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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Because David idealizes his mother, he describes her as a hazy figure, more important as an emotional source than as a real physical figure. She's pretty, affectionate, and too gentle to protect herself (let alone David) from the Murdstones. David's view is true as far as it goes. Her servant Peggotty and Mr. Murdstone both love her, too, and she responds lovingly to them. From her speeches and actions, however, you can draw some other conclusions about her. She is timid-Aunt Betsey, Jane Murdstone, and even Peggotty dominate her. She's gullible and shallow, willing to adopt the opinions of both her husbands. She's selfish, sometimes quarreling like a spoiled child with Peggotty, and she doesn't seem to consider David's reaction when she decides to marry Edward Murdstone. She's weak and a little foolish, but she does give her son the love he needs, and he never gets over losing her.


Practical, sturdy, loyal, Clara Peggotty provides whatever motherly qualities Clara Copperfield lacks, and the two halves make a warm, secure whole for young David. Peggotty emerges as a force of love and life in the house in opposition to the Murdstones. When David goes away, first to school and later to work, Peggotty's letters give him a sense of continuity with home. Even after she marries the wagon-driver Barkis, she always keeps a room for David, and she preserves cherished relics of his past, such as the crocodile book and her sewing box. Through Peggotty, David gains respect for honest, working-class values. Her constancy and affection run like a reassuring thread throughout the novel.


When David first visits Dan Peggotty's ingenious boat-house, he loves it not only because it's like a little boy's fantasy, but also because it offers something he doesn't have at home: a generous, manly father figure. Dan has taken in Ham, Emily, and the widow Mrs. Gummidge out of sheer big-heartedness-a sharp contrast to Mr. Murdstone's grudging acceptance of David. Though he is rough, modest, and inarticulate, Dan's dignity and generous heart make him a natural gentleman. But after his happy home is destroyed, this humble working-class figure seems to change. Some readers feels that his obsession with finding Emily reveals an almost unhealthy attachment to his niece. Others think that in his search he turns into a mythical figure-the wandering spirit of forgiveness and hope. Perhaps it is fitting that at the end of the novel he should lead a group of emigrants to Australia to start new lives.


At Mr. Creakle's school, dull, decent Tommy Traddles is a victim not only of Creakle's cruelty but also of Steerforth's careless wit. Young Traddles is a pathetic figure, compulsively doodling skeletons. Yet when David meets him years later in London, Traddles' steady honesty makes him a standard to compare David to: as a lover (Traddles is comically engaged for years to his Sophy), as a young man trying to get ahead in his career (Traddles helps David appreciate hard work), and as a dependable friend. Though he remains a slightly comic figure, with his hair sticking up ridiculously on end, you can't sell him short. He performs wonders in helping to expose Uriah Heep, and eventually the "second-rate" schoolboy becomes quite a success.


Aunt Betsey's friend Mr. Dick may be simpleminded, but his simple thoughts sometimes go right to the heart of the matter. When he first appears, his obvious statements are comical. Aunt Betsey asks his advice on what to do with David and then treats his feeble replies as pearls of wisdom. Later in the book, however, Mr. Dick really does act with a wisdom of the heart in bringing the Strongs back together. He's like a child, flying his kite, constantly scribbling on the Memorial, solemnly pretending to understand grown-up affairs. He's childishly pleased when he completes a simple task, like the copy work he learns to do. But this makes a good balance for Betsey, with her snap judgments and muddled emotions. Because he is childlike, he responds to the world with pure instincts, and his opinions of people are usually right on target.


The Wickfield house is always described as old and quaint, and Agnes' father is like a figure of old England-mellow, kindly, refined, but beginning to deteriorate. Mr. Wickfield is haunted by the past, especially by the memory of his wife, whom Agnes resembles so much. When he first appears, Mr. Wickfield is a competent lawyer, but he's already hesitant and melancholy. His gradual decay generally takes place offstage, described by Agnes, Uriah, or Micawber; somehow that makes it sadder and more helpless.

Like Dan Peggotty, he lives for his daughter, but unlike Dan he cannot really rebuild his life. Though Heep's evil is rooted out, Mr. Wickfield refuses to return to work, living instead as a harmless white-haired gentleman near Agnes while she runs her school.


The Strongs' name is ironic, for neither of them is strong. David's schoolmaster is good and kind but absentminded and too trusting. His young wife Annie is also goodhearted, but she has let her manipulative mother get her into difficult situations-first into marriage with an older man, then into a dangerous flirtation with her cousin Jack Maldon. When David first observes what is going on, he assumes that Annie is having an affair with Jack, and at that point her sexual temptation foreshadows Emily's seduction by Steerforth. However, later David learns that Annie has been faithful to the Doctor. Hearing her talk about how her love has deepened and matured gives him something to ponder in his own youthful marriage.


Mrs. Steerforth's companion Rosa Dartle is a troubling, ambiguous character. Like her cousin James, Rosa is haughty and contemptuous, but she hasn't got his charm to soften the superior air. Like Emily, Rosa apparently gave herself to Steerforth, but she's now cast-off and bitter, a warning for Emily. Like Jane Murdstone, Rosa becomes a dependent spinster whose emotions burst out in bizarre ways-her repressed love for Steerforth is like Jane's for her brother. Rosa is certainly a melodramatic figure-dark, intense, with a livid scar slashing across her lip where Steerforth attacked her. The scar is a constant reminder of Steerforth's cruelty, as well as a symbol of the blight on Rosa's soul. Her speech seethes with hidden meanings. In her showdown with Emily, she reaches such a pitch of emotion that it's hard to tell what she's feeling. Rosa is one of Dickens' most haunting characters, a disturbing reminder that not everyone lives happily ever after.

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