David Copperfield

David Copperfield is a semi-autobiographical novel by British writer Charles Dickens, published 1849-50.  A sentimental story of an orphan’s struggles. It  deals with the sufferings of young David after his mother’s death, through the cruel treatment of his stepfather, schoolmasters, and employers.

The hypocritical Uriah Heep is one of the book’s many memorable characters. David’s life is changed by the people he meets throughout his life. They help him to mature, and to learn from his many mistakes. There are times his naivete overwhelms him. But, through his friendships David is able to deal with his foibles and recover. The number of times he is exploited are amazing. When he is sent away to boarding school his first friends are the angel,Tommy Traddles, who befriends him and helps him make more friends, and the devil, James Steerforth, who is charming but, uses David to expand his own popularity.

David meets Mr, Micawber, who is kind and happy, although poor. Mr. Micawber has strong opinions on politics but is such a cheerful drunk, he makes everyone around him happy. Although, Micawber exploits others financially, somehow David knows not to give him money. Another person who helps David when he is in dire need is his eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood. Although she rejected him at birth, she becomes a surrogate mother to him when she becomes aware of the cruelty of his stepfather. Through the kindness and help of these people David matures to become a successful writer.

Along that road, he will go up against many obstacles. There is Uriah Heep, a true villain. He abuses and blackmails throughout his relationship with David, yet, David’s naivete doesn’t come into play with Uriah. David doesn’t trust him from the beginning, and therefore the only person Uriah doesn’t exploit is David. In the end, David marries the woman he was destined for, becomes a successful writer and lives happily ever after.

Summary

Charles Dickens begins the story of David Copperfield at the beginning, with his birth. Since he is born at the stroke of midnight, on a Friday night, the nurse declares he will be unlucky in life and will be able to see ghosts. On the day of his birth, his aunt Miss Betsy Trotwood desires to take the child home with her to raise, but only if it is a girl. His mother was a new widow, and might have agreed, but, on seeing a boy, Miss Trotwood storms out never to return.

David is a pampered baby. He is very happy with his beautiful and kind mother, and his nurse Clara Peggotty. His mother is easily influenced, submitting to Clara, who runs the household. One night, he is reading a book to his nurse, while his mother is out. When she comes home with Mr. Murdstone, David and Peggotty both dislike and distrust him. The nurse even goes so far as to tell her to stop seeing him. Peggotty adds that she can’t believe Mr. Copperfield would have liked him. But, David’s mother tearfully rejects Peggotty’s advise. As the days progress and they see more of Mr. Murdstone, they see less of Peggotty. David doesn’t think she approves of the pretty dresses his mother wears, or her increased social life.

One afternoon, Mr. Murdstone takes David on an outing to visit a business acquaintance, Mr. Quinion. They joke about the obvious dislike David has for Mr. Murdstone and his intention to marry the widow. Murdstone advises Quinion to watch his words around David. On returning home, David is informed he will be going with Peggotty to visit her brother and his family in Yarmouth. Peggotty’s brother, Daniel lives by the sea in a boat he has converted into a house. David is very happy there. He plays with the little girl, Em’ly, Daniel’s niece, who he adopted when her father died. He has also adopted his nephew, Ham. Along with the children, he has taken in Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of his brother. During the day, David and Ham fish, while David and Em’ly walk along the beach gathering sea shells. David falls in love with the little girl, but tells of future sufferings she will have to endure, and almost wishes she had died then to avoid them.

Although, he didn’t even think about his mother while in Yarmouth, his first reaction when hearing Peggotty has bad news for him on returning home, is that his mother is dead. She informs him his mother is alive, but has remarried in his absence. David comes home to a completely changed life, and not for the better. His new father is strict and won’t allow his mother to show him affection. His room has been moved to the other side of the house. Dinners are now formal and quiet. Gone is the laughter and warm times with his mother and Peggotty.

