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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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In Dickens' world, objects often seem to express the mood of the story. Collapsing, exhausted, on the road that leads to Kent, David sees a fountain that has "a great foolish image in the middle, blowing a dry shell"- a fitting reflection of David's own foolish scheme. Next he notices "feeble" candles burning at the secondhand clothes shop, and trousers hanging from the ceiling like corpses-reflecting the desperation of David's walk to Dover. Watch for images like these in other scenes.

After selling his waistcoat for a few pennies, David sleeps on the ground outside his old school. This points up the reversal of his fortunes (and also deftly reminds you of Steerforth and Traddles). The next day he reaches Rochester and Chatham (towns where Dickens grew up and often took long walks himself. The clothes-seller David deals with there is even worse than the one in London, and you sense that David is sliding down in the world fast. The boy's innocent, shy manner traps him into dealing with this old lunatic, but he shows a promising stubborn streak in waiting outside the shop for hours until the old man forks over the money.

Dickens' prose reflects fascination and horror with the underworld of the open road. The tramps David sees are vicious: an itinerant tinsmith steals David's neckerchief, while his beaten-up girlfriend looks on helplessly. Once David gets to Dover, the boatmen, drivers, and shopkeepers joke callously when he asks for directions to his aunt's. Even when David finds someone who knows Aunt Betsey, the man's description of her is discouraging. Yet David presses on and at last finds her cottage tidy and prosperous, in contrast to his own ragamuffin state. Intimidating as Betsey is, he approaches and speaks to her in a wavering, desperate, polite little voice. Then, as any child would, he bursts into tears.

As though in relief, the tone changes to broad comedy. You see Aunt Betsey-awkward, confused, but concerned-lay David on a sofa and pour potions down his throat. The comedy increases as her permanent guest Mr. Dick "advises" Betsey on what to do with David. In a way she uses simpleminded Dick as a front, to conceal her kind intentions, but the fact that she's taken him in reveals her kindness even more. She looks mannish and acts gruff, chasing sightseers' donkeys off the green, but as David lies half-asleep she smoothes his hair gently. You get a feeling that David's found a home.

Next morning at breakfast, David and Betsey have a hard time communicating. In contrast, Mr. Dick readily confides to David his worries and ideas. Mr, Dick, however, obviously has mental shortcomings. He writes every day for hours on a long document about his affairs-the "Memorial"- but he can't help filling it with nonsense about King Charles I, who was beheaded two centuries earlier. Then he turns the useless manuscript into huge kites, to waft the facts away. David learns that Betsey saved this loveable lunatic from the asylum, and she staunchly defends his sanity. Betsey is obviously a good friend to those she loves.

Aunt Betsey has announced that she's writing to Mr. Murdstone about David, but it's Miss Murdstone who first appears, riding a donkey toward the green as if she knew it would annoy Betsey. The clash between these two willful, strong females begins with a tussle over the donkey. When they sit in the parlor to discuss David's fate, hostility crackles in the air. Betsey even guards David behind a chair, as if he were in physical danger. The conversation is masterly, like a game of poker. Mr. Murdstone and Betsey sound each other out about David, testing, bluffing, and calling each other's cards. Mr. Murdstone has his vicious, agitated sister backing him up; Betsey has obedient, straightforward Mr. Dick. The Murdstones' repressed, formal coldness is no match for Betsey's shoot-from-the-hip style. Now that she's met the Murdstones, of course, Betsey is more than ever on David's side. (At what point do you feel she's made her decision?) To seal his fate, David makes an emotional speech, begging not to be sent back with the Murdstones.


In the middle of this lively dramatic dialogue, David's outburst is not quoted directly. Instead it's reported by the narrator. Dickens sometimes uses this technique to give you the impression of extreme emotion, as though he is delicately stepping back from it. He also uses indirect speech to contrast two verbal styles-here, the adults' formal negotiations against the child's heartfelt cry.

Betsey tells off Mr. Murdstone and, knowing how to infuriate her, ignores Miss Murdstone. The Murdstones leave in a huff. David is given a new name-Trotwood-and a new suit of clothes, and his new life begins. Once more, almost compulsively, he mentions the factory; then he buries it forever.

In Chapter XV David becomes a child again. He flies kites with the childlike grown-up, Mr. Dick, and he is enrolled in school. In Canterbury, Betsey takes him to Mr. Wickfield, the lawyer who will get David into the right school. But at the Wickfields', the first person David meets is the clerk Uriah Heep, a cadaverous-looking young man who comes out of the quaint, old house like a grim image of death. Inside, David meets Mr Wickfield, who's pleasant but getting stout and red-faced. Then he meets Mr. Wickfield's daughter who also seems unnaturally old. She's matronly and calm in her role as housekeeper, though she's only David's age. While her father looks like an aged version of his portrait, she already resembles her mother's portrait, only younger. David gets an image of her on the old oak staircase, looking like a stained-glass window-an old, saintly kind of art.

Betsey gives David some sound, almost fatherly parting advice, then quickly scuttles home, as though to hide her tears. At dinner with the Wickfields, David perceptively notices how much Mr. Wickfield dotes on Agnes, but also how melancholy that makes him, and how anxious Agnes is to cheer him up. David also notes Mr. Wickfield's tendency to drink too much. Canterbury looks like a lovely, quaint old town to David, but he can see the flaws in this antique setting. His final impression, too, is of Uriah Heep, with his clammy handshake and his watchful stare. How does Uriah's presence affect your feelings about Canterbury and the Wickfields?

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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Online Summary

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