A Review of 'David Copperfield'

The novel celebrates humanity while exposing Victorian society's ills

Vintage engraving of a scene from the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield.

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"David Copperfield" is probably the most autobiographical novel by Charles Dickens. He uses many incidents of his childhood and early life to create a considerable fictional achievement.

"David Copperfield" also stands as a midpoint in Dickens' oeuvre and is at least somewhat indicative of Dickens' work. This novel contains a complicated plot structure, a concentration on the moral and social worlds, and some of Dickens' most wonderful comic creations. "David Copperfield" is a broad canvas on which the great master of Victorian fiction uses his entire palette. Unlike many of his other novels, however, "David Copperfield" is written from the point of view of its titular character, looking back on the ups and downs of his long life.

Overview

"David Copperfield" traces the life of David, the protagonist, from a happy early childhood through a miserable span of cruel surrogate parents, harsh working conditions, and crushing poverty to an ultimately wiser, contented existence as a happily married adult. Along the way he meets a memorable cast of characters, some hateful and selfish and others kind and loving.

The main character is modeled closely after Dickens' life, especially since his hero finds later success as a writer, The story, published as a serial in 1849 and 1850 and as a book in 1850, also serves as Dickens' critique of the bleak conditions for many children in Victorian England, including its notorious boarding schools.

Story

Copperfield's father dies before he is born and his mother later remarries the frightful Mr. Murdstone, whose sister soon moves into their house. Copperfield is sent away to boarding school after he bit Murdstone when he was undergoing a beating. At the boarding school, he becomes friends with James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles.

Copperfield doesn't complete his education because his mother dies and he's sent to work at a factory. There he boards with the Micawber family. At the factory, Copperfield experiences the hardships of the industrial-urban poor until he escapes and walks to Dover to find his aunt, who adopts him.

After finishing school, he goes to London to seek a career and reconnects with Steerforth, introducing him to his adoptive family. Around this time, he falls in love with young Dora, the daughter of a renowned solicitor. He is reunited with Traddles, who also is boarding with the Micawbers, bringing the delightful but economically useless character back into the story.

In time, Dora's father dies and she and David marry. Money is tight, however, and Copperfield takes up various jobs to make ends meet, including writing fiction.

Things aren't well with Mr. Wickfield, with whom Copperfield boarded during school. Wickfield's business has been taken over by his evil clerk, Uriah Heep, who now has Micawber working for him. However, Micawber and Traddles expose Heep's misdeeds and finally have him thrown out, returning the business to its rightful owner.

Copperfield can't savor this triumph because Dora has become ill after losing a child. She dies following a long illness and David travels abroad for many months. While he's traveling, he realizes that he's in love with his old friend Agnes, Mr. Wickfield's daughter. David returns home to marry her and becomes successful writing fiction.

Personal and Societal Themes

"David Copperfield" is a long, sprawling novel. In keeping with its autobiographical genesis, the book reflects the ungainliness and largeness of everyday life. In its early parts, the novel displays the power and resonance of Dickens' critique of a Victorian society, which provided few safeguards for the poor, particularly in the industrial heartlands.

In the later parts, we find Dickens' realistic, touching portrait of a young man growing up, coming to terms with the world, and finding his literary gift. Although it portrays Dickens' comic touch, its serious side isn't always apparent in Dickens' other books. The difficulties of becoming an adult, marrying, finding love, and becoming successful feel real, shining from every page of this delightful book.

Full of lively wit and Dickens' finely tuned prose, "David Copperfield" is an excellent example of the Victorian novel at its height and Dickens as its master. It deserves its sustained reputation into the 21st century.