Mr. Murdstone’s cruel sister, Jane arrives to stay with them. She takes over the management of the house and David. Whenever David’s mother objects to anything, they quiet her with threats and anger. They say she is too soft and naive. They brow beat her and David, attesting that David needs a firmer hand than she can provide. Although, his mother continues to teach him, they stand over to deride him during his recitations, causing David to fumble often. David’s only escape is through reading. His father left a small collection of adventure books, which he reads over and over.

One afternoon, the beating Mr. Murdstone has been threatening to deliver to David happens after a mistake in his lessons. He is beaten savagely and retaliates by biting Mr. Murdstone on the hand. David is locked in his room for five days. At the end of those days, Peggotty whispers through the keyhole that David is to be sent away. Without being allowed to see his mother, David is put on a cart with Mr. Barkis, a man who carts goods and people between towns. But, Peggotty manages to sneak out between bushes to give David a hug, some cakes, a little cash and a note from his mother. At the first stop, David is taken advantageous of by the inn keeper, who takes the huge meal that was purchased ahead of time for him and most of his cash as a tip. David is teased so ferociously about his huge appetite, that he refuses to eat at the next stop, so he arrives in London famished.
After waiting several hours, David is picked up by Mr. Mell, a schoolmaster at David’s new school, Salem House. Although, they arrive at a time when all the boys are away on holiday, David is forced to wear a sign that says he bites. More punishment from Mr. Murdstone.

The first people David meets at the school are Mr. Creakle and his wife and daughter. Mr. Creakle starts out their acquaintance by letting David know he will be beaten for any infraction. The first boy to return from holiday is Tommy Traddles. He takes David under his wing, and helps him to make more friends. Unfortunately, David comes to the notice of a bully, James Steerforth. He is handsome, rich, and popular and manages to take the rest of David’s money. David thinks James is his friend and is submissive to him, calling James, “sir”.

David begins his school year by being beaten by Mr. Creakle with a cane. Mr. Creakle has warned the boys he will beat them if they fail in their lessons. David notices Traddles gets beaten more often than anyone else because he is overweight. Suffering from insomnia, Steerforth persuades David to tell him stories from David’s father’s books so he can sleep. The two boys become closer and David tells James of the poor old woman Mr. Mell stopped to see when he picked David up to bring him to Salem House. James deduces the old woman is Mr. Mell’s mother, and during a fit of anger, tells Mr. Creakle about Mr. Mell’s poverty. Mr. Creakle fires Mr. Mell. But, instead of blaming David, Mr. Mell shows favor to David as he leaves.
During this time period, David also gets a visit from Mr. Peggotty and Ham. They meet Steerforth and find him entertaining.

When the next holiday arrives, David returns home. At first, Mr. Murdstone and his sister are away, so the visit is nice. His mother has a new baby, who David instantly adores. But, whenever Mr. and Miss Murdstone return he is banished from any contact with the baby. David is made to stay with the adults, who ignore him. When he goes to his room to read, Mr. Murdstone says he is sullen.

Finally, the holiday is over and David can return to school. As he is being driven away, David sees his mother holding up her baby and waving to him. Little does he know this will be the last time he sees either of them. Half way through the semester, David is informed his mother died and is taken home. The funeral director takes him to his house, where David finds out his little brother died a few days after his mother. After his mother’s death, David doesn’t return to school. He is ignored by Mr. Murdstone and his sister. They don’t want to see him at all. Miss Murdstone fires Miss Peggotty, so she leaves for her brother’s house in Yarmouth. She takes David along for a visit. In Yarmouth, David finds Little Em’ly older and pretty, but vain and coy. Mr. Peggotty and Ham speak of how much they liked David’s friend from school, Steerforth, and Miss Peggotty marries Barkis, the man who drives the cart.

All too soon, David returns home only to be completely neglected by Mr. and Miss Murdstone. When Mr. Quinion arrives for a business meeting with Mr. Murdstone, they arrange for David to go to London and work at his wine-bottling industry. There David observes most of the boys are rough, and uneducated. They refer to him as the little gent, because of his manners and the fact that he never complains of the hard work. David is sent to board with Mr. Micawber, his wife and four children. Mr. Micawber is a poor but genteel man. He is gregarious, but complains often to David of his financial woes. Whenever Mr. Micawber and his wife become too overwhelmed with their woes, they get drunk and feel happier. Soon, Mr. Micawber’s debts catch up with him and he is put in debtor’s prison. While there, Mr. Micawber starts rousing his fellow inmates to eliminate the establishment, becoming a political figure among them.

