or The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)
is a novel by Charles Dickens
, first published in 1850. Like all except five of his works, it originally appeared in serial form (published in monthly installments). Many elements within the novel follow events in Dickens' own life, and it is probably the most autobiographical
of all of his novels. In the preface to the 1867 Charles Dickens edition, he wrote, "...like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."
Dickens worked on David Copperfield
for two years between 1848 and 1850, carefully planning out the plot and structure. Seven novels precede it, and seven novels would come after it, Copperfield
being his mid-point novel.
The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of the first person narrator, David Copperfield himself, and was the first Dickens novel to do so.
Critically, it is considered a Bildungsroman, i.e., a novel of self-cultivation, and would be influential in the genre which included Dickens's own Great Expectations (1861), Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, published only two years prior, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
As a bildungsroman, it has one major theme throughout, the disciplining of the hero's emotional and moral life. We learn to go against "the first mistaken impulse of the undisciplined heart", a theme which is repeated throughout all the relationships and characters in the novel.
Characters in the novel generally belong to one of three categories: Those who have disciplined hearts, those who lack disciplined hearts, or those who develop disciplined hearts over time. Characters who fall into the first category include the mature and caring Agnes Wickfield and the selfless and forgiving Mr. Peggotty. The greedy, scheming Uriah Heep and the egotistic and inconsiderate James Steerforth are examples of characters who belong in the second category. Members of the third category include David Copperfield himself, who learns to make wiser choices in his relationships through personal experience, and his aunt Betsy Trotwood, who lacks consideration for others early on, but becomes less inconsiderate over time. Dickens uses characters and events throughout the novel as comparisons and contrasts for each other in terms of wisdom and discipline. A good comparison is Agnes Wickfield and Dora Spenlow: Dora lacks maturity and is unable to handle stressful situations, often breaking out in tears, while Agnes remains calm and collected even when troubled, yielding to her emotions only rarely. Another good comparison is Ham and Mr. Peggotty, and Mrs. Steerforth and Miss Dartle: The latter two become distraught at the loss of Steerforth, allowing it to trouble them their whole lives, while the former two bear the loss of Emily with dignity and reservation.
Tolstoy regarded Dickens as the best of all English novelists, and considered Copperfield to be his finest work, ranking the "Tempest" chapter (chapter 55,LV - the story of Ham and the storm and the shipwreck) the standard by which the world's great fiction should be judged. Henry James remembered hiding under a small table as a boy to hear installments read by his mother. Dostoevsky read it enthralled in a Siberian prison camp. Franz Kafka called his first book Amerika a "sheer imitation." James Joyce paid it reverence through parody in Ulysses. Virginia Woolf, who normally had little regard for Dickens, confessed the durability of this one novel, belonging to "the memories and myths of life". It was Freud's favorite novel.
The story deals with the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David is born in England in about 1820. David's father had died six months before he was born, and seven years later, his mother marries Mr Edward Murdstone. David dislikes his stepfather and has similar feelings for Mr Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Mr Murdstone thrashes David for falling behind with his studies. During the thrashing, David bites him and is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, with a ruthless headmaster, Mr. Creakle. Here he befriends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles who leave and then reappear later on.
David returns home for the holidays to find out that his mother has had a baby boy. Soon after David goes back to Salem House, his mother and her baby die and David has to return home immediately. Mr. Murdstone sends him to work in a factory in London of which he is a joint owner. The grim reality of hand-to-mouth factory existence echoes Dickens' own travails in a blacking factory. His landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is sent to a debtor's prison (the King's Bench Prison) after going bankrupt, and is there for several months before being released and moving to Plymouth. David now has nobody left to care for him in London, and decides to run away.
He walks all the way from London to Dover, to find his only known relative - his eccentric Aunt Betsy Trotwood - who agrees to bring him up, despite Mr Murdstone visiting in a bid to regain custody of David. David's aunt renames him Trotwood Copperfield, soon shortened to "Trot", and for the rest of the novel he is called by either name, depending on whether he is communicating with someone he has known for a long time, or someone he has only got to know recently.
