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David Copperfield

David Copperfield is the eighth novel by Charles Dickens. The novel's full title is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).[N 1] It was first published as a serial in 1849–50, and as a book in 1850.

David Copperfield
Copperfield cover serial.jpg
Cover, first serial edition of 1849
AuthorCharles Dickens
Original titleThe Personal History, Adventures,
Experience and Observation
of David Copperfield
the Younger
of Blunderstone Rookery
IllustratorHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artistHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenresNovel, Bildungsroman
PublishedSerialised May 1849 – November 1850; book format 1850
PublisherBradbury & Evans
Media typePrint
Pages624 (first book edition)[1]
Preceded byDombey and Son (1848) 
Followed byBleak House (1852–3) 

The novel features the character David Copperfield, and is written in the first person, as a description of his life until middle age, with his own adventures and the numerous friends and enemies he meets along his way. It is his journey from being an impoverished, neglected child to a successful author.

Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens's own life.[2] It was Dickens' favourite among his own novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, "like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."[3]

Like some of his other novels, it contains a description of young children working in factories for long hours.[4]


Plot summaryEdit

The story follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years in relative happiness with his loving, childish mother and their kindly housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone. Partly to get him out of the way and partly because he strongly objects to the whole proceeding, David is sent to lodge with Peggotty's family in Yarmouth. Her brother, fisherman Mr Peggotty, lives in a house built in an upturned boat on the beach, with his adopted relatives Emily and Ham, and an elderly widow, Mrs Gummidge. "Little Em'ly" is somewhat spoiled by her fond foster father, and David is in love with her.

On his return, David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Between them they tyrannize his poor mother, making her and David's lives miserable, and when, in consequence, David falls behind in his studies, Murdstone attempts to thrash him – partly to further pain his mother. David bites him and soon afterwards is sent away to Salem House, a boarding school, under a ruthless headmaster named Mr Creakle. There he befriends an older boy, James Steerforth, and Tommy Traddles. He develops an impassioned admiration for Steerforth, perceiving him as someone noble, who could do great things if he would.

David goes home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries the local carrier, Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner. David's landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is arrested for debt and sent to the King's Bench Prison, where he remains for several months, before being released and moving to Plymouth. No one remains to care for David in London, so he decides to run away.

He walks from London to Dover, to his only relative, his eccentric and kind-hearted great-aunt Betsey Trotwood. She had come to Blunderstone at his birth, only to depart in ire upon learning that he was not a girl. However, she takes pity on him and agrees to raise him, despite Murdstone's attempt to regain custody of David, on condition that he always try to 'be as like his sister, Betsey Trotwood' as he can be, meaning that he is to endeavour to emulate the prospective namesake she was disappointed not to have. David's great-aunt renames him "Trotwood Copperfield" and addresses him as "Trot", one of several names David is called by in the novel.

David's aunt sends him to a better school than the last he attended. It is run by Dr Strong, whose methods inculcate honour and self-reliance in his pupils. During term, David lodges with the lawyer Mr Wickfield, and his daughter Agnes, who becomes David's friend and confidante. Wickfield has a secretary, the 15-year-old Uriah Heep.

By devious means, Uriah Heep gradually gains a complete ascendancy over the aging and alcoholic Wickfield, to Agnes's great sorrow. Heep hopes, and maliciously confides to David, that he aspires to marry Agnes. Ultimately with the aid of Micawber, who has been employed by Heep as a secretary, his fraudulent behaviour is revealed. At the end of the book, David encounters him in prison, convicted of attempting to defraud the Bank of England.

After completing school, David apprentices to be a proctor. During this time, due to Heep's fraudulent activities, his aunt's fortune has diminished. David toils to make a living. He works mornings and evenings for his former teacher Doctor Strong as a secretary, and also starts to learn shorthand, with the help of his old school-friend Traddles, upon completion reporting parliamentary debate for a newspaper. With considerable moral support from Agnes and his own great diligence and hard work, David ultimately finds fame and fortune as an author, writing fiction.

David's romantic but self-serving school friend, Steerforth, seduces and dishonours Emily, offering to marry her off to one of his servants before finally deserting her in Europe. Her uncle Mr Peggotty manages to find her with the help of Martha, who had grown up in their part of England, and then settled in London. Ham, who had been engaged to marry Emily before the tragedy, dies in a fierce storm off the coast in attempting to succour a ship. Steerforth was aboard the ship and also died. Mr Peggotty takes Emily to a new life in Australia, accompanied by Mrs Gummidge and the Micawbers, where all eventually find security and happiness.

David falls completely in love with Dora Spenlow, and then marries her. Their marriage proves unhappy for David in the sense of everyday practical affairs, but he never stops loving her. Dora dies early in their marriage after a miscarriage. After Dora's death, Agnes encourages David to return to normal life and his profession of writing. While living in Switzerland to dispel his grief, David realises that he loves Agnes. Upon returning to England, after a failed attempt to conceal his feelings, David finds that Agnes loves him too. They quickly marry and in this marriage, he finds true happiness. David and Agnes then have at least five children, including a daughter named after his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood.