Soon, Mr. Micawber’s debts are cleared up and he is released from prison. Whenever the Micawbers decide to relocate in order to find work, David chooses to run away from the wine-bottling factory and go to his Aunt Betsey. Once again David is conned out of his money. This time by the boy he hires to help him move his trunk. The boy steals all his money and possessions, leaving David destitute. He is forced to sell some of his clothes so he can buy food. David is further fleeced by the man he sells his clothing to and abused by fellow travelers as he makes his way to his aunt. When David finally arrives at his aunt’s house, she tries to turn him away. But, before she does, she consults with Mr. Dick, the boarder living upstairs in her house. He advises her to clean David up some, then decide. The whole time she’s cleaning him up, Miss Betsey lets him know that if he were a girl, he would not have done so many stupid things.

Even after cleaning him up and feeding him, David goes to bed still unsure whether his aunt will let him stay. The next morning, Miss Betsey informs him she sent a letter to Mr. Murdstone inviting him to come and discuss what to do with David. Soon, Miss Betsey sends David up to check on Mr. Dick. He is writing a biography on King Charles I, and thinks the king’s demons are tormenting him. Mr. Dick is always restarting the biography because of the demons. David notices Mr. Dick’s kite which they agree to fly together someday. When David goes back down to report to his aunt, he tells her Mr. Dick sends his compliments. Miss Betsey reveals to David that she took Mr. Dick in when his brother tried to have him committed into an asylum.

Miss Betsey has an abhorrence to donkeys getting on her lawn. So, of course, when Mr. and Miss Murdstone arrive, they are on donkeys. Miss Betsey instantly dislikes the Murdstones. They are rude and abusive to David, so she orders them to leave. Mr. Murdstone announces that if David doesn’t come now, he will never be allowed in his home. When his aunt asks David what he wants, he chooses to stay with her. With his new residence comes a new name, Trotwood Copperfield.

Nicknaming David “Trot” Miss Betsey suggests David return to school in Canterbury. She takes him to her lawyer, Mr. Wickfield, who arranges for him to board with him and his daughter, Agnes. David instantly likes the pretty daughter, especially the devotion she shows her father. Uriah Heep also lives with them. He is a sullen, quiet, overly slim boy, who David says moves like a snake. Mr. Wickfield takes David to enroll in the school, where David meets Dr. Strong, the headmaster, and his young wife, Annie. There is room in the classes for David, but he can’t live on the school grounds. They conclude David will go to school there but board with Mr. Wickfield. David starts out behind the rest of the class, but, quickly catches up, settling in comfortably to his new life.

David frequently gets visits from his aunt, and Mr. Dick. Mr. Dick is a great hit with the headmaster and the other boys. On one of these visits David finds out from Mr. Dick that a man has visited his aunt and upset her so much she fainted. Another night, Miss Betsey gave the man money to get him to leave. Neither of them have any idea who this man could be. Uriah Heep invites David over for tea at his mother’s house. Uriah and his mother ask David a lot of questions about Agnes and the health of her father and his finances. David feels wary of the two. When he spots Mr. Micawber walking past, he uses it to quickly leave. The Micawbers are once again in financial difficulties, but are merry and very happy to see David.

David looks back on these days at school as quite happy. He enjoyed his lessons, had a couple of girlfriends and rose to be the top boy in the class when he graduated at 17 years of age. After graduation, David decides to go to Yarmouth for a visit and take time to contemplate what he wants to do for a profession. Along the way, David tries to appear grown, but is treated condescendingly, until he comes back to his room after the theater, to find James Steerforth waiting for him. James is attending Oxford and is bored. He is on his way home to see his mother and persuades David to join him. There David meets Jame’s mother and distant cousin, Miss Dartle. Both young men are taken with Miss Dartle, even with her sarcasm.

