Sunday, December 1, 2013

David Copperfield

So there's the Game Chicken in Dombey and Son, and Mealy Potatoes in this one, but Dickens missed a great opportunity for a similar name by not providing the Peggottys with a chicken coop.

Collecting the eggs, you see, would have fallen to Em'ly and given her an oval nickname that foreshadowed her betrothal. How Mr. Peggotty would have chortled over his beloved Ham and Eggy!

The Sea

Silliness aside, there is already plenty of foreshadowing, and it begins on the very first page when we learn that David was born without a caul, an item prized by sailors as protection against drowning.

In chapter 2 he visits the Peggottys, a family of fisherfolk that includes two orphans, Em'ly and Ham, whose fathers were drowned. Em'ly herself has seen a boat torn to pieces, and trembles during storms because she seems to hear Ham and her uncle crying out for help. Yet her fear of the sea does not prevent her from flirting with danger as she walks along a jagged timber jutting out from a pier.

These events foreshadow not only the arrival of Steerforth, who uses a boat to seduce Em'ly, but also the tempest at the end of the novel, a good 50 chapters away, in which a ship is torn to pieces, and Steerforth and Ham drown.


The marriage of Murdstone and David’s mother foreshadows David's first marriage. The similarity of the names, Clara and Dora, signal the similarity of their childish natures. "A very Baby" is how Aunt Betsey describes Clara when they first meet, and in chapter 4 Clara sounds exactly like Dora when she exclaims, "Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature!" Dora, a self-acknowledged "silly little thing," asks David to refer to her as his "child-wife."

David tries to "form Dora’s mind" and teach her some useful homemaking skills, but in so doing nearly emulates Murdstone's attempt to instill "firmness" in David's mother. "I didn’t marry to be reasoned with," Dora tells David, and faints when he encourages her to read a cookbook and learn how to keep household accounts. The best she can do is hold David’s pens while he writes. She is more pet than wife.


At home David takes refuge from the Murdstones in his father's books, and at school recounts them to Steerforth in "a simple earnest narrative style of narrating." Later, while working at Murdstone's warehouse in London, he amuses himself by inventing histories for people he sees in the street. By the end of the book he has become a famous author.

David Copperfield

David is an impulsive and credulous naif. For most of the novel he is routinely cheated and gulled and taken advantage of by just about everyone he meets. As a young boy he's an easy mark for a waiter at a Yarmouth hotel, a young man with a donkey cart, a disreputable dealer in second-hand clothes, and a brutal tinker.

At school he happily hands over money and food to Steerforth, and when boarding with the Wickfields he is gutted for information by Heep and his mother. He is cowed by his landlady Mrs. Crupp and inconvenienced by a long line of servants who are incompetent, thieving, or both.

His "pliant nature" is signified by the number of names that are applied to him. Four that he happily accepts are Davy, Daisy, Doady, and Trotwood (sometimes shortened to Trot). Occasionally he is referred to as Master Murdstone, Mr. Copperfull, Young Innocence, and Brooks of Sheffield.

The Murdstones

In the early chapters Dickens uses simple declarative sentences to reflect David's viewpoint as a powerless young child. It's a touch that magnifies the menace of the Murdstones, and makes them among Dickens's most convincing villains. Thanks in no small part to them the novel gets off to a rivetting start, and one of most satisfying lines in the book belongs to Aunt Betsey when she threatens to knock off Jane Murdstone's bonnet.


Steerforth is one of Dickens's finest creations. David idolizes him for his charm and accomplishments while remaining blind to his less likable characteristics. Such loyalty is both foolish and admirable. Others try to warn David, and the acidic comment of Rosa Dartle is particularly apt: "He thinks you young and innocent, and so you are his friend? Well, that’s quite delightful."

Steerforth's occasional moments of honesty are what make him credible in a way that many other characters are not. His last words to David are a superb touch. When he and the Murdstones sink out of sight, the novel becomes much less interesting, and begins to sag under an increasing load of sentimentality and pointless subplots.

Uriah Heep

The red-headed Heep is one of Dickens's most picturesque villains, yet much less believable than Steerforth. Fawning and slimy, he writhes like an eel and has clammy hands and "damp fishy fingers." His favourite word is "umble."


A comic figure always in debt and just a step ahead of his creditors, yet "never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him." He loves writing letters and excels at making punch. He doesn't speak, he perorates. His favourite word is "pecuniary."

Despite their difficulties, his wife is devoted to him. Her signature line is: "I will never desert you, Micawber."

Agnes Wickfield

David's failure to recognize her as an ideal mate mirrors his blindness to Steerforth's true nature. Unfortunately Agnes is just another in a long line of bland and selfless heroines, and one of the most derided.


Dickens called David Copperfield his "favourite child." Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to it as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy."

Like David, Dickens mastered shorthand well enough to become a skilled parliamentary reporter, and became famous when he branched out into fiction. The character of Micawber is based on his own improvident father, who, like Micawber, spent time in debtor's prison.

More important is David's stint at Murdstone's warehouse. His shame, his heartfelt anguish and "secret agony of the soul," have the deep ring of truth, drawn from Dickens's own childhood experience in a blacking factory:

The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, and so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know.

The book began serial publication in 1849, after Dickens had experienced 13 years of a slowly disintegrating marriage, which was likely the inspiration for Annie's comment: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose."

Ironically there was something of Murdstone in Dickens, for he was a "perfectionist who dominated the life of the household that left little room for [his wife]." (Kaplan)

Favourite Scenes

Two of the scenes I enjoyed most were humorous ones. The waiter in chapter 5 not only drinks David's ale and eats most of his dinner, but cons him out of a shilling and sends him on his way with a joke: "Take care of that child or he'll burst."

Equally funny is David's account, in chapter 44, of how he and Dora are cheated by every servant and tradesman they come in contact with. One line sounds straight out of Monty Python:

As to the washerwoman pawning the clothes, and coming in a state of penitent intoxication to apologize, I suppose that might have happened several times to anybody.


In chapter 1, Aunt Betsey scoffs at the name that David's father gave to the Copperfield home -- the Rookery. "Cookery would have been more to the purpose," she says to Clara, "if you had any practical ideas about life, either of you." This comment introduces a topic that crops up later.

As for food mentioned in the book, we have Mrs. Micawber making a little jug of egg-hot to revive herself after fainting, and Aunt Betsey drinking warm ale with a teaspoon and soaking strips of toast in it. Other delights:

cold boiled bacon
hot kidney pudding
a saveloy and a penny-loaf
a basin of mutton broth dimpled all over with fat
mushroom ketchup
porter and oysters
warm sherry negus
very hot port

Ironically, Catherine Dickens, whatever her deficiencies, was not the helpless idiot that Dora is. She published a cookbook entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck. It went through several editions.


How many Betsey Trotwoods are there?
a) two
b) three
c) four
d) five

What is the original name of the boat Steerforth buys?
a) Blue Noddy
b) Sooty Tern
c) Stormy Petrel
d) Little Shearwater

a) Tungay..............1) a dwarf
b) Mortimer............2) a servant
c) Traddles............3) has a wooden leg
d) Mealy Potatoes......4) has a scarred lip
e) the Orfling.........5) Annie's mother
f) the Old Soldier.....6) Micawber's alias
g) Miss Mowcher........7) Mr. Dick's real name
h) Rosa Dartle.........8) draws skeletons
i) Richard Babley......9) works in a warehouse