Illustration of David falling in love for Dora Spenlow, by Frank Reynolds (1876-1953)
  • David Copperfield – The narrator and protagonist of this veiled autobiography, based in part on the author himself. David's father, David, Sr., dies six months before he was born, and he further loses his mother when he is still a child. He is characterised in the book as having perseverance, but also emotional instability, which is an important point of the latter part of the book. After being adopted by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, he is called "Trotwood Copperfield" in deference to her wishes. Throughout the novel he goes by multiple names: the Peggotty family address him as "Davy", James Steerforth nicknames him "Daisy", Dora calls him "Doady", the Micawbers mostly address him by his last name, and his aunt and her circle refer to him as "Trot".
  • Clara Copperfield – David's kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House. She dies just after the birth of her second child (a son, Edward Murdstone junior, born to her second husband), who dies around the same time.
  • Clara Peggotty – The faithful servant of the Copperfield family and a lifelong companion to David (she is called by her surname Peggotty within David's family, as her given name is Clara, the same as David's mother; she is also referred to at times as Barkis after her marriage to Mr Barkis). When Mr Barkis dies, she inherits a substantial portion of his estate, valued at £3,000 – a large sum in the mid-19th century (he also leaves modest annuities for David, Mr Daniel Peggotty, and Little Emily). After her husband's death, Peggotty helps to put in order David's rooms in London and then returns to Yarmouth to keep house for her nephew, Ham Peggotty. Following Ham's death, she keeps house for David's aunt, Betsey Trotwood.
  • Betsey Trotwood – David's eccentric and temperamental yet kind-hearted great-aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from Grinby and Murdstone's warehouse in Blackfriars (London). She is present on the night of David's birth but leaves after hearing that Clara Copperfield's child is a boy instead of a girl, and is not seen until David is older and flees to her house in Dover from London. She is portrayed as affectionate towards David, and defends him and his late mother when Mr Murdstone arrives to take custody of David: she confronts the man and rebukes him for his abuse of David and his mother, then threatens him and drives him off the premises. Universally believed to be a widow, she conceals the existence of her ne'er-do-well husband who constantly bleeds her for money.
  • Mr Chillip – A shy, elderly doctor who assists at David's birth and faces the wrath and anger of Betsey Trotwood after he informs her that Clara's baby is a boy instead of a girl.
  • Mr Barkis – An aloof carter who declares his intention to marry Peggotty. He says to David: "Tell her, 'Barkis is willin'!' Just so." He is a bit of a miser, and hides his surprisingly vast liquid wealth in a plain box labelled "Old Clothes". He bequeaths to his wife and her family (including David) the then astronomical sum of £3,000 when he dies about ten years later.
    David and Steerforth's sudden arrival at the Peggotty's
    Edward Murdstone – The main antagonist of the first half of the novel, he is Young David's cruel stepfather who beats him for falling behind in his studies. David reacts by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sends him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr Creakle. After David's mother dies, Mr Murdstone sends him to work in his factory in London, where he has to clean wine bottles. He appears at Betsey Trotwood's house after David runs away. Mr Murdstone appears to show signs of repentance when confronted by Copperfield's aunt about his treatment of Clara and David, but later in the book, we hear he has married another young woman and applied his old principles of "firmness".
  • Jane Murdstone – Mr Murdstone's equally cruel spinster sister, who moves into the Copperfield house shortly after Mr Murdstone marries Clara Copperfield. She is the "Confidential Friend" of David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, and encourages many of the problems that occur between David Copperfield and Dora's father, Mr Spenlow. Later, she rejoins her brother and his new wife in a relationship very much like the one they had with David's mother.
  • Daniel Peggotty – Peggotty's brother; a humble but generous Yarmouth fisherman who takes his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them has been orphaned, and welcomes David as a child when he holidays to Yarmouth with Peggotty. When Emily is older and runs away with David's friend Steerforth, he travels around the world in search of her. He eventually finds her in London, and after that, they emigrate to Australia.
  • Emily (Little Em'ly) – A niece of Mr Peggotty. She is a childhood friend of David Copperfield, who loved her in his childhood days. On the eve of her wedding to her cousin and fiancé, Ham, she abandons him for Steerforth with whom she disappears abroad for several years. After Steerforth deserts her, she doesn't go back home, because she has disgraced herself and her family. Her uncle, Mr Peggotty, who has been searching for her since she left home, finds her in London (the text implies that she was on the brink of being forced into prostitution). So that she may have a fresh start away from her now degraded reputation, she and her uncle emigrate to Australia.
  • Ham Peggotty – A good-natured nephew of Mr Peggotty and the fiancé of Emily before she leaves him for Steerforth. He later drowns while attempting to rescue Steerforth (it's not clear, however, that he realises that it is Steerforth) from a shipwreck at Yarmouth. News of his death is withheld from his family to enable them to emigrate without hesitation or remorse.