David asks Steerforth to travel to Yarmouth with him. David thinks Mr. Peggotty and Ham would like to see him again. Along the way they stop by to visit with the former Miss Peggotty and her husband who is ill, but wants her to prepare a fine meal for David and James. David finds out Em’ly is working in a shop, where she is a good worker, but haughty and wants to be a lady. They are met by celebration at the home of Mr. Peggotty. Little Em’ly has agreed to marry Ham. Everyone is delighted with the news but Steerforth. He becomes sullen. James mopes about bemoaning his lack of a father to give him guidance. Before the boys leave, James buys a boat, asking Mr. Peggotty to take care of it in his absence. Steerforth dubs the boat The Little Em’ly.

While traveling to London, David tells James about a letter he received from his Aunt Betsey suggesting he take up the profession of proctor, (attorney). They both agree it is a good choice for David. He meets his Aunt Betsey when he arrives in London. She is very worried Mr. Dick will not keep the donkeys off her yard in her absence. Even though, becoming a proctor is very expensive, Miss Betsey is determined that is the job for David, and she will pay for it. Along the way to where he will be working, they are accosted by a man who appears to be a beggar. Miss Betsey gets into a carriage with him, then returns a while later with a lighter purse. David is very concerned, but Miss Betsey tells him to drop the subject and never mention it again.

At the law offices of Spenlow and Jorkins, David is hired as a clerk. After that the two find lodgings for David at the home of an old lady, Mrs. Crupp. She vows to take good care of David.

Life in London has its ups and downs. David is often lonely. He visits the Steerforth home, but James is away in Oxford. Whenever James comes home, he and David celebrate too much and David runs into Agnes at the theater while he is intoxicated. She takes him home, and tells him Steerforth is a bad influence on him. Then she informs him Uriah Heep is now in partnership with her father. Neither of them are happy with this turn of events. One night he comes across Uriah and Tommy Traddles, a friend of his from Salem House. Uriah informs David he plans to marry Agnes.

Mr. Spenlow, David’s boss invites him to his home for the weekend. There David meets Spenlow’s daughter, Dora. He falls in love with her, then discovers the companion her father has hired for her is no other than the detestable Miss Murdstone. David acquiesces to Miss Murdstone and puts there shared past behind them.

Life in London continues on it’s path. David invites the Micawbers and his friend Trattle to dinner in his room. They have a merry time until Steerforth’s manservant arrives. James Steerforth has disappeared and he hopes David might know where he is. After everyone leaves, James does show up. He tells David he has been sailing in Yarmouth, and has a note for him from Peggotty. Her husband is very ill. David resolves to go to her right away, but first James persuades him to go to his house first. During the visit David learns Jame’s family thought he was with David all this time.

David arrives in Yarmouth in time to help Peggotty through the death of her husband. They discover her husband left her a large inheritance and left money for her brother, too. When David arrives at Mr. Peggotty’s house, he discovers Em’ly has left with Steerforth. She hopes he will marry her, and doesn’t plan to return until he has. Mr. Peggotty resolves to search for her, and asks David to help him. They start with London. Their first stop is the Steerforth home, where they are rebuked by Mrs. Steerforth, who vows her son will never marry Em’ly and Miss Dartle blames David for the whole affair, since he introduced the two lovers.

Since David had taken Peggotty to London with him to settle her affairs, she is in his office at the Commons when Mr. Murdstone arrives to get another marriage license. A heated argument ensues with Peggotty accusing Mr. Murdstone of being culpable in the death of David’s mother.

Dora has a birthday party and Mr. Spenlow invites David. When he witnesses another man attending to her, David is jealous. Afterward he and Dora reconcile. They each declare their love, and become engaged. Although their betrothal is secret, David is the happiest he has ever been, until, his Aunt Betsey arrives with devastating news. Due to a bad business decision she has lost all her money.