The story follows David as he grows to adulthood, and is enlivened by the many well-known characters who enter, leave and re-enter his life. These include his faithful housekeeper Peggotty, her family, and their orphaned niece Little Em'ly who lives with them and charms the young David; his romantic but self-serving schoolfriend, Steerforth, who seduces and dishonors Little Em'ly, triggering the novel's greatest tragedy; and his landlord's daughter and ideal "angel in the house," Agnes Wickfield, who becomes his confidante. The two most familiar characters are David's sometime mentor, the constantly debt-ridden Mr. Wilkins Micawber, and the devious and fraudulent clerk, Uriah Heep, whose misdeeds are eventually discovered with Micawber's assistance. Micawber is painted as a sympathetic character, even as the author deplores his financial ineptitude; and Micawber, like Dickens's own father, is briefly imprisoned for insolvency.
In typical Dickens fashion, the major characters get some measure of what they deserve, and few narrative threads are left hanging. Dan Peggotty safely transports Little Em'ly to a new life in Australia; accompanying these two central characters are Mrs. Gummidge, and the Micawbers. Everybody involved finally finds security and happiness in their new lives in Australia. David first marries the beautiful but naïve Dora Spenlow, but she dies after failing to recover from a miscarriage early in their marriage. David then does some soul-searching and eventually marries and finds true happiness with Agnes, who had secretly always loved him. They have several children, including a daughter named in honor of Betsy Trotwood.
Characters in David Copperfield
- David Copperfield – An optimistic, diligent, and persevering character, he is the protagonist. He is later called "Trotwood Copperfield" by some ("David Copperfield" is also the name of the hero's father, who dies before David is born). He has many nicknames: James Steerforth nicknames him "Daisy", Dora calls him "Doady", and his aunt refers to him, as a reference to his would-be sister (if he had been born a girl), as "Trot" - as in Betsy Trotwood Copperfield.
- Clara Copperfield – David's kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House. She dies just after the birth of her second child, who dies along with her.
- (Clara) Peggotty – The faithful servant of the Copperfield family and a lifelong companion to David (referred to generally as simply "Peggotty"; referred to at times as Mrs. Barkis after her marriage to Mr. Barkis). Inherits £3,000 - a large sum in the mid 19th century - when Mr. Barkis dies. After his death, she becomes Betsy Trotwood's servant.
- Betsy Trotwood – David's eccentric and temperamental yet kindhearted aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from Grinby and Murdstone's warehouse in Blackfriars (London). She is present on the night of David's birth but leaves after hearing that Clara Copperfield's child is a boy instead of a girl.
- Mr Chillip – A shy doctor who assists at David's birth and faces the wrath of Betsy Trotwood after he informs her that Clara's baby is a boy instead of a girl.
- Mr Barkis – An aloof coachman who declares his intention to marry Peggotty. He says to David: "Tell her, 'Barkis is willin'!' Just so.". He is a bit of a miser, and hides his surprisingly vast liquid wealth in a plain box labeled "Old Clothes". He bequeathes to his wife the then astronomical sum of £3,000 when he dies about ten years later.
- Edward Murdstone – Young David's cruel stepfather, who canes him for falling behind in his studies. David reacts by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sends him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr. Creakle. After David's mother dies, Mr Murdstone sends him to work in a factory, where he has to clean wine bottles. He appears at Betsy Trotwood's house after David runs away. Mr Murdstone appears to show signs of repentance when confronted with Copperfield's aunt, but later in the book we hear he has married another young woman and applied his old principles of "firmness."
- Jane Murdstone – Mr. Murdstone's equally cruel sister, who moves into the Copperfield house after Mr. Murdstone marries Clara Copperfield. She is the "Confidential Friend" of David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, and encourages many of the problems that occur between David Copperfield and Dora's father, Mr. Spenlow. Later, she rejoins her brother and his new wife in a relationship very much like the one they had with David's mother.
- Daniel Peggotty – Clara Peggotty's brother; a humble but generous Yarmouth fisherman who takes his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them has been orphaned. After Emily's departure, he travels around the world in search of her. He eventually finds her in London, and after that they emigrate to Australia.
- Emily (Little Em'ly) – A niece of Mr. Peggotty. She is a childhood friend of David Copperfield, who loves her in his childhood days. She leaves her cousin and fiancé, Ham, for Steerforth, but returns after Steerforth deserts her. She emigrates to Australia with Mr. Peggotty after being rescued from a London brothel.