  • Mrs Gummidge – The widow of Daniel Peggotty's partner, who is taken in and supported by Daniel after his partner's death. She is a self-described "lone, lorn creetur" who spends much of her time pining for "the old 'un" (her late husband). After Emily runs away with Steerforth, she suddenly renounces her self-pity and becomes Daniel and Ham's primary caretaker. She too emigrates to Australia with Dan and the rest of the surviving family. In Australia, when she receives a marriage proposal, she responds by attacking the unlucky suitor with a bucket.
  • Martha Endell – A young woman, once Little Emily's friend, who later gains a bad reputation; it is implied that she engages in some sexually inappropriate behaviour and is thus disgraced. In the later chapters of the novel, she redeems herself by helping Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She has been a prostitute and contemplated suicide, but goes with Emily to start a new life in Australia. There, she marries and lives happily.
  • Mr Creakle – The harsh dictatorial headmaster of young David's boarding school who is assisted by the one-legged Tungay. Mr Creakle is a friend of Mr Murdstone. He singles out David for extra torment on Murdstone's request, but later treats him normally when David apologises to Murdstone. With a surprising amount of delicacy, he breaks the news to David that his mother has died. Later, he becomes a Middlesex magistrate and is considered 'enlightened' for his day. He runs his prison by the system and is portrayed with great sarcasm. Creakle's two model inmates, Heep and Littimer, show no change from their former scheming selves but have completely fooled Creakle into believing their repentance.
  • James Steerforth – A close friend of David who has known him since his first days at Salem House, he is a charismatic and outspoken hero of the younger boys, but he is also a snob who unhesitatingly takes advantage of his younger friends and uses his mother's power to get what he wants, going so far as to get Mr Mell dismissed from the school after he argues with him. Although he grows up into a well-liked and handsome young man, he proves to be lacking in character when he seduces and later abandons Little Em'ly. He eventually drowns at Yarmouth with Ham Peggotty, who had been trying to rescue him.
  • Tommy Traddles – David's friend from Salem House. Traddles is one of the few boys who does not trust Steerforth and is notable for drawing skeletons on his slate to cheer himself up with the macabre thought that his predicaments are only temporary. They meet again later and eventually become lifelong friends. Traddles works hard but faces great obstacles because of his lack of money and connections. He eventually succeeds in making a name and a career for himself, becoming a Judge and marrying his true love, Sophy.
  • Wilkins Micawber – A melodramatic, kind-hearted and foolish gentleman who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtors' prison before moving to Plymouth. As an adult, Copperfield meets him again in London and gets him a job with Wickfield and Heep. Thinking Micawber is criminally-minded, Heep forces him to be his accomplice in several of his schemes, but Micawber eventually turns the tables on his employer and is instrumental in his downfall. Micawber eventually emigrates to Australia, where he enjoys a successful career as a sheep farmer and becomes a magistrate. He is based on Dickens's father, John Dickens, who faced similar financial problems when Dickens was a child.
Illustration of Agnes Wickfield, David's second wife, by Frank Reynolds
  • Emma Micawber – Wilkins Micawber's wife and the mother of their children. She comes from a moneyed family who disapprove of her husband, but she constantly protests that she will "never leave Micawber!"
  • Mr Dick (Richard Babley) – A slightly deranged, rather childish but amiable man who lives with Betsey Trotwood; they are distant relatives. His madness is amply described; he claims to have the "trouble" of King Charles I in his head. He is fond of making gigantic kites and is constantly writing a "Memorial" but is unable to finish it. Despite his madness, Dick is able to see issues with a certain clarity. He proves to be not only a kind and loyal friend but also demonstrates a keen emotional intelligence, particularly when he helps Dr and Mrs Strong through a marriage crisis.
  • Mr Wickfield – The widowed father of Agnes Wickfield and lawyer to Betsey Trotwood. He feels guilty that, through his love, he has hurt his daughter by keeping her too close to himself. This sense of guilt occasionally leads him to drink. His apprentice Uriah Heep learns of this from David and uses the information to lead Mr Wickfield down a slippery slope, encouraging the alcoholism and feelings of guilt, and eventually convincing him that he has committed improprieties while inebriated, and blackmailing him. He is saved by Mr Micawber, and his friends consider him to have become a better man through the experience.
  • Agnes Wickfield – Mr Wickfield's mature and lovely daughter and close friend of David since childhood. Agnes nurtures an unrequited love for David for many years but never tells him, helping and advising him through his infatuation with, and marriage to, Dora. After David returns to England, he realises his feelings for her, and she becomes David's second wife and mother of their children.