Now David is poor. He tries to get out of his apprenticeship, but, Mr. Spenlow won’t refund their money. When David comes across Agnes, she suggests he take a job as secretary to Doctor Strong. Her father, Mr Wickfield, has become closer with the detestable Uriah. She would like David to help her separate them. David gets the job of working on a dictionary with Dr. Strong and also assures a job for Mr. Dick copying manuscripts.

Whenever Dora learns from David that he is now poor, she becomes agitated. She can’t imagine being poor. The next day, her father, Mr. Spenlow, accosts David. He threatens to disinherit her and send her away if they continue seeing each other. But, before he can carry through with these threats, Mr. Spenlow dies in a carriage accident. Dora is devastated and refuses to see David. When he finally does get to see Dora, David sees her changed. She has become more childish, refusing to learn to keep a house. He realizes everyone, including himself treats her as a child. When he brings Agnes to visit her, Dora asks why he isn’t with Agnes instead.

Meanwhile, Agnes is still being pursued by Uriah, who is establishing his power one slimy step at a time. He is blackmailing her father, and changing the fun-loving Mr. Micawber, who has come to work for him, into a greedy, sullen man. Uriah tries to control Dr. Strong by alluding to infidelity from his young wife, Annie. Uriah has replaced Mr. Murdstone as the villian.

Finally, David and Dora are wed. Though not the gratifying of marriages, they manage to get along. She wants to be treated as a child and isn’t actually a help-mate to him. Even though, he has a full time job as a writer for a newspaper and several magazines, he must also manage household affairs. But, she appears devoted to him and seems happy, which makes him happy. Meanwhile, Mr. Dick has decided to step in to repair the damage done to Dr. Strong and Annie’s marriage. She finally convinces the doctor of her love, and they reconcile.

As for Little Em’ly, her father, Mr. Peggotty is still looking for her. David learns Steerforth took her to Naples, where he lost interest in her and left her. She was despondent and left to parts unknown. David locates Mr. Peggotty to relay the latest developments. On the way home, David stops in to his aunt’s house to check in. He sees her with the mysterious stranger again. She finally tells David the man is her husband, who she thought was dead. He has been extorting money from her.

David’s marriage becomes more strained. The child like innocence of Dora is starting to wear thin. He hopes pregnancy will help her to mature, but she loses the baby. Afterwards the complications lead her to lose the use of her legs, and he must carry her around. No one is without hardships in this book. Mr. Micawber informs David that Uriah has cheated him out of his money and begs David’s help in his revenge. Finally, Little Em’ly is located. She has been ill and doesn’t think her family will forgive her. When Mr. Peggotty comes to her, he decides to take her to Australia where she can start anew. Mrs. Gummidge agrees to go with them.

Finally the big confrontation comes with Uriah. Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, David, Traddles, Agnes and Miss Betsey all face up to him together. Uriah becomes violent when Mr. Micawber produces evidence of Uriah’s misdeeds. Miss Betsey states he is the source of her losses and wants her property back. Traddles later recovers the money for the Wickfields and Miss Betsey, but Uriah and his mother disappear. Dora becomes very ill. Agnes comes over to help David and is there when Dora dies. Saddened, David begins to make plans to travel abroad. Meanwhile, the Micawbers are planning a relocation to Autstralia, and Miss Betsey’s estranged husband dies.

David takes a letter to Ham from Em’ly. She would like to see him before leaving for Australia. While in Yarmouth a huge storm blows in. A ship from Spain is wrecked on the shore. The onlookers can see one survivor waving a red cap. Ham tries to rescue the man and dies, then the man dies, too. Later when the body of the man washes ashore, David sees it is James Steerforth. When David tells Mrs. Steerforth of the death of her son she becomes catatonic. Miss Dartle is livid and blames Jame’s mother and David for the death.

After the going away party for the Australia bound group, David leaves for his trip. David settles in Switzerland for a time, where he receives a letter from Agnes. He comes to the conclusion that he loves Agnes, but wants to wait a year from Dora’s death before going to her. During that time, David resolves on self improvement.

