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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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The Micawbers are totally irresponsible and totally loveable. As Mr. Micawber loses job after job, as debts pile up and the family keeps growing, they thrive on cheery, optimistic fantasies. While David is their boarder, Mr. Micawber always addresses him as an equal, and Mrs. Micawber seems surprised to notice he's a child. This shows how factory work has aged David prematurely, but it also emphasizes how childishly impractical the Micawbers are. David's experience of their precarious life-style teaches him to become a practical, hard-working man himself. Nevertheless, their affection, liveliness, and loyalty ("I never will desert Mr. Micawber" is Mrs. Micawber's slogan) give David a model of a truly loving home.

The Micawbers are technically caricatures-exaggerated figures who don't seem capable of psychological growth as more realistic characters do. Mrs. Micawber is always yearning for her parents' home. Mr. Micawber is always writing wordy letters. But one hallmark of Dickens' comic genius is to create caricatures with satisfying, lifelike energy. Listen to Mr. Micawber speak, for example (it's said that Dickens drew this florid, high-flown verbal style from his own father). The long, breathless sentences, the extreme dramatic poses, the stock phrases ("in short," "something will turn up"), the pompous formal language-they're so outrageous, you end up believing he's real.

Because Micawber is such a successful caricature, some readers lose interest in him when he helps expose Uriah Heep, or when he succeeds in Australia, because they feel that his reform isn't believable. Some readers also object to the way the Micawbers coincidentally pop up throughout the novel, in unlikely places. Yet others feel that this is natural, that the Micawbers are so full of life that they can't help bursting into every plot.


While the Micawbers are comic caricatures, the Murdstones are caricatures of villains. David resents how they disrupt his happy home, and that distorts his-and therefore your-view of them.

When he first meets Mr. Murdstone, David only notices he has "beautiful black hair," but as soon as David starts to feel jealous, Mr. Murdstone is pictured as a black-hearted demon. By the time Miss Murdstone arrives, David sees them both as ogres. He describes them with a child's stubborn exaggeration, and doesn't try to understand their motives. Whenever they later appear, David automatically despises them.

But who are they underneath? Mr. Murdstone, at least, seems more human than his sister. Although he tortures his gentle wife by teaching her "firmness," the way she clings to him shows that Murdstone has somehow gained her affection. David doesn't show you their private moments together, so you have to imagine that there's another side to Murdstone. David thinks Murdstone makes a career of destroying young widows, but it's clear that the man really grieves when David's mother dies. Does that soften your opinion of Murdstone?

Jane Murdstone is stronger, colder, and more heartless than her brother. Dickens makes her seem inhuman by comparing her to metallic objects, especially locks, chains, and prisons. In a society where a spinster is a dependent creature, she uses her power over her brother to secure a home for herself. Notice how she pretends to defer to him, then continually adds her own vicious comments while he's lecturing his wife or trying to negotiate with Betsey Trotwood. Jane's attachment to her brother is almost unnatural, as though she is secretly, jealously in love with him. The Murdstones are villains, but Dickens is skillful enough to also show you the pain that may lie behind a villain's actions.


Uriah Heep is one of those people who automatically give you the creeps. He's bony and pale, with a slight fuzz of red hair and intense, lashless red-brown eyes. He looks like a skeleton; his hands are cold and clammy. He is intensely physical-always writhing and rubbing himself-and Dickens often compares him to animals. Heep is so physically repulsive that he fascinates David at first, but later it revolts David to think of him even touching Agnes.

When you first meet Uriah, he's only about fifteen, but he's an expert in the art of hypocrisy. As he grows older, he becomes more skillful at his nasty games, slowly taking over Mr. Wickfield's business and then his home. Uriah's trademark is to play himself down, saying how humble he is. He puts other people on the defensive and then trips them up by their own vanity. It's an amazingly effective power play, and that's why it's maddening to watch. Even when David tells him off, Uriah pretends to cringe more "umbly" than ever, so that David's anger suddenly looks stupid and selfish. Uriah plays being a worm for all it's worth.

Dickens establishes Uriah Heep as a caricature, outrageously awful, with his stock phrases and gestures and his weird mother behind him like his double. (They almost seem like aliens from another planet!) But just as you've learned to hate Uriah, in Chapter XXXIX he explains the warped upbringing that made him so hungry for power, money, and revenge. You'll have to consider whether or not this excuses Uriah. Is Uriah evil inside because his repulsive looks made him a social outcast, or is his repulsive appearance a symbol of the evil within him? How do you think you would respond to him?


David admires his boyhood idol, James Steerforth, so much that he makes the older boy fairly glow on the page. Steerforth is like the brother David never had. He's handsome, charming, talented, carelessly generous-the complete opposite of the timid or repressed people David's grown up with. And, like Dora, Steerforth shows real affection for David, which means a lot to lonely David. Maybe you've known people like this. Just when you're getting fed up with them, they turn on the charm and you can't help but forgive them. Dickens, however, conveys Steerforth's self-centered shallowness by Steerforth's own speeches, by the reactions of sensible characters like Tommy Traddles and Agnes Wickfield, and by melodramatic scenes at Steerforth's home. Watching Steerforth squander his talent, you can admire David more for making the most of his.

David is able to list his friend's flaws, but they never really sway him from his adoration. Perhaps that's why, in spite of all the hints Dickens drops about what's going to happen to Steerforth and Emily, David is still surprised when they run off together. It's also why he doesn't hate Steerforth for seducing Emily. When all is said, Steerforth is undeniably attractive. It's hard to blame Emily for running off with a lover like that, and you can't blame David for still admiring Steerforth, even as he watches him die in the shipwreck-a fitting symbol for the lives he has wrecked.


Dickens' political "cause" in this novel is the plight of fallen women (he was involved with running a home for such women in London). Emily is Dickens' main example of a fallen woman, and therefore, to make his social comment, he is very careful to present her in a sympathetic light. He introduces her as "Little Em'ly," a playful, spirited child, so your first impression is of her innocence and freshness. Only later, when David revisits the Peggottys, can you sense the doom hanging over her-a fatal hunger for adventure, for being "a lady." Yet Emily is by nature a lady. Even her speech is aristocratic, unlike the dialect of her Uncle Dan and cousin Ham. In some ways, Dickens blames the class system for her fate. Society's double standard will punish Emily, but not Steerforth, for their affair.

Emily's character gradually becomes less and less distinct. Although she was David's childhood sweetheart, his romantic interest fades after they grow up. Mr. Omer, the local undertaker, tells David about her, while Emily herself slides silently in and out. The anguish of a village girl's shame is voiced dramatically by Martha Endell, but Emily's shame is told only in her letters. After she returns to England from her scandalous life on the Continent, David sees her only through a doorway and across a crowded ship. Even Ham doesn't talk with her again, though he has forgiven her for jilting him. Maybe Dickens doesn't want you to see a "sinful woman" up close, or maybe he's emphasizing what an outcast she has become. Although Emily's uncle takes her back, most girls in her position weren't so lucky. Though she makes a new home in Australia, she chooses to remain cut off from life, unmarried. As a Victorian, Dickens can't approve of her moral lapse-he only asks pity for her.

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