David Copperfield

By Charles Dickens, the novel I read in April. As you probably know, it is a fictional autobiography written in the first person as if by the protagonist, David Copperfield. He recounts the story of his life looking back on it from settled middle age. It starts with an idyllic early life which suffers a reversal with the remarriage and later the death of his mother. He tells of his experiences at school and later as an exploited child-labourer. Another reversal occurs when he runs away from his dismal job and throws himself on the mercy of an aunt, who takes him in, provides a loving home, and enables a return to school and further education. We are then told how he lives in London, takes on various jobs, and trains himself to become an author. He falls in love and eventually enters into a somewhat sub optimal marriage. He suffers another reversal with the death of his wife and, after a few years to recover abroad, returns to take up his life again and at last finds true happiness.

The interest of the novel lies in the way David deals with and judges his experiences and how he interacts with the people with whom he comes into contact. The friends, like James Steerforth, whom he starts out by admiring and only later starts seeing his faults. Or the Micawbers, always on the brink of bankruptcy, who nevertheless care for him during his bleak time working in a factory in London. They later play an important part in revealing and foiling the maliciously humble Uriah Heep – one of Dickens creepiest characters. Thomas Traddles, a true friend. His mother’s maid Peggotty, to whose family he unintentionally brings tragedy. The woman he falls in love with and marries only to discover that she may not have been the wisest choice for a wife as she cannot be an equal partner to him. Despite this disappointment, David resolves to hide his disillusionment:

I had endeavoured to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be happy; to bear on my own shoulders what I must, and be happy still. This was the discipline to which I tried to bring my heart, when I began to think. It made my second year [of marriage] much happier than my first; and, what was better still, made Dora’s life all sunshine.

From Chapter 48 “Domestic” in David Copperfield (1849-1850), by Charles Dickens

There’s the level of the story in the novel, where readers learn all about David’s life through his recollections. There’s the evolving assessment that David provides. There’s the judgement readers make for themselves. For instance, David suspects, but the readers know, that Dora’s life isn’t all sunshine.

With some of David’s judgements, the reader can wholeheartedly agree, such as with the one about his abuse as a child-labourer when he is about 10 years old:

I know enough of the world now, to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything; but it is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such an age.

From Chapter 11 “I begin Life on my own Account, and don’t like it”

The evils of child-labour and poverty are some of the pervading topics in Dickens oeuvre with a clear link to his own biography, as he also had to bear a stint in a factory in young years. In Bleak House, for instance, it is illustrated by the plight of the poor crossing-sweep Jo.

Other examples of criticisms of social ills are the institution of the debtor’s prison, where the Micawbers spend some time (this is a very strong theme in Bleak House and is also inspired by Dickens personal biography – his father was in debtor’s prison for a time). The difficult lot of “fallen” women. Even a critique of the treatment of disabled persons in the character of Miss Mowcher, a dwarf:

“They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier!”
[…]
“Try not to associate bodily defects with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason.”

From Chapter 32 “The Beginning of a long Journey”

In addition to David’s development, there are the side stories. The tragedy of little Emily; the heart-warming story of Thomas Traddles; the story of the Mrs Steerforth and Rosa (they deserve each other), the Heeps, the Micawbers, the Wickfields. These stories are all neatly wrapped up at the end with no remaining open ends.
I enjoyed David Copperfield very much and highly recommend it. You will find many more themes than those I touched on in this short review. In my personal list of Dicken’s novels read this year, it has moved to the top:

  1. David Copperfield
  2. Bleak House
  3. Our Mutual Friend
  4. Hard Times
  5. Pickwick Papers

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