  • Uriah Heep – The main antagonist of the novel's second half, Heep is a disturbing young man who serves first as secretary, and then as partner to Mr Wickfield. The archetypal hypocrite, he appears to be extremely self-deprecating and talks constantly of being "umble", but gradually reveals his wicked and twisted character. He gains great power over Wickfield and several others but is finally exposed by Wilkins Micawber, who has gathered evidence that Uriah committed multiple acts of fraud. By forging Mr Wickfield's signature, he has misappropriated the personal wealth of the Wickfield family, together with portfolios entrusted to them by others, including £5000 belonging to Betsey Trotwood. He has fooled Wickfield into thinking he has himself committed this act while drunk, and then blackmailed him. Heep is eventually forced to return the forged documents and stolen capital; he is thus defeated but not prosecuted. He is later imprisoned for an (unrelated) attempted fraud on the Bank of England. He nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and of many others.
  • Mrs Heep – Uriah's mother, who is as sycophantic as her son. She has installed in him his lifelong tactic of pretending to be subservient to achieve his goals, and even as his schemes fall apart she begs him to save himself by "being 'humble."
  • Dr Strong – The headmaster of David's Canterbury school, whom he visits on various occasions. He is many years older than his wife, and Heep exploits this insecurity to gain power over him.
  • Anne (Annie) Strong – The young wife of Dr Strong. She is widely suspected of having an affair with Jack Maldon – only her husband suspects nothing of either of them and, when finally convinced by his friends of the threat represented by Maldon, still refuses to believe that his wife has succumbed to seduction. It emerges that Dr Strong's trust in his wife is justified: she has remained entirely faithful.
  • Jack Maldon – A cousin and childhood sweetheart of Anne Strong. He continues to bear affection for her and tries to seduce her into leaving Dr Strong. He is charming but fairly dissolute.
  • Mrs Markleham- Annie's mother, nicknamed "The Old Soldier" by her husband's students for her stubbornness. She tries to take pecuniary advantage of her son-in-law Dr Strong in every way possible, to Annie's sorrow.
  • Mrs Steerforth – The wealthy widowed mother of James Steerforth. She dotes on her son to the point of being completely blind to his faults. When Steerforth disgraces his family and the Peggottys by running off with Em'ly, Mrs Steerforth blames Em'ly for corrupting her son, rather than accept that James has disgraced an innocent girl. The news of her son's death destroys her and she never recovers from the shock.
  • Rosa Dartle – Steerforth's cousin, a bitter, sarcastic spinster who lives with Mrs Steerforth. She is secretly in love with Steerforth and blames others such as Emily and Steerforth's mother for corrupting him. She is described as being extremely skinny and displays a visible scar on her lip caused by Steerforth in one of his violent rages as a child.
  • Francis Spenlow – A lawyer, employer of David as a proctor and the father of Dora Spenlow. He dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home. After his death, it is revealed that he is heavily in debt.
  • Dora Spenlow – The adorable but foolish daughter of Mr Spenlow who becomes David's first wife. She is described as being completely impractical and has many similarities to David's mother. David's first year of marriage to her is unhappy due to her ineptitude in managing their household, but after he learns to accept this failing, they grow to be quite happy. Dora is simple, easily provoked to tears and laughter, and childishly fond of her annoying lapdog, Jip. She is not unaware of her failings, and asks David, whom she calls "Doady", to think of her as a "child wife". She suffers a miscarriage, and the experience sends her into a long illness from which she peacefully dies with Agnes Wickfield at her side.
  • Littimer – Steerforth's obsequious valet, who is instrumental in aiding his seduction of Emily. Littimer is always polite and correct but his condescending manner intimidates and infuriates David, who always feels as if Littimer is reminding him how young he is. He later winds up in prison for embezzlement, and his manners allow him to con his way to the stature of Model Prisoner in Creakle's establishment.
  • Miss Mowcher – a dwarf and Steerforth's hairdresser. Though she participates in Steerforth's circle as a witty and glib gossip, she deeply feels the shame associated with her dwarfism but it leaves her few other career options. She is later instrumental in Littimer's arrest.
  • Mr Mell – A poor teacher at Salem House. He takes David to Salem House and is the only adult there who is kind to him. His mother lives in a workhouse, and Mell supports her with his wages. When Steerforth discovers this information from David, he uses it to get Creakle to fire Mell. Near the end of the novel, Copperfield discovers in an Australian newspaper that Mell has emigrated and is now Doctor Mell of Colonial Salem-House Grammar School, Port Middlebay.
  • Sophy Crewler – One of the daughters of a large family, Sophy runs the household and takes care of her younger sisters. She and Traddles are engaged to be married, but her family has made Sophy so indispensable that they are resentful when Traddles offers to take her away. The pair do eventually marry and settle down happily, and Sophy proves to be an invaluable aid in Traddles's legal career.
  • Mr Sharp – The chief teacher of Salem House, he has more authority than Mr Mell. He looks weak, both in health and character; his head seems to be very heavy for him; he walks on one side, and has a big nose.
  • Mr Jorkins – The rarely seen partner of Mr Spenlow. Spenlow uses him as a scapegoat for any unpopular decision he chooses to make, painting Jorkins as an inflexible tyrant, but Jorkins is, in fact, a meek and timid nonentity who, when confronted, takes the same tack by blaming his inability to act on Mr Spenlow.

