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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Dickens is known for a rich range of writing styles-indignant, ironical, melodramatic, and sentimental, all of which appear in David Copperfield. To set the nostalgic tone for this novel, he also uses certain words like "little" and "old" more than usual, so his language seems especially sentimental. He tries to intensify the melodramatic impact with words such as "quite," "great," "very." These styles suit the Victorian fashion of emotional fiction, but they also reflect Dickens' personal habit of emotional involvement with his books.

The tone of David Copperfield is, of course, mostly controlled by its narrator. Sometimes David's narrative voice is exaggerated and ironical, as in the opening paragraphs. Yet because, as he says, these memoirs are not to be read by anyone else, he often speaks in an honest and straightforward tone of voice, as at the end of Chapter II. When he wants to show the older narrator's perspective on his younger self, he uses a tongue-in-cheek style, as when he describes David's infatuation with Dora.

There are many other voices in the novel, too, for Dickens is a superb dramatist: his characters reveal themselves more by what they say than by what he says about them. Compare Rosa Dartle's intense, sarcastic speeches to Steerforth's languid drawl. Read aloud examples of Mr. Micawber's pompous, wordy, euphemistic speeches, or Uriah Heep's winding, jerky, suggestive sentences.


This novel is seen through the eyes of David Copperfield. This should limit the story to events David has witnessed, but Dickens gets around that. Often he will have another character tell a piece of the story in a speech to David (like Dan Peggotty's account of his search for Emily) or in a letter (like Emily's letters home). When Dickens needs to show a private scene, such as the Strongs' reconciliation or Rosa Dartle's accusation of Emily, he makes David happen to turn up so he can be a spectator. David even gives a detailed description of his own birth.

Often Dickens will let a dramatic scene play out, almost as if it were on stage, as with Peggotty's quarrel with Mrs. Copperfield in Chapter II. In other dialogue scenes, like Aunt Betsey's conversation with Mr. Chillip in Chapter I, Dickens steers your responses in a particular direction with loaded descriptions and comments. In general, however, David speaks directly to you. You can even picture him as he writes; for example, in the middle of a description he may stop to comment on how vividly he still sees it, or how the memory affects him. (He says the smell of geraniums always reminds him of falling in love with Dora.) He also comments on what he did not know at the time, handing you a clue to future events and pulling you forward in the story.


David Copperfield was written in twenty monthly installments (it actually came out in nineteen parts, the final one being a double installment). Each installment was written to fit thirty-two closely printed large pages. Dickens kept each of his subplots moving along each month, never leaving an important character offstage for too long. He also ended each installment on a note of suspense, surprise, or foreboding. Toward the end of the book, some readers feel that the climaxes of the different plots are clustered too closely. For example, David has to leave his dying wife's bedside to help expose Uriah Heep, and then he hardly has time to grieve for her death before he's off to watch Ham and Steerforth die. Some readers have also criticized the coincidences Dickens uses to keep his plots interconnected. But he believed that this imitated life, where events are jumbled together in surprising ways.

Here are several ways you can examine the book's structure:

1. As David grows up, the book's vision and style change. First comes the fairy-tale world of Suffolk and Yarmouth, which lasts until David runs away from the factory. Next comes the social comedy of David's adolescence, until Betsey is ruined. Then there is the melodrama of his adulthood, until Dora and Steerforth die. In the melancholy epilogue, David marries Agnes.

2. The book falls into two parts because Dickens has different motives for writing each half. First he is remembering his own childhood, up through the time David goes to London. Then he starts writing a novel about the education of a novelist. --

3. This novel is divided into four parts by the four "Retrospect" chapters, XVIII, XLIII, LIII, and LXIV. Each retrospect catches David at a moment when he has achieved a goal or acquired new knowledge of the world-and will soon be moving on.

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