- Ham Peggotty – A good-natured nephew of Mr. Peggotty and the fiancé of Emily before she leaves him for Steerforth. He later loses his life while attempting to rescue a sailor, who happens to be Steerforth, from a shipwreck. His death is hidden from his family due to the fact that David does not want them to worry on the brink of their journey.
- Mrs. Gummidge – The widow of Daniel Peggotty's partner in a boat. She is a self-described "lone, lorn creetur" who spends much of her time pining for "the old 'un" (her late husband). After Emily runs away from home with Steerforth, she changes her attitude to better comfort everyone around her and tries to be very caring and motherly. She too emigrates to Australia with Dan and the rest of the surviving family.
- Martha Endell – A young woman of a bad reputation who helps Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She has worked as a prostitute, and been victim to the idea of suicide.
- Mr. Creakle – The harsh headmaster of young David's boarding school, who is assisted by Tungay. Mr. Creakle is a friend of Mr. Murdstone. He singles out David for extra torment. Later he becomes a Middlesex magistrate, and is considered enlightened for his day.
- James Steerforth – A close friend of David, he is of a romantic and charming disposition and has known David ever since his first days at Salem House. Although well-liked by most, he proves himself to be lacking in character by seducing and later abandoning Little Em'ly. He eventually drowns at Yarmouth with Ham Peggotty, who had been trying to rescue him.
- Tommy Traddles – David's friend from Salem House. They meet again later and become eventual lifelong friends.
- Wilkins Micawber – A gentle man who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtor's prison. Eventually he emigrates to Australia where he enjoys a successful career as a magistrate. He is based on Dickens' father.
- Mr. Dick (Richard Babley) – A slightly deranged, rather childish but amiable man who lives with Betsy Trotwood. His madness is amply described in as much as that he claims to have the crown of King Charles I in his head.
- Dr. Strong – The headmaster of David's Canterbury school, whom he visits on various occasions.
- Anne Strong – The young wife of Dr. Strong. Although she remains loyal to him, she fears that he suspects that she is involved in an affair with Jack Maldon.
- Jack Maldon – A cousin and childhood sweetheart of Anne Strong. He continues to bear affection for her and tries to seduce her into leaving Dr. Strong.
- Mr. Wickfield – The father of Agnes Wickfield and lawyer to Betsy Trotwood. He is prone to alcoholism.
- Agnes Wickfield – Mr. Wickfield's mature and lovely daughter and close friend of David since childhood. She later becomes David's second wife and mother of their children.
- Uriah Heep – A wicked young man who serves as partner to Mr. Wickfield. He is finally discovered to have stolen money and is imprisoned as a punishment. He always talks of being "'umble" (humble) and nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and many others.
- Mrs. Steerforth – The wealthy widowed mother of James Steerforth. She herself is incredibly like her son.
- Miss Dartle – A strange, vitriolic woman who lives with Mrs. Steerforth. She has a secret love for Steerforth and blames others such as Emily and even Steerforth's own mother for corrupting him. She is described as being extremely skinny and displays a visible scar on her lip caused by Steerforth. She is also Steerforth's cousin.
- Mr. Spenlow – An employer of David's during his days as a proctor and the father of Dora Spenlow. He dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home.
- Dora Spenlow – The delightful but naive daughter of Mr. Spenlow who becomes David's first wife. She is described as being impractical and with many similarities to David's mother. She dies of illness on the same day as her dog, Jip.
Film, TV, and theatrical adaptations
has been filmed on several occasions:
The numerous television adaptations of the novel include a 1966 version with Ian McKellen as David and a 1999 version with Daniel Radcliffe (of the Harry Potter film series) playing the younger David and Ciaran Mcmenamin as the older David. In this latter version, McKellen returns, this time playing the horrendous schoolmaster Creakle. There was a musical animated version in 1993, where the cast was animorphic animals (not unlike Disney's Robin Hood) and starred Julian Lennon as the voice of David (a cat). A 2000 American TV film version featured Sally Field, Anthony Andrews, Paul Bettany, Edward Hardwicke, Michael Richards and Nigel Davenport with Hugh Dancy and Max Dolbey as the adult and boy Copperfield, respectively.
