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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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How do most people you know at school feel about graduation? When David graduates, he's sorry to leave school, but he's excited about seeing the world. He hasn't really thought about a career, except in romantic notions, but Aunt Betsey suggests it's time for him to choose one. She tells him that she wants him to become a "firm fellow." Betsey's idea of firmness, though, concerns strength of character, not the rigid repression of the Murdstones.

Before setting out for London, David says goodbye to Agnes. Their conversation shows their relationship-bantering, affectionate, but with an undercurrent of deeper feeling. It also brings out a new plot development: Mr. Wickfield's recent decline. Subtly, by having Agnes mention Uriah once, Dickens implies what David doesn't know yet-that Heep is partly behind this. Another worrisome note is sounded at the Strongs'. Jack Maldon has written from India, dropping hints that he wants to come home. David is old enough now to suspect an affair between Annie and Jack, and to feel, as does Mr. Wickfield, that Annie is a bad influence on Agnes. Does this fit in with your impression of Agnes' character?

David's journey by coach to London reverses his long-ago walk to Dover. Now, in contrast, he's riding in comfort, and it makes him a little conceited. But he's still fairly innocent. He's cheated out of his seat by a shifty-looking horse breeder, and the waiter at the inn in London passes off inferior food and wine on him. David is dazzled by the plays he sees at the theater that night. Soon after, he runs into his old friend Steerforth at the inn. Steerforth's opinion of the same performance is bored and jaded. It's a typical Steerforth attitude, of course, bringing him back into the story in familiar fashion. But it's also typical that Steerforth takes care of David, getting him a better room. No wonder David's dreams that night mix up Steerforth and the gods.

Next to Steerforth, David suddenly feels very young. Knowing that he doesn't shave much yet, he's embarrassed by the chambermaid's giggles as she brings his shaving water in the morning. The waiter acts respectful now, because Steerforth is in command. Steerforth gives David a new name-Daisy, signifying how girlish and naive he seems. The Steerforths' house at Highgate, where David visits, awes him, too. It's stately, dignified, and genteel, as is Mrs. Steerforth. Mrs. Steerforth's companion, Rosa Dartle, a poor relative, also intimidates David.


Dickens uses Rosa's way of speaking to define her character. Her swift wit shows you she's bright and perceptive, but her jerky, short phrases suggest a personality torn by conflicting impulses. Questions and exclamations give her speech energy, but in pretending to sound innocent she comes across as sarcastic, cynical, even vicious. You get an impression of an unhappy, frustrated woman, whose bottled-up resentment will erupt someday. While some readers view her with sympathy, others regard her as a potential source of trouble.

Rosa constantly reminds you of the unhappiness in this household. When David invites Steerforth to join him on his visit to the Peggottys, Rosa provokes Steerforth into callous remarks about "that sort of people." The scar that cuts across her lip is a constant reminder of Steerforth's careless temper. This sense of a taint over the household also colors Mrs. Steerforth's devotion to her son. Mrs. Steerforth, whose chief sin is pride, adores her son so much that she can't see him clearly, and she encourages him in his own pride. Notice how she goes on and on when she talks to David about James. David's replies are quoted indirectly, as if she's not even listening to him. Like Mr. Wickfield or Mrs. Heep, she seems too attached to her child, fatally obsessed with him.


Dickens introduces Steerforth's manservant, Littimer, in Chapter XXI. Without saying so, Dickens makes you suspect this man's a villain. He's too quiet, almost sneaky, and hisses when he speaks. What other physical details of Littimer seem evil to you? Why? Dickens tags him repeatedly as "respectable," but his tone is ironic, so you can guess that this respectable appearance is not all there is to him.

Littimer makes David feel more like a boy than anyone, and Steerforth is dangerously dependent upon him. This sets up an uneasy mood as Steerforth arrives with David in Yarmouth. At first Steerforth casually drops out of sight. David renews his acquaintance with the undertaker Mr. Omer, whose liveliness now appears simply genial. Emily works in his shop, and David learns from him the local opinion of her-that she puts on ladylike airs. David sees her through a doorway, but she's so beautiful that he's too shy to speak to her. Although she was once his sweetheart, she now seems in another world from David, and not necessarily for the better.

David visits his devoted Peggotty and the invalid Barkis, who has become a miser. Steerforth is so charming when he meets Peggotty that she adores him at once (compare this to Mrs. Steerforth's acceptance of David). After dinner, David and Steerforth go to the boat-house. But now it's dark and the wind sighs dismally. The older David who narrates this comments bitterly that he didn't realize that Steerforth considered this a game. Also ominous is Steerforth's comment that he found the house this morning "by instinct," almost like a predator sniffing out his prey. As David opens the door, a happy family scene is captured for a moment; a joyous announcement has just been made. But the happiness dissolves when David and Steerforth enter. Of course, they're greeted eagerly, and inarticulate Mr. Peggotty explains, though it takes a while, that Ham and Emily have just become engaged. His narration of their courtship depicts simple, honest emotions, growing slowly and steadily over time. But notice that Emily has run, ashamed, from the room, and even David feels a vague twinge of regret.

Steerforth is able, however, to put everyone at ease, even Mrs. Gummidge. Though Emily shrinks away from Ham, she listens raptly to Steerforth as he tells of a shipwreck (more foreshadowing). Walking away later, David is surprised by Steerforth's cold remarks that Ham is not good enough for Emily. David can't fit this in with Steerforth's sociable manner. He's still too innocent and trusting to read his friend's motives. Do you share David's view of Steerforth at this point? If not, what evidence in the book makes you feel differently about him?

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

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