Literary significance and receptionEdit

Many view this novel as Dickens's masterpiece, beginning with his friend and first biographer John Forster, who writes: "Dickens never stood so high in reputation as at the completion of Copperfield", [5][6] and the author himself calls it "his favourite child".[7][N 2] It is true, he says. that "underneath the fiction lay something of the author's life",[8] that is, an experience of self-writing. It is therefore not surprising that the book is often placed in the category of autobiographical works. From a strictly literary point of view, however, it goes beyond this framework in the richness of its themes and the originality of its writing.

Situated in the middle of Dickens's career, it represents, according to Paul Davis,[N 3] a turning point in his work, the point of separation between the novels of youth and those of maturity. In 1850, Dickens was 38 years old and had twenty more to live, which he filled with other masterpieces, often denser, sometimes darker, that addressed most of the political, social and personal issues he faced.

"The privileged child" of DickensEdit

Dickens welcomed the publication of his work with intense emotion, and he continued to experience this until the end of his life. When he went through a period of personal difficulty and frustration in the 1850s, he returned to David Copperfield as to a dear friend who resembled him: "Why," he wrote to Forster, "Why is it, as with poor David, a sense comes always crashing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?”[9][N 4] When Dickens begins writing Great Expectations, which was also written in the first person, he reread Copperfield and confided his feelings to Forster: "was affected by it to a degree you would hardly believe"[10] Criticism has not always been even-handed, though over time the high importance of this novel has been recognised.

Initial receptionEdit

The French critic Fabrice Bensimon claims that David Copperfield seems to interest primarily the petty bourgeoisie,[11] a statement that is not in keeping with the praise of English nation as a whole for its author. Issues I to V of the serial version reached 25,000 copies in two years, modest sales compared to 32,000 Dombey and Son and 35,000 Bleak House, but Dickens was nevertheless happy: "Everyone is cheering David on", he writes to Mrs Watson,[12] and, according to Forster, his reputation was at the top (see introductory paragraph of this section).

If the first reviews were mixed, the great contemporaries of Dickens showed their approval: Thackeray found the novel "freshly and simply simple";[13] John Ruskin, in his Modern Painters, was of the opinion that the scene of the storm surpasses Turner's evocations of the sea; more soberly, Matthew Arnold declared it "rich in merits"[14]; and, in his autobiographical book A Small Boy and Others, Henry James evokes the memory of "treasure so hoarded in the dusty chamber of youth".[15]

The pinnacle of Dickens's artEdit

Falstaff (Adolf Schrödter, 1867), to whom J B Priestley compares Mr Micawber.

After Dickens' death, David Copperfield rose to the forefront of the writer's works, both through sales, for example, in Household Words in 1872 where sales reached 83,000,[16] and the praise of critics. In 1871, Scottish novelist and poet Margaret Oliphant described it as "the culmination of Dickens's early comic fiction",[17] and, almost a century later, Sylvère Monod, after having finely analyzed the structure and style of the novel, describe it as "the triumph of the art of Dickens".[18]

K. J. Fielding (1965) and Geoffrey Thurley (1976) identify what they call its "centrality", and Q. D. Leavis looked at the images he draws of marriage, of women, and of moral simplicity.vague[19] The central themes are explored by Richard Dunne in 1981, including the autobiographical dimension, the narrator-hero characterization process, memory and forgetting, and finally the privileged status of the novel in the interconnection between similar works of Dickens.[19] Q. D. Leavis in 1970, compares it to Tolstoy's War and Peace and looks at adult-child relationships in both novels. According to writer Paul B. Davies, Leavis excels at dissecting David's relationship with Dora.[20] Gwendolyn Needham in an essay, published in 1954, analyzes the novel as a bildungsroman, as did Jerome H. Buckley twenty years later.[20] In 1987 Alexander Welsh devoted several chapters to show that Copperfield is the culmination of Dickens' autobiographical attempts to explore himself as a novelist in the middle of his career. Finally, J B Priestley was particularly interested in Mr Micawber and concludes that "With the one exception of Falstaff, he is the greatest comic figure in English literature".[21]

David Copperfield has pleased many writers. Charlotte Brontë, for example, commented in 1849 in a letter to the reader of her publisher: I have read David Copperfield; it seems to me very good—admirable in some parts. You said it had affinity to Jane Eyre: it has—now and then—only what an advantage has Dickens in his varied knowledge of men and things![22] Tolstoy, for his part, considered it "the best work of the best English novelist" and, according to F. R. and Q D Lewis, was inspired by David and Dora's love story to have Prince Andrew marry Princess Lise in War and Peace.[23] Henry James remembered being moved to tears, while listening to the novel, hidden under a table, read aloud in the family circle.[24] Dostoevsky enthusiastically cultivated the novel in a prison camp in Siberia.[25] Franz Kafka wrote in his diary in 1917, that the first chapter of his novel Amerika was inspired by David Copperfield.[26][27] · [N 5] James Joyce parodied it in Ulysses.[28] Virginia Woolf, who was not very fond of Dickens, quotes David Copperfield, along with Robinson Crusoe, Grimm's fairy tales, Scott's Waverley and Pickwick's Posthumous Papers, among the "stories" that recount the age where reality and fiction mix and which, thus, "belong to the memory and the myth of a life". She also noted in a letter to Hugh Walpole in 1936, that she is re-reading it for the sixth time: "I'd forgotten how magnificent it is."[29] It also seems that the novel was Sigmund Freud's favourite;[30] and Somerset Maugham sees it as a "great" work, although his hero seems to him rather weak, unworthy even of its author, while Mr Micawber never disappoints: "The most remarkable of them is, of course, Mr Micawber. He never fails you."[31]

