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David Copperfield

David Copperfield


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Book Review

They say, “Write what you know.”

It seems Charles Dickens used this advice in his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. Both Charles and his fictional creation, young Davey, overcome childhood adversity using it to inspire their works as prolific authors.

Plot Summary

You’d think there wouldn’t be a worse guardian than the evil stepmother from Cinderella. Well, David Copperfield knows better.

Though his father has passed away, Davey is content to live with his gentle mother, Clara, and their housekeeper, Peggotty. But Davey is not destined for this comfortable life. The cold Mr. Murdstone marries Clara and slowly begins to crush her kind and hopeful spirit. When Mr. Murdstone’s sister, Miss Murdstone (of course) comes to live with the Copperfields, they send Davey away to a boarding school in London.

Despite its physically abusive headmaster, Mr. Creakle, life at Salem House isn’t all bad. Davey makes acquaintance with a shy boy named Tommy Traddles and greatly admires an older boy, J. Steerforth, who promises to help Davey succeed at school.

Just as life seems to be looking up for 9-year-old Davey, his mother dies, leaving him subject to the will of Mr. Murdstone, who cruelly sends him to fend for himself in London. There, Davey lives with the Micawber family and miserably works in a bottling factory. When the Micawber family decides to move to Plymouth, leaving Davey homeless, he makes a resolution: He will run away from London and tell his story to his enigmatic aunt, Miss Betsey.

But that’s just the beginning for young Davey. He’ll go to school, deal with conniving clerks, meet old friends and fall in love—perhaps more than once. And through it all, Davey’s unrelenting grit, fortunate friendships and dogged perseverance help him overcome all difficulties—and teach readers about how to deal with their own.

Christian Beliefs

Dickens makes several biblical allusions throughout the novel including references to Samson, the Prodigal Son and Lazarus’ miraculous resurrection (a church story that frightened Davey as a child). Some characters directly quote Scripture, including Mr. Wickfield who calls someone the “millstone around his neck” and a letter writer who references Psalm 115. At a funeral, the clergyman quotes Scripture reciting, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord.”

Davey refers to humans as “created beings,” and he states that an evildoer will have to deal with the Judgment Throne. He also likens his moments with Dora (on whom he’s developed a serious crush) to being in the Garden of Eden. Mrs. Micawber compares the reconciliation of two families to the lion laying down with the lamb, and Miss Betsey likens trespassers on her property to Cain.

Davey observes that Miss Betsey does not behave like an ordinary Christian, and he notices that a character owns a book about Christian martyrs. When Davey and the Murdstones go to church, Miss Murdstone accuses some people of being “miserable sinners.”

In a letter, Mr. Micawber writes, “God of day is once more high upon the mountain tops.” While Agnes (a good friend of Davey’s)  struggles to help her father, she states, “There is a God to trust in,” and when their issues are resolved, David and Agnes thank God for their happiness.

Someone states that one day, “all of us shall be alike in quality afore our God,” and during a difficult circumstance, the character acknowledges that “the Lord was above all.”

When a character dies, Davey describes that the “Angel of Death” visited her. A character asserts that “Satan finds some mischief still for busy hands to do,” and another character asserts that someone “sold himself to the devil.” Davey starts a job as a proctor for Ecclesiastical Law, which is related to the laws of a church. Part of his job involves cases about church excommunication.

Other Belief Systems

Like in most classic literature, Dickens makes mythological allusions to Greek and Roman gods. A character mentions Phoebus, who is the Greek god of the sun, and another mentions Lares, a Roman household god. Davey makes a comment that a character looks like a “sight of shame for gods and men.”

Before he was born, a woman predicts that David Copperfield is destined to be unlucky and to see ghosts and spirits, and when he is born Davey has a “caul” which people believed indicated good luck. A character uses playing cards to tell someone’s future, and Davey explains that he thinks fate brought him to a woman whom he likes romantically.

In fact, Dickens employs spiritual imagery to describe many women throughout the story. Davey compares Agnes with angels and cherubim, and he likens Dora to a fairy or sylph. After spending time with Dora, Davey wonders if a magician transported them to another location, and he tells Dora that he “idolized and worshiped her.” Davey compares someone to an “ill-looking enchantress,” and another character is referred to as his father’s “little witch.”

A character asserts that some people are willing to bow down to idols.

Authority Roles

Clara Copperfield’s new husband, Mr. Murdstone, is a cold man who intimidates her and physically abuses Davey. He uses his commanding personality to usurp power over Clara’s household and weaken her relationship with Davey. Davey greatly dislikes Mr. Murdstone, but as a child, he still obeys him for the sake of his mother. Likewise, Clara remains a devoted wife to Mr. Murdstone despite his domineering nature (though, Dickens makes it clear that Clara should have stood up for herself and Davey).

At Salem House, the school’s headmaster, Mr. Creakle, is physically abusive, and the students are afraid of him. Mr. Mell, on the other hand, is a kind teacher at Salem House who attempts to develop genuine relationships with his students. However, because of his kindness, the students take advantage of Mr. Mell and even insult him in class.

During his time at Salem House, Davey greatly admires Steerforth who seems to be a leader among the boys. While Steerforth pretends to be a noble figure, he is very prideful and uses his positive position at school to manipulate teachers and other students. Dr. Strong, the headmaster at Davey’s new school, is a respectable man who uses his authority to help his students move forward and make a name for themselves.