David returns to London, where the author begins to wrap up the various story lines. David declares his love to Agnes to learn she loves him, too and they marry. Mr. Chillip, the doctor who delivered David, is living next door to Mr. and Miss Murdstone. They were cruel to his second wife, and she has died. Miss Betsey is living with Mr. Dick and they are content. Uriah is in prison, as is Steerforth’s duplicitous manservant, Littimer. Mr. Creakle is now a magistrate of the prison. Traddles is still poor, but married and happy. Mr. Peggotty visits from Australia and David learns they are all fortunate. Mr. Micawber is a magistrate, Little Em’ly and Mrs. Gummidge are doing well.

In the last chapter of the book, David takes the time to reflect on his life. He is happy with Agnes and their three children. Miss Betsey and Peggotty are old but get around quite well, Mr. Dick is still working on his autobiography, Dr. Strong is still working on his dictionary, and he and his wife, Annie are still happy. And, although Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle are still tormenting each other, David’s old school friend, Traddles is now a successful lawyer and still happily married.

The last few lines of this wonderful book are dedicated to the love and devotion David has for his wife. He hopes to have her face be the last he sees when he sees his last.

Character Analysis

David Copperfield – the narrator and major character of the novel. The story is told as his autobiography. David begins life naive and trusting, and learns to be less naive slowly. He is often shortsighted when dealing with those around him. Almost everyone he comes across cheats him. He is abused by his stepfather, spoiled then neglected by his mother. He unwisely trusts Steerforth, who is an obvious bully, and falls in love with a pretty face. It’s not until much later in his narrative, that he finally matures enough to marry a strong woman and become more of a stable character.

Mr. and Miss Murdstone – David’s stepfather and his sister. At the beginning of the book, he is the villian. Although he and his sister stay cruel, they leave David’s story when they evict him from his home after the death of his mother. Afterwards, they stay in the background of the story as a dark shadow of evil.

Miss Peggotty – David’s nurse as a child. She is a strong, helpful and giving character that fills the role of mother for many of the characters, including David’s mother. Taking David away when his home became too toxic, always putting his needs first. She played a great counterfoil to the hatred and cruelty of Miss Murdstone when David was a child, then pops up every time David has need of a mother figure in his story.

Aunt Betsey – At first she denies David. She is distrustful of most men, and wanted to help her sister raise a little girl to be independent. But, when David runs away from the cruelties of the life Mr. Murdstone had sent him to in London after the death of his mother. David arrives at his aunt’s house broke, and alone. She takes him in, becoming another mother figure to him. David is troubled by a mystery surrounding her for most of the time he lives with her. Finally, after reaching adulthood he discovers she had been married to a cruel man who she believed was dead, but he comes back sporadically and extorts money from her.

James Steerforth – This character is a bully, but David doesn’t see it. The slights James inflicts on him spotlight David’s naivety. James is condescending and self-centered. Although he is charming when he cares to be, his carelessness and cruelty is obvious to the reader, but none of the characers. James spends time with David because he wants his adulation, he takes Em’ly away for the same reason, but when he tires of them, he disposes of them.

Uriah Heep – The villain of the novel. When David first meets Uriah he doesn’t like him, which is unusual for the trusting and naive David. As the story progresses the duplicity of Uriah grows. He cheats and blackmails his way into the power he craves. He shows humility while discovering secrets he can use. Uriah sees his control of those more fortunate than him a what is owed him by the world, for the deprivation he suffered as a child. Determined to marry Agnes, he stalks her and bedevils her father to control him and force the marriage. His jealousies define his character.

Agnes Wickfield – David’s second wife. After standing by David while he goes from romance to romance and being a good friend and confidant, he finally realizes his love for her and proposes after the death of his first wife. Agnes is the strong, patient female character. She is intelligent, resourceful, kind, helpful, and honest to herself and those around her. She is always there for David and shows up when he needs her most. Her strength of character never allows her to give in to Uriah’s machinations. When she and David finally marry in the end, she is the perfect wife and mate.

Charles Dickens Biography