A play adaptation by Andrew Halliday was warmly approved by Dickens himself, and enjoyed a long run at Drury Lane. The novel was adapted for the unsuccessful musical Copperfield in 1981.
Like most of Charles Dickens's novels, David Copperfield was published in 19 monthly one-shilling installments, containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz, with the last being a double-number:
- I - May 1849 (chapters 1-3);
- II - June 1849 (chapters 4-6);
- III - July 1849 (chapters 7-9);
- IV - August 1849 (chapters 10-12);
- V - September 1849 (chapters 13-15);
- VI - October 1849 (chapters 16-18);
- VII - November 1849 (chapters 19-21);
- VIII - December 1849 (chapters 22-24);
- IX - January 1850 (chapters 25-27);
- X - February 1850 (chapters 28-31);
- XI - March 1850 (chapters 32-34);
- XII - April 1850 (chapters 35-37);
- XIII - May 1850 (chapters 38-40);
- XIV - June 1850 (chapters 41-43);
- XV - July 1850 (chapters 44-46);
- XVI - August 1850 (chapters 47-50);
- XVII - September 1850 (chapters 51-53);
- XVIII - October 1850 (chapters 54-57);
- XIX-XX - November 1850 (chapters 58-64).
- 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans ?, Pub date 1 May 1849 and 1 November 1850, Serial (first publication as serial)
- 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans ?, Pub date ? ? 1850, Hardback (first book edition)
- 1981 (Reprinted 2003) UK, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-812492-9 Hardback, Edited by Nina Burgis, The Clarendon Dickens (considered the definitive editions of Dicken's works) 781 pages
- 1990, USA, W W Norton & Co Ltd ISBN 0-393-95828-0, Pub date 31 January 1990, Hardback (Jerome H. Buckley (Editor), Norton Critical Edition - contains annotations, introduction, critical essays, bibliography and other material.)
- 1994, UK, Penguin Books Ltd ISBN 0-14-062026-5, Pub date 24 February 1994, Paperback
- 1999, UK, Oxford Paperbacks ISBN 0-19-283578-5, Pub date 11 February 1999, Paperback
- and many many others
'David Copperfield' is often used in other situations or texts to refer to a lengthy biographical story.
- In J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the first sentence, as narrated by Holden Caulfield, is "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it."
- In the TV series Black Books, a grumpy Bernard Black is reluctant to hear too much back-story from new employee, Manny Bianco, about his past — halting him just as he starts to say where he was born with, "Stop right there, David Copperfield. If you're going back that far we need popcorn or something."
- In an Home Improvement episode, "This Joke's For You", Brad manfully undertakes to read David Copperfield in order to impress a girl, but his efforts are stymied by the book's length.
- In the movie, Gone With the Wind, when the wives are sitting around the table doing needlepoint, nervously waiting for Rhett to return with a wounded Ashley, Melanie soothes their nerves by reading David Copperfield aloud while the military stands guard outside.
- There are numerous allusions to David Copperfield in John Irving's "The Cider House Rules". The hero, Homer Wells, reads the novel to the boys at St. Cloud's Orphanage. In the film, Toby Mcguire (Homer) reads the opening passage aloud during storytime at the orphanage. In the film, two orphans are named Copperfield and Steerforth.
- In the Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Time Enough at Last", the main character Henry Bemis is reading David Copperfield during the first scene while he tries to do his job as a bank teller. He mentions the book and the characters in it to a client.
- Jeffers, Thomas L. (2005). Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave.
- David Copperfield (Major Literary Characters series). Edited and with an Introduction by Harold Bloom. 255 pages. 1992 New York: Chelsea House Publishers
- Graham Storey: David Copperfield - Interweaving Truth and Fiction (Twayne's Masterworks Studies). 111 pages. 1991 Boston: Twayne Publishers
- Approaches to Teaching Dickens' David Copperfield. Edited by Richard J. Dunn. 162 pages. 1984 New York: The Modern Language Association of America
- Barry Westburg: The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens. See pages 33 to 114. 1977 DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press
- Catcher in The Rye, J.D. Salinger; Penguin 1951
- Black Books -TV Series/DVD - Assembly Film and Television/Channel 4, 2002; Episode 2, Series 1 - 'Manny's First Day.'