David Copperfield: Dickens' Bildungsroman

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

The story of David Copperfield follows the titular character's journey to adulthood as various people, good and bad, shape the man he becomes. Explore the characters of David Copperfield: Charles Dickens' famous bildungsroman. Updated: 08/16/2021

Dickens' Bildungsroman


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.

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  • 0:04 Dicken's Bildungsroman
  • 1:52 Major Characters
  • 4:47 Plot Summary
  • 10:35 Lesson Summary
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Major Characters

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.

Peggotty was kind of a mother figure to David.

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.

Plot Summary

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.

Mr. Murdstone sends David to Salem House, a school for boys.
Salem House

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.

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