Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
It's time for 'David Copperfield'! Not the magician, the Charles Dickens book. I hope you are not disappointed. It was originally published in 1850, after first appearing serially, like most of Charles Dickens' works. No, that is not in the form of cereal. That just means published chapter by chapter in a magazine. Dickens noted that this novel was special to him. He said, '...like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child.' Actually, I'm not sure that is like many fond parents. I thought you weren't supposed to have favorite kids. Anyway, he goes on. He says, 'And his name is David Copperfield.'
This book - it's a coming of age novel. It's a bildungsroman. That's just another name for that. It's when a title character or a main character - we follow along in his development from childhood to adulthood. Along the way, he loses his youthful naiveté, affirms his moral integrity and deals with some crazy stuff. Otherwise it wouldn't be an interesting book.
People often call this novel Dickens' most autobiographical work. It's not really his story, but there are a lot of parallels, and we're going to talk about them as we go along. You should also note that David Copperfield's initials (D.C.) are Dickens' initials backwards (C.D.). Is that significant? I don't know. Maybe. Even if this novel isn't completely autobiographical (and it's not. You'll see that it's not.), Dickens really had a good time taking things from his own life and incorporating them into the protagonist's story. Most of Dickens' novels feature characters and events that come from his own experience; few have quite as personal a connection as David Copperfield.
Let's talk characters. David Copperfield is the star of this book because he's also the title character. He's honest and good-natured. He's a little too trusting, at least early on. That's kind of a flaw. As you'd expect in a book about a trusting, good-natured character, the story is full of good and bad people who influence his life because he is very influence-able. This isn't a novel that really has much to do with moral ambiguity, so we're going to divide up the remaining characters into the good, the bad and the minor, who you should just know who they are.
First, the good:
We've got Peggotty, who was David's nurse when he was young. She's kind of a mother figure to David, which is a key thing in the novel. David loses his actual mother pretty early on, but others kind of take her place. There's a lot of mother figures here.
Next is Mr. Micawber, who might be modeled on Dickens' own father. Dickens' father faced debt problems but always treated Dickens really well. Micawber also has debt problems but is ultimately a pretty good person and very loyal to David.
We've got Betsey Trotwood, who is David's aunt. She's also a good character. Like Peggotty, she plays a motherly role for David.
We've got Agnes Wickfield, who is a lifelong friend (and maybe more than friend?) of David's. She's always there to help out.
Those are the good people. Next, we're going to talk about the villains, who are often a bit more fun in Dickens' books. We get not one, not two but three villains, so this is an extra special book.
We've got Mr. Murdstone, who's David's stepfather. You might hear 'murder' in his name? Right? Murdstone. That's good because he's a violent and cruel man. He is not a good guy. You shouldn't trust a guy who is named after murder.
We've got James Steerforth, who is supposedly a friend of David's, although Steerforth is manipulative and ends up taking advantage of David and a whole bunch of other people. You can also hear his character in his name. He 'steers forth' those around him. He's always controlling them based on his desires, not really based on theirs.
Then we've got Uriah Heep, who is not just a band, but a Dickens villain. He's probably worst of all. He's evil throughout the novel. He's always conning people. He's always pretending to be this humble, moral guy. He's not. He's a heap of trouble.
Finally, we're going to talk about a few minor characters.
We've got Dora Spenlow, who's kind of child-like and spoiled. David still loves her.
We've also got Little Em'ly and Ham. Little Em'ly is Peggotty's niece. Ham is a sailor, who is, for a while, Little Em'ly's fiancé.
Then, there's Dr. and Mrs. Strong. They're good people. They play a key role in David's development. We'll get to them a little bit later, what they do.
The novel's narrated by David as a grown man, reflecting back on his life. When he was very young, things were going well. He lived with his mother. He lived with Peggotty, his nurse. Then his mother married Mr. Murdstone, who comes along with his sister. You're really just asking for trouble if you marry someone named Murdstone. That's on David's mother. The Murdstones are really cruel to David. After one too many beatings by Mr. Murdstone, David bites him, which gets him sent away to boarding school, which seems to be the common punishment in Victorian novels. You get sent away. That's also what they threatened Harry with in the beginning of Harry Potter - sent away to the Stonewall School for Boys.
This school is Salem House. He makes a couple of friends there, including James Steerforth, who you remember was classed with the bad guys. David foolishly trusts and idolizes him. He really shouldn't. Steerforth takes advantage of David's innocence as he looks to gain power at the school.
