mistaken impulse of [the] undisciplined heart."
This theme is extended to many characters and relationships in the novel. The characters fall into three groups: those who have always had disciplined hearts, those who lack them, and those who develop them over the course of the novel. Characters in the first group include Agnes, who is always selfless, mature, and loving; Mr. Peggotty, who never fails in his love and devotion to Little Em'ly; and Traddles, who is a loyal friend to David and uses wise judgment in choosing his wife, to whom he remains constant during a frustratingly long engagement.
Characters in the second group include Uriah Heep, whose downfall is his greed; the vain and selfish Steerforth, who ruins the happiness of an entire family while gratifying a whimsical desire for Little Em'ly; and Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle, who spoil Steerforth with an indiscriminate adulation and who remain forever embittered by his loss.
Characters in the third group include David. He first marries the unsuitable Dora, and must learn through an unsatisfactory and unequal marriage to make wiser choices in future. Once he acquires a disciplined heart, he is able to appreciate the more settled love between himself and Agnes, and marries her. Another character who learns discipline is Little Em'ly, who, after her undisciplined escapade with Steerforth, repents. In her new life in Australia, she devotes herself to hard work and acts of charity, refusing offers of marriage. A third character in this group is Betsey, who made an unwise marriage when she was young and paid for it long afterwards. Thereafter, she is concerned that other characters should not make the same mistakes as she did, and has reservations about David's marrying Dora. Betsey also learns greater tolerance and compassion as the novel progresses: at the start, she expresses contempt and impatience for weak-minded women like Clara Copperfield and Dora, but later, she grows to love Dora.
3. In what ways does David Copperfield operate as social comment?
Several social problems are highlighted in the novel, on many of which Dickens actively campaigned for reform. These include the plight of women who have fallen into prostitution - like Martha. Prostitution in cities was one of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which involved thousands of people moving from the country into urban areas. The fate of these people rose and fell with the state of the manufacturing economy and levels of wages at any one time, and in Dickens's time, extreme poverty and poor housing conditions (such as he portrays when David goes to Martha's house) was widespread. Dickens shows the poverty, shame, and desperation that many of these women must have felt, and presents the dirty, overcrowded and run-down areas of town where they lived and worked. The story of Martha acts as a foreshadowing of what may have been Little Em'ly's story, too, had not the kind foreigners and Mr. Peggotty rescued her.
Dickens was concerned about the plight of prostitutes, took care to paint an accurate picture of the problem in David Copperfield, and in his life, worked actively to help such women into safer and more socially acceptable occupations. Nevertheless, he shares something of the shame that was felt about prostitution by the society of his time. When David and Mr. Peggotty resolve to question Martha about Little Em'ly, they take great care not to approach her in a place where people can see them, instead following her to an isolated spot. This can hardly be to protect Martha, since being approached by men in public is a part of her job; it is to protect David and Mr. Peggotty from public disapproval. Dickens's shame also comes over in the story of Little Em'ly after she is returned to Mr. Peggotty. Though Little Em'ly does not have to resort to prostitution, there is a strong sense of her being permanently sullied by her sexual relationship with Steerforth. Neither Ham nor David ever speak directly to her again, and David only sees her through a doorway and amongst the crowd on a ship.
Other social problems portrayed in the novel include the injustice of the debtors' prison; poverty and society's attitudes to the poor; the question of how the insane should be treated (Mr. Dick's brother wanted to put him in an asylum for life, which would have been a loss to society); the injustice of child labor; prison reform; the plight of the homeless (portrayed in David's punishing journey from London to Betsey's house in Dover after his escape from the factory); and the abuse of children in schools.
4. Discuss the role of memory in David Copperfield.
David Copperfield has been called first and foremost a novel about memory. It is David's autobiography, which he constructs from memory. The process links the past to the present, and brings continuity to his life, in that it shows how a series of past incidents build on each other and help to create the David of the present.
Memory can reawaken a blissful experience from the past, as in Chapter XLIII, when David describes the day of his wedding to Dora. The chapter stands out because it is written in the present tense, as if David has re-entered that moment of the past and is re-living it as he tells it to the reader. This sense of immediacy is reinforced by the usually vivid descriptions of tiny details of the sort that people only tend to recall if they are accompanied by extreme joy or extreme horror. For example, David describes the new marital home: "Such a beautiful little house as it is, with everything so bright and new; with the flowers on the carpets looking as if freshly gathered, and the green leaves on the paper as if they had just come out...and Dora's garden hat with the blue ribbon ."
Equally, memory can be a source of suffering. In Chapter X, David introduces his time working at the factory with the words: "I now approach a period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything; and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times." The act of remembering makes him re-live the trauma.
In Chapter LVIII, in contrast, the act of writing about recent traumatic events - the deaths of Dora and Steerforth and the emigration of the Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty and Little Em'ly - is therapeutic and cathartic for David. It rouses his depressed energies and marks the end of his need to live abroad. When he has finished, he makes plans to return to England.
Though memory usually provides continuity for David, on some occasions it brings the shock of cutting him off from his past. In Chapter XXII, David returns to his childhood home to find that it is lived in by a lunatic and his carers. As he looks up at the window of his old room, the lunatic gazes back, as David were looking in a mirror. On one hand, the lunatic is shockingly different from David, but on the other hand, David sees him as a distorted version of himself, and wonders if the lunatic has the same thoughts as he did when he looked out of that window. As Jeremy Tambling points out in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of David Copperfield (2004), the lunatic is also reminiscent of Mr. Dick, who, like David, is engaged in writing his autobiography. Mr. Dick is hampered in his work by overwhelming thoughts of King Charles's head, which Betsey describes as "his allegorical way of expressing" disturbing memories. Thus, as Tambling says, "Memory, which for David Copperfield seems accessible, for Mr. Dick is blocked by other memories, historical and traumatic."
That memory which translates into long-standing tradition is one of the elements that, in David's view, makes England in general, and the law in particular, "an arduous place to rise in." (Chapter LIX). One practical solution to this problem of stifling tradition in the nineteenth century was emigration. The Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, Little Em'ly and Martha are able to take advantage of this solution. In doing so, they escape the societal memory of their past disgraces and failures in England. They are free to start again with a clean slate.
5. How does Dickens present the idea of redemption through different characters?
In David Copperfield, some characters are redeemed, while others are not. The difference lies in whether or not they have a conscience and are driven by it to repent. Little Em'ly is so ashamed of her elopement with Steerforth that she cannot bear to return home and face her uncle. She is rewarded for her penitence with a new life in Australia, where no one knows about her past. However, Dickens does not allow her to be totally forgiven. Ham and David do not speak to her between her rescue and her leaving England, and the reader only sees her clinging to her uncle with her head hanging low, suggesting that she is still partially in disgrace. This continues in Australia, where she is shown refusing all offers of marriage and absorbing herself in hard work on the land and acts of charity - a penitential, though no doubt rewarding, existence.
Martha also repents of her life as a prostitute, though, unlike Little Em'ly, she is allowed to describe the shame she feels. Her penitence is devoting herself to the search for Little Em'ly for no pay. She is rewarded by Mr. Peggotty when he takes her to Australia with him and Little Em'ly. Unlike Little Em'ly, Martha is allowed to marry, perhaps because, as a minor character of whom the reader knows very little before she became a prostitute, the reader has no image of her in her purity. Thus her fall into disgrace is less shocking than Little Em'ly's, and the sense of innocence defiled less striking.
In the cases of both Little Em'ly and Martha, the purifying value of hard work on the land is emphasized. There is an echo of Adam and Eve, who, after they disobeyed God and fell from grace, were sentenced to do everlasting penance by tilling the soil to glean a living. Dickens shared the notion prevalent in Victorian England that honest hard work was improving to the soul. The adult David reflects that he has always achieved his goals due to his "steady, plain, hard-working qualities."
These qualities are notably lacking in a character who is not redeemed, Steerforth. Steerforth's life is frivolous, and David finds himself wishing that he had something useful to do. More importantly, however, Steerforth does not repent. He does have a conscience, as is revealed by his comment in Chapter XXI that David is a good person, to which he adds, "I wish we all were!" and his request to David in Chapter XXIX that David remember him at his best. He knows what is right and what is wrong, but he still persists in doing what is wrong, in taking Little Em'ly away and then abandoning her. He even seems arrogant in the manner of his death, clinging to his boat's mast when the other men have drowned, and waving his red cap at the onlookers. Thus there is no redemption for Steerforth, and it is fitting that he is not rewarded, but is swallowed by the sea.
Uriah and Littimer are even less redeemable than Steerforth, since they have no conscience at all. Uriah preserves a shocking sense of self-righteousness even in prison. Though he claims to repent of his "follies," he has resumed his old fraudulent act of being "umble." At the same time, he shows he is far from humble by making a point of forgiving David for striking him in the face: a truly humble person would not assume enough superiority over David to forgive him for a relatively small misdemeanor when he himself had committed major frauds. Littimer too is unrepentant, and in similar vein, says that he forgives Little Em'ly - a woman whose forgiveness he should beg. David recognizes that both Uriah and Littimer are what they always were: "hypocritical knaves." Unredeemed, they live to perpetuate their frauds and lies on deluded prison reformers like Mr. Creakle.
David Copperfield Study GuideChoose to Continue
- David Copperfield
- Chapters I-III
- Chapters I-III
- Chapters IV-VI
- Chapters VII-X
- Chapters XI-XIV
- Chapters XV-XVIII
- Chapters XIX-XXII
- Chapters XXIII-XXVI
- Chapters XXVII-XXX
- Chapters XXXI-XXXIV
- Chapters XXXV-XXXVIII
- Chapters XXXIX-XLII
- Chapters XLIII-XLVII
- Chapters XLVIII-LII
- Chapters LIII-LVIII
- Chapters LIX-LXIV
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- Charles Dickens
- Essay Q&A