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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Because David Copperfield is the narrator, many readers have assumed he is a self-portrait of Dickens. There are several similar incidents in their lives (see "The Author And His Times"), but how similar are their personalities?

Some readers believe that David is simply a portrait of a typical young gentleman of the early Victorian age. He has a middle-class gentleman's education (a good secondary school but no university degree). He holds some liberal beliefs; for example, he criticizes Doctors' Commons and the parliamentary debates. But on the whole he is a supporter of the Establishment. He doesn't question the social conventions that judge his friend Emily to be "ruined" because she has had an affair. He's convinced that it's important to work hard, succeed in a career, and make money. He believes in God, but only as a vague idea-you never see him going to church as an adult. He places a high value on domestic harmony, and thinks that a woman's place is in the home.

Other readers say David is too good to be true. They think that Dickens was trying to deny his own selfishness and insecurity by showing himself in David as a decent, generous young fellow. They point out that David is much more realistic as a child than as an adult. As a boy, he can't pay attention in church, he resents the Murdstones for coming between him and his mother, and he feels sorry for himself when he is punished. Even as he grieves over his mother's death, he basks in the special attention he's getting. But once David grows up, he becomes a model citizen. He bears the burden of his wife Dora's failures; he remains loyal to his treacherous friend Steerforth; he spends a lot of time and energy helping the Strongs, the Wickfields, the Micawbers, and the Peggottys with their problems. He is terribly modest about his career as a writer. Readers who see David in this light feel that it's fitting that he ends up married to such a noble, sexless creature as Agnes. In a later book, Great Expectations, they point out, Dickens finally created an honest picture of himself in the narrator, Pip, who criticizes himself as a snob and an ungrateful profligate.

Other readers say that David does have flaws, many of the same ones Dickens had. David's self-centeredness as a child continues into his adult years. For example, he can't help but think of how his future is changed when his Aunt Betsey loses her money. He's also a terrible judge of people. He is blind to the truth about the women he loves, both Dora and Agnes. He underestimates Mr. Dick, Traddles, and Annie Strong, but on the other hand can never see the weakness in Steerforth. He can be impatient and demanding with Dora, yet he's so shy and insecure that he can't deal with servants or waiters. David sometimes seems obsessed with work, orderliness, and money, and can't always see how dull it makes him.

In the book's opening sentence, David asks you to decide whether or not he is the hero of his own life-judging from what the book shows you. You can take the word "hero" in several different senses:

1. The hero is the central character, or protagonist. Of course, since David is the narrator, he appears in nearly every scene of the book. But the novel has several plots. In some of them, David is just an observer of the action.

2. The hero is the most admirable person in the book. Consider, as you read, whether you think David is admirable. Is he a good person? Is he too good to be believed? Would you want to be like him?

3. The hero of David's own life is the person who deserves the credit for his success and happiness. As you read, think about how David feels about himself. Do you think he sees himself as the "hero" of his life? Why?

4. The hero is the focus of the themes of the book. As you read and decide what the main themes are, ask yourself if they all relate to David. Watch, too, how the subplots interconnect. Dickens' themes develop from a pattern of all the plots together, mirroring, shadowing, and reversing each other. Is Dickens developing a view of the world as a whole, or do all these themes lead you back to an understanding of David?


Anyone who says that Dickens can't create believable women characters is overlooking Aunt Betsey. From her first bold, comic entrance in Chapter 1, she is one of the book's strongest characters. Orphan David instinctively flees to her cottage in Dover in spite of the stories he's heard about her, because he needs a stable home. Beneath her gruff exterior, she's a real softie. She has already taken in Mr. Dick, and soon agrees to take in David, especially after meeting the Murdstones, who arouse her feisty spirits. Aunt Betsey may at first seem like a modern feminist, rebelling against the male-dominated system by approving only of girl babies and by teaching her servant girls to give up men. But she isn't as inflexible as her opinions sound. The servant girls always get married, and Betsey comes to love David as much as she ever could have loved his never-born sister.

