David Copperfield: Theme Analysis
The abuse of power
David Copperfield examines those who have power over the weak, and finds that they often abuse it. David's first experience of this is as a child, when a kind and gentle authority figure, his mother, is supplanted by cruel authority figures, the Murdstones. The Murdstones stop David's education and send him to work in a factory, where he is unhappy, poor, and hungry. Mr. and Miss Murdstone crush Clara Copperfield's spirit, make her ill, and arguably are responsible for her death - all under the pretence of improving her mind and firmness of character. There is an interesting parallel to this episode in David's marriage to Dora. Dora is similar to Clara Copperfield in her childlike nature and unfitness for housekeeping, and David at first tries to "form" her mind by teaching her aspects of housekeeping and educating her. However, this only makes her miserable and defensive, and David, unlike the Murdstones, is sensitive and caring enough to notice this and stop trying to change his wife. By providing a parallel situation with a different outcome, Dickens shows that everyone has a choice about how they exercise their power, and that it is the responsibility of the powerful to treat the powerless with kindness and understanding.
Dickens often uses such parallel situations with contrasting outcomes. Mr. Creakle bullies David and the other boys at his school to the extent that they learn nothing; whereas Dr. Strong, the headmaster of the school to which Betsey sends David, is kind to the boys in his care, genuinely educates them, and is loved by them in return.
The story of Steerforth shows not only the destructive effects of the abuse of power on the victims (Little Em'ly, and to a lesser extent, David and Rosa Dartle), but also on the perpetrator. Steerforth is endowed with extraordinary gifts of good looks, wealth, and charm, and could use them to do much good. Instead, he devotes himself to manipulating others for his own selfish and frivolous ends. His life is a wasted one, and it is fitting that his death goes unmourned by all except for the doting Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa. David's friendship with Steerforth is contrasted with his friendships with Agnes and Traddles, who, unlike Steerforth, are selfless and constant in their affection.
The most extreme example of abuse of power is Uriah Heep. He has consciously perfected an act of humility that is opposite to his true nature, which is manipulative, cunning, deceitful, and concerned only with extending his control over others. He gains power over Mr. Wickfield by exploiting his weakness for drink, and succeeds in taking control of his house, business, and money. He even tries to gain Agnes for himself. Even in prison, Uriah succeeds in controlling the would-be reformers through deceiving them into believing that he has repented.
Uriah has acquired his sense of entitlement from the humiliations of his poor childhood, yet here too, Dickens provides a parallel example that robs him of any excuse. David, like Uriah, is from a poor and difficult background, but he draws other lessons from it than does Uriah. From Mr. Murdstone's brutality to himself and his mother, he learns not to oppress Dora with his desire to improve her. From Mr. Creakle's regime of terror at his first school, he learns to appreciate Dr. Strong's kind guidance at his second school. David does not ape the abuses of power he sees around him, nor does he seek revenge on a society that wronged him. Instead, he learns to avoid perpetuating such abuses and tries to be kind and helpful to others.
The importance of kindness and charity
In David Copperfield, Dickens portrays many types of human suffering: for example, poverty, child labor, social disgrace, and betrayal by friends and loved ones. While he does not suggest ways to systematically reform society to lessen these abuses, he does put forward an antidote on the individual level. He emphasizes the vital importance of kindness and charity that is given without thought of return. Such acts are nevertheless generally rewarded, as a kindness given inspires a kindness in return.
An example is Mr. Micawber's exposure of Uriah. This is a service to humanity as well as a service to Betsey and Mr. Wickfield, whose money is restored to them as a result. Mr. Micawber was prompted to this act by his conscience, but it was done against his own self-interest, as he knew he would lose his job with Uriah. But because this novel has a clear moral structure, in which good things happen to good people, Mr. Micawber is rewarded for his altruism. Betsey comes up with the suggestion that he take his family to Australia, and offers to loan him the money he will need to get there. This act of charity by Betsey transforms Mr. Micawber's life; he prospers in Australia and gains a respect that he never enjoyed in England.
Another example of an act of kindness and charity is Betsey's adoption of David. Betsey is rewarded by the pleasure she gains from bringing him up. Martha's self-sacrifice in devoting her life to the search for Little Em'ly is another such act, and Martha is rewarded by being taken to Australia by Mr. Peggotty, where she makes a respectable marriage. Mr. Peggotty, moved by the kindness of the unknown foreigners who took in Little Em'ly after she escaped from Littimer, praises them in terms that apply to all such acts by all such characters: "What they done, is laid up wheer neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and wheer thieves do not break through nor steal. Mas'r Davy, it'll outlast all the treasure in the wureld." (Chapter LI)
Mr. Peggotty's words suggest that such acts have an eternal, incorruptible quality. This can be understood on a humanistic, non-religious level as meaning that an act of kindness lives forever in the heart of the recipient, and thereafter in the hearts of his or her dependants and descendants. Equally, it can be understood in religious terms to mean that an act of kindness is akin to God's grace (the essential quality of which is that it is given regardless of God's judgment, even where it is undeserved); doing such an act thereby raises the doer to a level that is close to God.
Equality within marriage
In Chapter XLV of David Copperfield, Annie Strong says, "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose." The novel emphasizes the importance of this kind of equality within a marriage, though Dickens was not so progressive as to embrace modern notions of equality, where neither partner has authority over the other. While Annie and Dr. Strong love, respect, and honor each other, Annie has no objection to kneeling before her husband as a sign that she submits to his authority. Dr. Strong does not abuse his authority, but always treats Annie with gentleness and compassion.
It is significant that this marriage has come under suspicion from friends and acquaintances: people believe that Annie married Dr. Strong for his money, and that she is having an affair with her cousin, Jack Maldon. These suspicions appear to have arisen because of a perception of lack of equality between the two. Annie is poor, whereas Dr. Strong has money; Annie is young and beautiful, whereas Dr. Strong is old and does not create a stir with his looks. However, the perception is not the reality; the doubters are wrong. The ways in which the Strongs differ from one another are superficial. Deep down, they have suitability of mind and purpose. Thus their marriage is solid and withstands the attempts of Uriah to destroy it.
Annie's words about suitability of mind and purpose disturb David because he knows that his marriage to Dora lacks this type of equality. Dora's mind is weak and frivolous, whereas David's is strong and focused on practical matters such as building his career and keeping a household. This is summed up in the exchange in which David asks her how they could live if he did not work. Her inadequate response is, "How? Any how!" David is less than happy with Dora. He is unable to discuss with her any of his concerns in life, because her response is generally fear and hysteria. David has to treat her like a child. Agnes becomes his confidante, as she and David relate to each other as adults, and she is always able to offer calm and reasoned advice.
David married Dora because he was obeying, in Annie's words, "the first mistaken impulse of [his] undisciplined heart," which, in Betsey's words, made him "blind, blind, blind!" A disciplined heart would have prevented him from rushing into marriage with the unsuitable Dora, and prompted him to pause long enough to notice the quieter love offered by the far more suitable Agnes. After Dora's death, David finally matures enough to deserve Agnes, and the two enjoy an equal and fulfilling married life.
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