Earliest adaptationsEdit

While it was being published, David Copperfield was the object, according to Philip Bolton's survey, of six initial dramatizations, followed by a further twenty when the public's interest was at its peak.[32] The most spectacular dramatization, however, were those of Dickens himself. Although he waited more than ten years to prepare a version for his public readings, it soon became one of his favourite performances, especially the storm scene, which he kept for the finale, "the most sublime moment in all the readings".[33]

Fragments of autobiographyEdit

Between 1845 and 1848, Dickens wrote fragments of autobiography excerpts of which he showed to his wife and John Forster. Then in 1855 he made an attempt at revising it. This was a failure because, as he tells his first love Maria Beadnell (now Mrs Winter), when he began dealing with his youthful love for her, "I lost courage and burned the rest".[34] [35] Paul Schlicke points out that in fact not all the pages have gone through the flames and that, as Dickens began writing David Copperfield some pages were unearthed. Proof of this is found in the eleventh chapter of the novel: "I begin Life on my own Account and don't like it", where the story of Dickens' experience at the Warren Shoe Factory are almost verbatim. with the only change, "Mr Micawber" instead of "my father".[2] John Forster also published substantial extracts relating to this period in Dickens biography, including a paragraph devoted to Wellington House College, which corresponds with second stage of childhood recounted in the novel.[36] Thus Dickens looks back on his painful past, already evoked by the martyrdom of Little Paul in Dombey and Son , though voiced by an omniscient narrator in that earlier novel.[37]

Depiction of Victorian child exploitationEdit

The employment of young children in factories and mines under harsh conditions in the early Victorian era disturbed many. There was a series of Parliamentary enquiries into the working conditions of children. "Their reports shocked writers Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dickens."[4] Dickens describes children working in factories or other workplaces in several novels, notably in Oliver Twist, and in David Copperfield. Young David works in a factory for a while after his mother dies and his stepfather has no interest in him. Such depictions contributed to the call for legislative reform.[4]


Important symbols include, imprisonment, the sea, flowers, animals, dreams, and Mr Dick's kite.[38] According to Henri Suhamy, "Dickens's symbolism consists in giving significance to physical details ... The constant repetition of these details ... contributes to deepen their emblematic significance".[39] This may include the characters, aspects of the story, and, more prominently amongst the motifs, places or objects.

Yarmouth, Norfolk engraving by William Miller after J. M. W. Turner.

Separating realism and symbolism can be tricky, especially, for example, when it relates, to the subject of imprisonment, which is both a very real place of confinement for the Micawber family, and, more generally throughout David Copperfield, symbolic of the damage inflicted on a sick society, trapped in its an inability to adapt or compromise, with many individuals walled within in themselves.[40] The imponderable power of the sea is almost always associated with death: it took Emily's father; will take Ham and Steerforth. In the end nothing remains but Steerforth's body cast-up as "flotsam and jetsam, that symbolises the moral emptiness of David's adoration. The violent storm in Yarmouth coincides with the moment when the conflicts reached a critical threshold, when it is as if angry Nature called for a final resolution.[41][42]

According to Daniel L. Plung, four types of animal are a particularly important aspect of the way symbolism is used: song birds symbolize innocence. "lions and raptors [are] associated with the fallen but not evil"; dogs, other than Jip, are associated "with the malicious and self-interested"; while snakes and eel represent evil.[43] A typical example of the way that animal symbolism is used is found in the following sentence: " 'the influence of the Murdstones upon me [David] was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird" '. [44] When David describes Steerforth as "brave as a lion" this is a clue to Steerforth's moral weakness and foreshadows subsequent events.[45]

Flowers symbolize innocence, for example David is called "Daisy" by Steerforth, because he is naive and pure, while Dora constantly paints bouquets, and when Heep was removed from Wickfield House, flowers return to the living room. Mr Dick's kite, represents how much he is both outside and above society, immune to its hierarchical social system. Furthermore it flies among the innocent birds,[46] and just as this toy soothes and gives joy to him, Mr Dick heals the wounds and restore peace where the others without exception have failed.[41]

Dreams are also an important part of the novel's underlying symbolic structure, and are "used as a transitional device to bind [its] parts together" with twelve chapters ending "with a dream or reverie".[47] In the early dark period of David's life his dreams "are invariably ugly", but in later chapters they are more mixed, with some reflecting "fanciful hopes" that are never realised, while others are nightmares which foreshadow "actual problems".[47]

In addition physical beauty, in the form of Clara, is emblematic of moral good, while the ugliness of Uriah Heep, Mr Creakle and Mr Murdstone underlines their villainy.[41] While David, the story's hero, has benefited from her love and suffered from the violence of the others.


