David Copperfield (novel)

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Title David Copperfield
Illustration by Phiz for serial cover
Author Charles Dickens
Cover artist Hablot Knight Browne ( Phiz)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Bradbury & Evans
Released 1849-1850 (serialised)

David Copperfield or The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to be published 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. It is also Dickens' "favourite child."


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 and would be influential in the genre which included Dickens's own Great Expectations (1861), 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. Despite the premise of this work, Dickens does not give David Copperfield a stiff or unnatural feel, making this novel a supreme display of his genius at work.

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.

Plot summary

"I make myself known to my aunt".  Etching by Phiz.
"I make myself known to my aunt". Etching by Phiz.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The story deals with the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David is born in the England of the 1810s. David's father dies before he is born, and about seven years later, his mother marries Mr. Murdstone. David dislikes his step-father 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, in true Dickens style, 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 dies 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 David escapes the factory.

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. One effect of this double-naming is to divide the secondary characters according to when and through whom they got to know him.

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 nurse, Peggotty, her family, and the orphan Little Em'ly who lives with them and charms the young David; his romantic but self-serving schoolfriend, Steerforth, who seduces and dishonours 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 indebtedness.

In typical Dickens fashion, the major characters get some measure of what they deserve, and few narrative threads are left hanging. Mr. 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 succumbing to a lethal malady 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 honour of his aunt and another named Dora.

Characters in David Copperfield

"I am married".  Etching by Phiz.
"I am married". Etching by Phiz.
  • David Copperfield – the protagonist; later called "Trotwood Copperfield" by some ("David Copperfield" is also the name of the hero's father, who died before he was born). He has many nicknames: James Steerforth nicknamed him "Daisy", Dora called him "Doady", and his aunt referred to him, as a reference to his would-be sister (if he had been born a girl), as "Trot".
  • Clara Copperfield – David's kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House, 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). Inherited £3,000 - a vast sum in the mid 19th century - when Mr. Barkis died. After his death, she became Betsy Trotwood's servant.
  • Betsy Trotwood – David's eccentric and temperamental yet kindhearted aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from the Murdstones. She was present on the night of David's birth but left after hearing that Clara Copperfield's child was 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 eventually marries Peggotty and leaves her a then astronomical £3,000 when he dies about ten years later. His last words were, "Barkis is willin'!"
  • Edward Murdstone – Young David's cruel stepfather, who caned him for falling behind in his studies. David reacted by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sent him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr. Creakle. After David's mother died, Mr Murdstone sent him to work in a factory, where he had to clean wine bottles. He appeared at Betsy Trotwood's house after David ran 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 moved into the Copperfield house after Mr. Murdstone married Clara Copperfield. She was the "Confidential Friend" of David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, and encouraged many problems that occurred between David Copperfield and Dora's father, Mr. Spenlow. Later, she rejoined 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 took his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them was orphaned; after Emily's departure, he travels around the world in search of her. He eventually finds her working as a prostitute in London, and after that they emigrate to Australia.
  • Emily (Little Em'ly) – A niece of Mr. Peggotty. She was a childhood friend of David Copperfield, who loved her in his childhood days. She leaves her uncle and fiance, Ham, for Steerforth, but returns to them after Steerforth deserts her. She emigrates to Australia with Dan after being rescued from a London brothel.
  • Ham Peggotty – A good-natured nephew of Mr. Peggotty and the fiance of Emily before she leaves him for Steerforth; later loses his life while attempting to rescue a sailor (who happens to be Steerforth) from a shipwreck. His death was hidden from his family due to the fact that David did not want them to worry at the brink of their journey.
  • Mrs. Gummidge – The widow of Daniel Peggotty's partner; a self-described "lone, lorn creetur" who spent much of her time pining for "the old 'un" (her late husband). After Emily had ran 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 – a young woman of a bad reputation who helps Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She seemingly has 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 was a friend of Mr. Murdstone. He singles out David for extra torment. Later he became a Middlesex magistrate, but was considered enlightened for his day.
  • James Steerforth – A close friend of David of a romantic and charming disposition who has known David ever since his first days at Salem House; though well-liked by most, he proves himself to be lacking in character by seducing and later abandoning Emily. He eventually drowns at Yarmouth with Ham Peggotty, who was trying to rescue him.
  • Tommy Traddles – David's friend from Salem House.
  • Wilkins Micawber – A genteel man who befriends David as a young boy; suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtor's prison. Eventually emigrates to Australia where he enjoys a successful career as a magistrate.
  • 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 madness of King Charles I in his head.
  • Dr. Strong – The headmaster of David's Canterbury school, with whom he makes acquaintance on different occasions
  • Anne Strong – The young wife of Dr. Strong; though 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 for him.
  • Mr. Wickfield – The father of Agnes Wickfield and lawyer to Betsy Trotwood; prone to alcoholism.
  • Agnes Wickfield – Mr. Wickfield's mature and lovely daughter and close friend of David since childhood; 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" 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; has a secret love for Steerforth and blames others such as Emily and even his 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. Dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home.
  • Dora Spenlow – The delightful but childish daughter of Mr. Spenlow; She is described as being impractical and with many similarities as David's mother. David's first wife. She dies of illness in the same day as her dog, Jip.
Spoilers end here.


Film, TV and theatrical adaptations

David Copperfield has been filmed on several occasions:

  • 1911, directed by Theodore Marston
  • 1922, directed by A.W. Sandberg
  • 1935, directed by George Cukor
  • 1969, directed by Delbert Mann
  • 1999, shown on BBC - 25/26 December 1999
  • David Copperfield (2006), play adaptation. Shown in theatres.

The numerous television adaptations of the novel include a 1966 version with Ian McKellen as David and a 1999 version with Daniel Radcliffe (better known as the actor of Harry Potter) playing the younger 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.


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).

Release details

  • 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
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