Although Betsey begins as a comic character-almost a caricature-she becomes more real as the book goes on. She's not much good as a substitute mother for David. She doesn't have that kind of affectionate nature, and she seems awkward caring for a small boy. But Betsey does become rather like a second father to David. She protects their home fiercely, driving away the trespassing donkeys, and physically shields David from the Murdstones. Though she's comically opinionated and brusque, she's shrewd enough to see the truth about such characters as Mr. Wickfield and Mr. Dick. With businesslike briskness she handles such matters as arranging for David's schooling, changing her will to make him her heir, and paying for his entry into a profession.

Therefore, it's startling when she shows up on David's doorstep in London, announcing that she has handled her finances badly and is virtually broke. This is a signal for a shift in generations: the "son" David must begin to provide for the "father" Betsey. David changes with this new responsibility, but so does Betsey. She seems vulnerable at last. She begins to warm up to Peggotty and even becomes fond of Dora (though she can see that David is "blind" to marry her). When David's marriage falters, Betsey is a great emotional support, advising him to be more patient and gentle with his bride (this from the woman who bullied Clara Copperfield!). A mysterious figure haunting Betsey's doorstep from time to time seems to threaten her. When she finally reveals that he is her former husband and admits how much she still feels for him, it's easier for you to understand why she developed that tough shell in the first place. While other characters have to learn to love more wisely, Betsey has to learn that it's all right to let her heart rule sometimes. This adds a vital dimension to the novel's view of life and love.


Like many other romantic heroines in Dickens' novels, Dora is tiny, childish, almost doll-like (perhaps Dickens' first love, Maria Beadnell, was like that). Though she's a flirt, she isn't very sexy. David's notions about her are romantic, not physical. After they are married he seems almost amazed to be left alone with her, as though he never imagined going so far as to sleep with her. But remember that it's David who idealizes Dora and describes her like a doll, because Dickens is satirizing a young man's romantic foolishness. If you read beyond what David says about her, however, you can discover a three-dimensional person in Dora. She isn't to blame for her immaturity and ignorance. Her father obviously spoiled and overprotected her, and David falls into the same pattern. She has enough wisdom to know that she has disappointed David, and she understands better than he does that she can only be herself. Although she seems shallow and manipulative during their courtship, with her obnoxious dog Jip and her cliche-ridden friend Julia Mills, her loyalty and affection for David never waiver during their brief marriage.

With her sweet, loving nature, her pretty face, and her gullible naive ways, Dora is very much like David's mother. David adored his mother. Perhaps that's why he falls in love with Dora, and why he can't see her shortcomings. When David tries to "form her mind," he is really doing just what Mr. Murdstone did to Mrs. Copperfield, although in a milder fashion. David is as much to blame as Dora for the failures in their marriage.


Dora may be the romantic heroine of the book, but Dickens saw Agnes as "the real heroine." From her first entrance, she is almost encircled by a halo. David envisions her as a stained-glass window or an angelic statue, with her hand pointing up to heaven, but he never really tells us what she looks like. He refers only to her beautiful spirit and her good influence on him, as though she were simply a symbol of his conscience. Dora, with her silly lapdog, always seems like a child, but Agnes is motherly even as a young girl, with her housewifely basket of keys at her waist.

Many readers object to Agnes, saying she is an unreal vision of the pure, good, wise woman Dickens longed for. Dickens' fondness for his wife's sister Mary, who lived with them when they were first married, seems to have had a level of sexual attraction in it, so perhaps when David says he loves Agnes as a "sister," Dickens meant this to be more romantic than it sounds. But to many readers, Agnes doesn't seem human. She's unnaturally selfless, self-contained, and noble. She lets David confide all his teenage crushes to her, and she becomes Dora's best friend, even though she herself has secretly been in love with David all her life. She never responds, even with a shudder, to Uriah Heep's repulsive attentions to her. She seems passionless and imperturbable until the last few chapters, when her feelings for David begin to show through.

Remember that you are seeing Agnes through David's eves, and he is notoriously blind to other people's true natures. Remember, too, that she's the only child of a melancholy, aging father, and her devotion to him has colored her whole life. Consider the lessons David learned from his first marriage, and then you will be prepared to comment on Agnes's suitability as the heroine of this novel.

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