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
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
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
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.