Like most of Charles Dickens's novels, David Copperfield was published in 19 monthly one-shilling instalments, containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), with the last being a double-number:

  • I – May 1849 (chapters 1–3);
  • II – June 1849 (chapters 4–6);
  • III – July 1849 (chapters 7–9);
  • IV – August 1849 (chapters 10–12);
  • V – September 1849 (chapters 13–15);
  • VI – October 1849 (chapters 16–18);
  • VII – November 1849 (chapters 19–21);
  • VIII – December 1849 (chapters 22–24);
  • IX – January 1850 (chapters 25–27);
  • X – February 1850 (chapters 28–31);
  • XI – March 1850 (chapters 32–34);
  • XII – April 1850 (chapters 35–37);
  • XIII – May 1850 (chapters 38–40);
  • XIV – June 1850 (chapters 41–43);
  • XV – July 1850 (chapters 44–46);
  • XVI – August 1850 (chapters 47–50);
  • XVII – September 1850 (chapters 51–53);
  • XVIII – October 1850 (chapters 54–57);
  • XIX-XX – November 1850 (chapters 58–64).

Major editions of David CopperfieldEdit

Title page of the first edition by Bradbury & Evans, signed by Dickens
  • 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans, publication date 14 November 1850, bound (first edition), 624 pages,[1] 38 plates.
  • 1858, UK, Chapman & Hall and Bradbury & Evans, publication date 1858, hardback, 'Library Edition', 515 pages.
  • 1867, UK, Wordsworth Classics, Preface by the author (the "Charles Dickens edition", with his statement "But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.")
  • 1962 (reprinted 2006 with an afterward by Gish Jen) US, Signet Classics ISBN 0-451-53004-7. Includes passages deleted for the original monthly serial, and unrestored in subsequent editions.
  • 1981 (reprinted 2003) UK, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-812492-9, hardback, edited by Nina Burgis, The Clarendon Dickens, 781 pages.
  • 1990, USA, W W Norton & Co Ltd ISBN 0-393-95828-0, publication date 31 January 1990, hardback (Jerome H Buckley (Editor), Norton Critical Edition – contains annotations, introduction, critical essays, bibliography and other material).



Film and TVEdit

David Copperfield has been filmed on several occasions:


  1. ^ Dickens invented over 14 variations of the title for this work, see "Titles, Titling, and Entitlement to", by Hazard Adams in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 7–21.
  2. ^ Conclusion of the preface of 1867: "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."
  3. ^ Paul Davis, editor of Charles Dickens A to Z, published in 1999 by Checkmark Books, is emeritus professor at the University of New Mexico, specialist in English novels, of the Victorian era and of Charles Dickens to whom he devoted several works.
  4. ^ It is likely here that Dickens refers to the failure of his marriage with his wife.
  5. ^ Kafka's novel is a kind of inverted bildungsroman, since the young man whose destiny we follow is more of a disaster than an accomplishment.