While Agnes Wickfield is not necessarily an authority role, Davey admires her and views her as an equal. He goes to her for advice, and she often is his only comfort in difficult times. Charles Dickens is often criticized for his depiction of women, and Agnes is a rare example of an admirable female role model in his stories.

Profanity & Violence

Characters in David Copperfield rarely use profanity. One says the word, “d–ned” and another uses “a–.” Characters employ creative insults such as calling characters “hound,” “goblin,” prog” and “polly” (which is slang for “sissy”). There are several uses of the word, “stupid,” and we also hear exclamations such as, “In the name of Heaven.” Characters use “Lord” as an exclamation, and some say phrases like “God knows,” “My God” and misuse the word Christ. We also hear some uses of “what the devil” or “go to the devil.” Davey observes that his schoolmates are dancing “like wild Indians,” and he refers to a little person as a “dwarf.”

Many characters in David Copperfield die, including a newborn infant and women. Sometimes, characters see the bodies of their dead relatives, but descriptions are never gruesome. While most deaths are of natural causes or sickness, there is a scene in which two characters die in a shipwreck, leaving some covered in blood.

The novel also covers a great deal of childhood trauma. Mr. Murdstone “boxes” Davey’s ears and beats him mercilessly. When Davey retaliates by biting him, Mr. Murdstone locks him in his room for five days. Mr. Creakle, the headmaster at Salem house, is known for beating his students with a cane, and he consistently abuses Davey and the other students. Davey even hears rumors that Mr. Creakle broke the ribs of a young student. While Davey is on the run from London, a man robs him and threatens to rip his body open.

Miss Betsey hits and yells at the boys who attempt to trespass on her yard, and to punish her dog for bad behavior, Dora puts his nose on a hot tea pot. Steerforth tells Davey that when he was a child, he got mad at a woman and threw a hammer at her. There is also a scene in which a man hits a woman (drawing blood) and pushes her to the ground.

Davey gets in a physical fight with a man who gives him puffy eyes. Later, Davey fights this man again and knocks out his teeth. Some characters have a conversation about blood, and a woman threatens someone and calls her a “purchased slave.”

Annoyed with a clerk named Uriah Heep, David imagines throwing him over a banister and stabbing him with a hot poker. In one chapter, a woman slaps Steerforth, and in another, Davey slaps another man.

Adults and children alike drink alcohol. At Salem House, for example, Steerforth purchases wine to share with the other school aged children, and Davey drinks beer as a child. Miss Betsey’s nighttime routine includes a glass of wine. Several characters get drunk, including Davey, and a character has a serious drinking problem. When Miss Betsey adopts Davey, Miss Murdstone asserts that she must be intoxicated to make such a decision.

Several characters smoke, including Mr. Murdstone (who Davey observes “smoked incessantly”). Davey attempts to smoke a cigar, too. Characters discuss a person who had died of excessive alcohol and smoking.

Sexual Content

Several characters kiss, but the descriptions of these romantic encounters are not graphic. When they were children, Davey and another girl shared an innocent kiss, and Davey believed he was in love with her. As an adult, Davey mentions “making love” to his wife, and he describes a moment in which she sits on his lap. A man who has romantic feelings for another character attempts to sit close to her on a carriage ride. Davey sees a woman breastfeeding two babies at the same time.

We learn that a main character was married to an abusive man who she paid off so they could separate. Mr. Micawber explains that before he was married, he was a celibate, and Mrs. Micawber affirms that she will never leave her husband. Uriah claims a woman is cheating on her husband. An engaged woman runs off with another man before her wedding. Later, this relationship turns sour, and she gets tricked into joining a brothel. Another female character is suspected of being a prostitute. Two characters get engaged but hide the engagement from the woman’s father.

Discussion Topics

When he was a child, Davey admired and blindly followed Steerforth, not recognizing his flaws until much later in life. What are some initial “red flags” in Steerforth, and what are strategies to recognize these potential problems in people close to you?

As Christians, we’re called to submit to authority, but many of David Copperfield’s superiors treat him unfairly. How should Christians interact with these unjust leaders? (Consider Romans 13 and Jesus’ responses during His trial).

During his time at Steerforth’s home, Davey is aware of and embarrassed by his youth. What does the Bible say about being young (1 Tim 4:12)? How could Davey have applied biblical principles to his idea of his youth.

When Davey tells Miss Betsey about Dora, she utters “Blind! Blind! Blind” in response to his description. And after Davey spends time with Agnes, an old beggar mutters, “Blind! Blind! Blind!” In what ways was Davey blind about his infatuation with Dora and his true connection with Agnes? What are some differences between Agnes and Dora, and how should Davey have responded to those differences?

What’s wrong with the clerk Uriah Heep’s “umbleness?” What does biblical humility look like? (Consider Luke 14:11 and 1 Peter 5:5-6.)

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Additional Comments

In true Charles Dickens fashion, David Copperfield takes its time introducing us to his characters, settings and storylines. But in doing so, Dickens adeptly welcomes his readers into Davey’s experiences in a way that modern literature often can’t capture. Despite Davey’s childhood trauma and some very minor language, most families will find David Copperfield navigable. And through this nearly 800-page coming of age journey, readers will learn valuable lessons about hard work, partnership in marriage and the importance of a person’s latent character.

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Review by Sarah Rasmussen