Login

David Copperfield: Dickens' Bildungsroman

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Oliver Twist: Plot and Characters in Dickens' Social Novel

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 Dicken's Bildungsroman
  • 1:52 Major Characters
  • 4:47 Plot Summary
  • 10:35 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Login or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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 novel 'David Copperfield' is a coming of age story full of wicked villains, noble friends and true love. Watch this lesson to learn more about the novel that Dickens considered his best.

Dickens' Bildungsroman

ALAKAZAM!

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.

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.
Peggotty

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.

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.
Doctor Strong

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 95 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account
Support