  1. ^ a b McCrum, Robert (30 December 2013). "The 100 best novels: No 15 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  2. ^ a b Schlicke 1999, p. 158
  3. ^ Dickens, Charles (1917). "Preface". The personal history and experience of David Copperfield the younger. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. P F Collier & Son – via Bartleby.
  4. ^ a b c Griffin, Emma. "Child labour". The British Library. Retrieved 26 May 2018.   Material was copied from this source, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  5. ^ Forster 1976, p. 6
  6. ^ "John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens". Classic Literature. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  7. ^ Dickens, Charles. "Preface". David Copperfield (1867 ed.). London: Wordsworth Classics. p. 4.
  8. ^ Dickens 1999, p. 3
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, Letters, letter to John Forster, 3 and 4 (?) February 1855.
  10. ^ Charles Dickens, Letters, Letter to John Forster, early October 1860.
  11. ^ Bensimon, Fabrice (2001). "La culture populaire au Royaume-Uni, 1800-1914" [Popular Culture in the United Kingdom, 1800-1914]. Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine (in French). 5 (48): 75–91.
  12. ^ Charles Dickens, Letters, Letter to Mrs Watson, 3 July 1850.
  13. ^ William Makepeace Thackeray, London, Punch, number 16, 1849.
  14. ^ Schlicke 1999, p. 153
  15. ^ Henry James, A Small Boy and Others, 1913, cited by Barbara Arnett and Giorgio Melchiori, The Taste of Henry James, 2001, p. 3.
  16. ^ Collins 1996, p. 619
  17. ^ Margaret Oliphant, Blackwood's Magazine, number 109, 1871.
  18. ^ Monod, Sylvère (1968). Dickens the Novelist. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806107684.
  19. ^ a b Schlicke 1999, p. 154
  20. ^ a b Cite error: The named reference Davies_92 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  21. ^ Priestley, J B (1966). "XIII". English Comic Characters. New York: E P Dutton. p. 242..
  22. ^ Charlotte Brontë, Letter to W S Williams, 13 September 1849, cited by Wheat, Patricia H (1952). The Adytum of the Heart: The Literary Criticism of Charlotte Brontë. Cranbury, New Jersey, London and Mississauga, Ontario: Associated University Presses. pp. 33, 121. ISBN 0-8386-3443-5.
  23. ^ Cain, Tom (September 1973). "Tolstoy's Use of David Copperfield". Critical Quarterly. 15 (3): 237–246.
  24. ^ Lodge, David (May 2002). "Dickens Our Contemporary, review of 'Charles Dickens' by Jane Smiley". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  25. ^ Gredina, Irina; Allingham, Philip V. "Dickens's Influence upon Dostoyevsky, 1860-1870; or, One Nineteenth-Century Master's Assimilation of Another's Manner and Vision". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
  26. ^ Spilka, Mark (2012). David Copperfield: Psychological Projection in David Copperfield and Franz Kafka's Work. Novels for Students. Gale Cengage.
  27. ^ Spilka, Mark (Winter 1959). "Kafka and Dickens: The Country Sweetheart". American Imago. 16 (4): 367–378. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  28. ^ "Comparison between David Copperfield and Ulysses". Retrieved 26 July 2012.
  29. ^ Virginia Woolf, Letter to Hugh Walpole, 8 February 1936.
  30. ^ Philbert, Bradley (2012). "Sigmund Freud and David Copperfield". Bradley Philbert. Retrieved 24 July 2012.[dead link]
  31. ^ Maugham, William Somerset (1948). Great novelists and their novels: essays on the ten greatest novels of the world and the men and women who wrote them. J C Winston Co. p. 181.
  32. ^ Bolton, H Philip (1987). Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall. pp. xviii, 501. ISBN 0-8161-8924-2.
  33. ^ Collins 1975, p. 216-217
  34. ^ Storey, Graham; Tillotson, Kathleen; Burgis, Nina, eds. (1988). "Charles Dickens, letter to Mrs Winter, 22 February 1855". The Letters of Charles Dickens (The Pilgrim ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198126171.
  35. ^ Flood, Alison (13 February 2015). "Young Dickens in love: sugary, and waxing lyrical about gloves". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 February 2019.
  36. ^ Forster 1966, p. I, 3
  37. ^ Schlicke 1999, p. 150
  38. ^ Kincaid 1969, pp. 196-206
  39. ^ Suhamy 1971, p. 25
  40. ^ Suhamy 1971, p. 26
  41. ^ a b c "Symbols in David Copperfield". Spark Notes. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  42. ^ Kincaid 1969, p. 197
  43. ^ Plung 2000, p. 216
  44. ^ Plung 2000, p. 217
  45. ^ Plung 2000, p. 218
  46. ^ Plung 2000, p. 219
  47. ^ a b Kincaid 1969, p. 203


  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (1993) [1987]. Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Major Literary Characters. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 978-0877547365.
  • Dickens, Charles (1999). David Copperfield. Reference edition. London: Wordsworth Classics. ISBN 1-85326-024-X. Introduction and notes by Adrienne E Gavin
  • Collins, Philip, ed. (1996). Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage (3rd ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-0415134590.
  • Davis, Paul B (1999). Charles Dickens from A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books. ISBN 0-8160-4087-7.
  • Dunn, Richard J, ed. (1984). Approaches to Teaching Dickens' David Copperfield. New York: The Modern Language Association of America. ISBN 978-0873524834.
  • Forster, John (1976). Life of Charles Dickens. London: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0460007823.
  • Forster, John (1966) [1872-1874]. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: J M Dent & Sons.
  • Schlicke, Paul (1999). Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198662136.
  • Storey, Graham; Tillotson, Kathleen; Burgis, Nina, eds. (1988). The Letters of Charles Dickens (The Pilgrim ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198126171.
  • Storey, Graham (1991). David Copperfield – Interweaving Truth and Fiction. Twayne's Masterwork Studies. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 978-0805781427.
  • Suhamy, Henri (1971). Great Expectations. Cours d'Agrégation. Vanves, France: CNED.
  • Westburg, Barry (1977). The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press. pp. 33–114. ISBN 978-0875800653.
  • Bottum, Joseph (1995). "The Gentleman's True Name: David Copperfield and the Philosophy of Naming". Nineteenth-Century Literature. 49 (4): 435–455. doi:10.2307/2933728. ISSN 0891-9356.
  • Cordery, Gareth (2008). "Foucault, Dickens, and David Copperfield". Victorian Literature and Culture. 26 (01): 71–85. doi:10.1017/S106015030000228X. ISSN 1060-1503.
  • Hager, Kelly (1996). "Estranging David Copperfield: Reading the Novel of Divorce". ELH. 63 (4): 989–1019. doi:10.1353/elh.1996.0032. ISSN 1080-6547.
  • Kincaid, James R. (Summer 1969). "Symbol and subversion in David Copperfield". Studies in the novel. 1 (2).
  • Plung, Daniel L. (December 1, 2000). "Environed by wild beasts: Animal imagery in Dickens's David Copperfield". Dickens Quarterly. 17 (4).
  • Saville, Julia F (2002). "Eccentricity as Englishness in David Copperfield". SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. 42 (4): 781–797. doi:10.1353/sel.2002.0041. ISSN 1522-9270.

External linksEdit

Online editions