David returns home when his mother dies, which is very sad. Mr. Murdstone sends David to a workhouse in London, which is just like what happened to Dickens when his father got into debt and his whole family had to go with to debtor's prison. While David is there, his caretaker, Mr. Micawber, develops debt problems and also ends up in debtor's prison. So, again, this is where it mimics Charles Dicken's own life. Dickens was sent because his father went to debtor's prison. David's sent, and then his caretaker is out of the picture. He's suddenly without a guardian, so he decides to run away.
He finds his late father's sister, Betsey Trotwood - remember that's his aunt. This is a definite twist from Dickens' life. After Dickens' family emerged from debtor's prison, he was sent back to the workhouse by his mother, which gave him lifelong mommy issues and also with women in general. Here, he adds a strong mother figure in Miss Betsey on top of Peggotty. Although, neither of these women is his actual mother, whom Dickens kills off early on, so maybe he's still got mommy issues.
Miss Betsey sends David to a school run by Dr. Strong - remember I mentioned is one of the minor figures. He lives with Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes, who I also mentioned is a good character. David and Agnes become good friends. The Wickfields have another boarder who's that awful guy Uriah Heep.
Throughout the novel, characters cycle in and out of David's life. After graduating, he goes and hangs out with Steerforth for a little bit. He goes and hangs out with Peggotty and her family. There he meets Little Em'ly, who is engaged to Ham, but she ends up running away with Steerforth, which is such a scandal because you know that Steerforth's bad news.
David decides to pursue a career as a proctor, which is another word for a lawyer. He apprentices at a law firm and falls in love with Dora, who's the daughter of one of the lawyers.
At this point, Uriah Heep (bad guy), a bunch of his general misdeeds start to accumulate. Of course a guy named Uriah Heep has got misdeeds. He uses his cons to get a bunch of folks in financial trouble, including Miss Betsey, Mr. Wickfield and Mr. Micawber. He's got a lot of influence, I guess. Because that isn't enough, he also convinces people that Mrs. Strong, who's the wife of Dr. Strong who runs David's school, is cheating on her husband. Uriah's so manipulative and David's still so naïve that he manages to make David feel like the jerk in all of this. Things are not going well.
David eventually goes on to marry Dora, the lawyer's daughter at the firm he was working at. She's kind of a lousy housewife, but he loves her. There's hope for all of us. When Mrs. Strong's non-infidelity comes out - the fact that she was not cheating on her husband and all of that was just a big lie - their marriage is reconciled. David looks at this, and he realizes how important a marriage is that is built on respect, equality and devotion is. This is a key theme. It's interesting because Dickens would actually leave his own wife for an actress but not until several years after he wrote this book. So, maybe he had a change of heart about marriage and its importance.
David finds out that, inevitably, Steerforth has abandoned Little Em'ly. So, that's not so good. In the wake of this, a bunch of characters, including Little Em'ly and Mr. Micawber, decide to move to Australia. I guess they want to go hang out with Crocodile Dundee. I don't know. They decide to go. Before Mr. Micawber goes, he exposes Uriah Heep's frauds and Uriah ends up in prison. Hooray! The bad are getting what they deserve.
After a while, Dora gets sick and dies. I guess not housewife-ing can do that to you. Steerforth is on a ship wreck. It seems like the bad characters are getting their comeuppance, which as they should in any good melodramatic novel.
David decides he's going to travel. He hangs out in Switzerland. He's deciding how to be a better person. He gets a letter from Agnes. Remember Agnes, his old friend? He realizes he loves her, and it turns out she secretly loved him all this time. They get married and have a bunch of kids.
And that's the end. David Copperfield at the end is a mature, happy and successful writer. Just like Charles Dickens!
That's the novel. That was a lot of stuff that just happened. Basically, the thread of all of it is that David grows up and becomes a mature adult, which will happen to all of us eventually, unfortunately. He emerged from childhood. It was kind of a negative childhood - abuse, labor and neglect. He had a good amount of help along the way from mother figures, like Miss Betsey and Peggotty. He ran into trouble with Mr. Murdstone, Steerforth and Uriah Heep. More or less, the villains get what's coming to them, and the good people come out okay.
It ends perhaps more succinctly and resolved than seems possible as you're going through all the stuff that is going on. Dickens message, in general, is that generosity, kindness and love are rewarded; greed, manipulation and deceitfulness are punished. And, really, that's how it should be in any satisfying book. That's 'David Copperfield'.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets