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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Most of the plots in this complex novel have now had their climaxes. The final double installment rounds off the book. It begins with a transitional chapter, as David leaves for the Continent to work through his grief. He's shattered, numb. If David's mourning seems excessive to you, remember that the Victorians were very sentimental about death and loss. Remember also that you should see David as a sensitive artist, who's grieving not only for his wife but for his best friend. He wanders throughout Europe, but unlike Mr. Peggotty, his wandering has no purpose; he scarcely notices anything. He's convinced he'll never get over his sadness.

But one evening in Switzerland, the view of a beautiful valley somehow opens his heart again. (The Victorians were great believers in the healing powers of nature.) He hears a distant singing that could almost be from heaven. Then he receives a letter from his guardian angel-Agnes-who says exactly what he needs to hear about surviving his sorrow. He is revived by human contact (like Emily and Dan Peggotty, he makes friends with local people) and, more importantly, by his own work. The discipline of hard work strengthens him. Also, though he doesn't make a big point of it, turning his experiences into fiction eases his heart.

Gradually he begins to realize that he has always loved Agnes. But grief has changed David from the bright young lover who won Dora's hand, and he pessimistically tells himself he's lost his chance with Agnes. He's sure she feels merely a sister's love for him, and that it's his fault. Though he suspects she once felt something more, he assumes that his boyish passions persuaded her to change her attitude. Feeling it wouldn't be fair to go to Agnes now, he stays away from England until three years have passed. Do you think David is aware of his true feelings here? If not, what feelings is he denying-and why?

Because David has changed, England looks different to him when he returns. London is dark and dirty. The waiters at the inn are old and solemn (compare them to the sly, talkative waiters David met in his youth). The inn itself is old, stodgy, and mired in the past. On his way to visit Traddles, David feels pessimistic about his friend's chances of success in such a society. Traddles is still cheerful and loyal, but a change has come into his life, too. He's finally married to Sophy. The tiny apartment is crowded with her and her sisters living there, but unlike Dora, Sophy appears to be a great manager. Traddles acts cautious of David's feelings. Although David claims to be joyful for them, he does seem a little detached, merely sitting and listening to them. Traddles' understated account of his absurd courtship is comical, though a bit pathetic. Watching them, David admires Sophy's domestic virtues. He's critical of her sisters and the way they let themselves be waited on, but their love and liveliness turns his criticism to approval. What does this tell you about what David wants out of life? Notice that once again he thinks of Agnes, though he resigns himself to having lost her.

Since David is a new man, it's appropriate that he runs into Dr. Chillip, who brought him into the world. David's childhood is replayed in their conversation, although meek little Chillip is really more interested in David's present fame as a writer (another reminder of how David has changed). Chillip tells David about the Murdstones' tyranny over a new young wife.

David revives another period of his life by heading to Dover to his aunt's. Betsey updates David on all his old friends, who are thriving. Their dialogue is dramatized when it comes to the most important old friend, Agnes. Betsey doesn't say so, but the way she looks at David and praises Agnes suggests that she feels there's something between them. David, however, is too full of nostalgic thoughts to notice this. He asks if Agnes has any lovers, and Betsey cryptically tells him that she suspects Agnes has an "attachment." David assumes the attachment is to someone new.

Going to the Wickfield house the next day, David relives happy childhood memories. When Agnes walks in, he catches her in his arms for a brotherly hug. Notice how she is described-only her "beautiful serene eyes" and her "angel-face." Their conversation is in tune with his melancholy. He says, as she speaks of Dora and Emily, "I could listen to the sorrowful, distant music, and desire to shrink from nothing it awoke."


For once you know more than David does. Earlier, when he foreshadowed Emily's tragedy, he knew what was going to happen and simply hadn't told it yet. Now, however, the older David himself is acting, and he has less perspective on himself. He doesn't seem to understand the meaning behind Agnes' sad, quiet smile. First he tries to get her to confide in him about her lover (he's probably jealous), and she merely blushes and shakes her head, which suggests that David is her "attachment." When he says to her, "Nothing good is difficult to you," she blushes and smiles again, which suggests that her self-sacrifice for David's love has in fact been very painful. But David merely records her expressions, without seeming to understand their meaning.

In keeping with this melancholy mood, Mr. Wickfield tells the full story of his own marriage. His wife's father disowned her for marrying Wickfield, and she died of a broken heart soon after Agnes' birth. Though brief, it's one more example of a blighted marriage and an unhealthy parent-child relationship. David's fervent conversation later with Agnes keeps veering close to an admission of love, but only close enough to make Agnes wince, as David harps on her saintliness and what a dear sister she is. Some readers feel that David really loves her for these traits, and therefore they are unconvinced by this relationship. Others feel that David has stronger, more sexual feelings for her but he's not admitting them to himself. She does seem unusually noble, talking about how his writing is important because he can do good through his books. But she also seems suited to his older, changed self. Notice that he praises her for her soft, almost sorrowful spirit. Why does she go on hiding her true feelings? Why is David still hiding his?

As David gets down to work again in the next chapter, he finally mentions how important his writing is to him. He explains why he hasn't talked about it more during the course of his story: because his books should themselves be his proof. Those books have made him so famous that he's getting bags of fan mail, and he enters in partnership with Traddles so that Traddles can be his business manager. Meanwhile, David envies Traddles' happy home, with Sophy copying documents for him and keeping house cleverly on very little money. Traddles gaily describes to David the inexpensive pleasures that make them happy. David remembers Traddles as he was at Salem House and pulls out from his stack of letters one from Mr. Creakle. Their old schoolmaster is now a magistrate, in charge of a prison.


This chapter seems to delay the book's ending, but Dickens' reputation as a political satirist demanded at least one broad satire on an institution, so here it is. Dickens had very strong ideas on prison reform. Although he was a liberal in many respects, he did not believe in treating prisoners kindly, feeling the money could be better spent helping honest people. Therefore, you see the old hypocrite Creakle, who ran his school like a prison, now running a prison like a pleasant school.

It may not be very realistic, but it's fitting that in this prison David meets some old enemies, rounding off their stories. Heep is here, and in his hypocrisy he's convinced the prison officers that he's a model prisoner, repentant and humble. In the very next cell is Littimer, who rivals Heep as a respectable prisoner. These villains are incapable of change. Littimer still tries to make David feel young and inadequate, and Heep, while saying he forgives David, implies that David has been wicked. Heep was arrested, fittingly, for fraud, while Littimer stole from his employer. Even Miss Mowcher is brought back into the plot, when David learns that she nabbed Littimer, probably to settle the score for what he did to Emily.

Despite his fame, David feels melancholy, mostly because of Agnes. He still believes he shouldn't reveal his feelings to Agnes, yet glimmers of hope, dreams of a happy future with her still rise to the surface. His heart is disciplined now, but is this really such a virtue after all? He's so busy restraining his feelings, he can't read Agnes' heart. Ironically, he's upset that she hasn't confided in him about her "attachment," and he worries that she doesn't understand how he feels (meaning how well he's disciplined his heart). When watchful Betsey hints that Agnes may soon marry, David heads for Canterbury in a state of agitation. Note that it's a frozen, wintry day. Since Dickens usually uses weather to set a scene, what kind of scene do you feel is coming?

David confronts Agnes, asking her to share her secret. This conversation is full of emotions trembling just below the surface. Agnes bursts into tears, and hope instinctively leaps into David's heart. For once, Agnes is emotional, while David acts kind and helpful. But because you know he doesn't understand her true feelings, his kind words sound clumsy and stupid. He speaks of his brotherly concern, how he wants to share her burden, how he wouldn't be jealous of another. (Don't these sound like the wrong things to say to someone who's supposed to be in love?) Finally she tells him that her secret is an old one. This is the clue David needs, and he bursts into a confession of his love.


Even as David proposes to Agnes, he speaks of Dora and sees her eyes shining through Agnes'. Perhaps Dickens unconsciously wanted to put a little more of pretty Dora into Agnes so David can love her. Or perhaps Dickens just wanted to show that David is not betraying his love for Dora by marrying Agnes. After they're married, Agnes admits to David that Dora "left" David to Agnes, the night she died. You're reminded of Dora's wisdom, as her blessing on this marriage clears the air of any regrets.

David ties up more threads by dramatizing another scene, ten years later. Mr. Peggotty comes home for a visit from Australia, bearing news of his prosperity and good fortune. His account moves from tragic stories toward comic ones. Emily's spirits have often been low, he says, especially after she learned about Ham and Steerforth's deaths, although hard work and good deeds always got her through. Martha, who is less of a tragic heroine, has fared better and married a farm-laborer. Even Mrs. Gummidge got a proposal of marriage once, though she refused it comically, but otherwise she's been cheerful and helpful the whole time. Mr. Peggotty ends with the most comic character, Mr. Micawber. Even he has worked hard and prospered in Australia and is now a magistrate.


Though Micawber's fortunes have changed, Dickens assures you that his personality hasn't. You hear Micawber's characteristic speech again in the article Mr. Peggotty shows them from a local paper, describing a public dinner honoring Micawber. As the article goes on, it sounds more and more like Mr. Micawber wrote it. Micawber has also printed a letter to David in the paper, as though he can't resist firing off another wordy letter if he has the chance.

The article about the dinner also reveals that Mr. Mell, David's teacher at Salem House, now runs a school in Australia, and Mrs. Micawber's family has gone to Australia, finally approving of Mr. Micawber. One last touching detail ends this chapter: Mr. Peggotty goes to Yarmouth to pull a tuft of grass from Ham's grave, as he promised to do for Emily.

The final chapter is one last present-tense retrospect, but this time it sounds as though it really is written about the present. David and Agnes are happy, with several children and with David's success still growing. But much of the rest is gently melancholy. You see Betsey, Peggotty, and Mr. Dick grown old, though still using their characteristic props or turns of phrase. Mrs. Steerforth lives on, addled by her stroke; Rosa, withered but fierce as ever, remains tied to her side. Julia Mills has come home from India, where she married a rich man, but she seems disagreeable and unhappy. David describes her social circle with distaste, and Jack Maldon's presence there is a bad sign. David briefly tells you that the Strongs are happy, and Mrs. Markleham no longer interferes. He spends more time depicting Traddles, whose hair still stands on end but who is apparently becoming a success. Traddles uses his money to do good deeds for his wife's family. (Dickens has David describe yet another bad marriage-Sophy's sister "the Beauty" married a shiftless cad.) David's last words are of Agnes, whose face shines like a "Heavenly light" upon him. The book's final image is of Agnes, still pointing upward.

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

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