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Based in part on the author's own life, David Copperfield is the epic story of a young man's journey of self-discovery - from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the memorable cast of characters he encounters along the way are his brutal stepfather, Mr Murdstone; bubbly Nurse Peggotty; his brilliant, but unworthy schoolmate Steerforth, his eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood, the scheming clerk Uriah Heep, the enchanting Dora and the magnificent Mr Macawber - a character much like Dickens' own father. Full of tragedy and comedy in equal measure, David Copperfield remains one of the most enduring and popular of Dickens' novels.
About the Author
Charles Dickens was born in 1812. When he was twelve, his father was sent to a debtor's prison and he was sent to work; the experiences from this time always haunted him. After a brief career as a reporter Dickens began writing novels. Published in serial form, his work grew rapidly in popularity, beginning with The Pickwick Papers. Today, Charles Dickens is one of the most recognized celebrities of English literature. His many books include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.
Date of Birth:February 7, 1812
Date of Death:June 18, 1870
Place of Birth:Portsmouth, England
Place of Death:Gad's Hill, Kent, England
Education:Home-schooling; attended Dame School at Chatham briefly and Wellington
Read an Excerpt
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.
I need say nothing here on the first head, because nothing can show better than my history whether that prediction was verified or falsified by the result. On the second branch of the question, I will only remark, that unless I ran through that part of my inheritance while I was still a baby, I have not come into it yet. But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property; and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.
I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether seagoing people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don't know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss—for as to sherry, my poor dear mother's own sherry was in the market then—and ten years afterwards the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half a crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short—as it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic, to endeavour without any effect to prove to her. It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two. I have understood that it was, to the last, her proudest boast, that she never had been on the water in her life, except upon a bridge; and that over her tea (to which she was extremely partial) she, to the last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and others, who had the presumption to go 'meandering' about the world. It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences, tea perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice. She always returned, with greater emphasis and with an instinctive knowl-edge of the strength of her objection, 'Let us have no meandering.'
Not to meander myself, at present, I will go back to my birth.
I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or 'thereby,' as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father's eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white gravestone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.
An aunt of my father's, and consequently a great-aunt of mine, of whom I shall have more to relate by-and-by, was the principal magnate of our family. Miss Trotwood, or Miss Betsey, as my poor mother always called her, when she sufficiently overcame her dread of this formidable personage to mention her at all (which was seldom), had been married to a husband younger than herself, who was very handsome, except in the sense of the homely adage, 'handsome is, that handsome does'—for he was strongly suspected of having beaten Miss Betsey, and even of having once, on a disputed question of supplies, made some hasty but determined arrangements to throw her out of a two pair of stairs' window. These evidences of an incompatibility of temper induced Miss Betsey to pay him off, and effect a separation by mutual consent. He went to India with his capital, and there, according to a wild legend in our family, he was once seen riding on an elephant, in company with a Baboon; but I think it must have been a Baboo—or a Begum. Anyhow, from India tidings of his death reached home, within ten years. How they affected my aunt, nobody knew; for immediately upon the separation she took her maiden name again, bought a cottage in a hamlet on the sea-coast a long way off, established herself there as a single woman with one servant, and was understood to live secluded, ever afterwards, in an inflexible retirement.
My father had once been a favourite of hers, I believe; but she was mortally affronted by his marriage, on the ground that my mother was 'a wax doll.' She had never seen my mother, but she knew her to be not yet twenty. My father and Miss Betsey never met again. He was double my mother's age when he married, and of but a delicate constitution. He died a year afterwards, and, as I have said, six months before I came into the world.
This was the state of matters on the afternoon of, what I may be excused for calling, that eventful and important Friday. I can make no claim, therefore, to have known, at that time, how matters stood; or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.
My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs, to a world not at all excited on the subject of his arrival; my mother, I say, was sitting by the fire, that bright, windy March afternoon, very timid and sad, and very doubtful of ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her, when, lifting her eyes as she dried them, to the window opposite, she saw a strange lady coming up the garden.
My mother had a sure foreboding at the second glance, that it was Miss Betsey. The setting sun was glowing on the strange lady, over the garden fence, and she came walking up to the door with a fell rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have belonged to nobody else.
When she reached the house, she gave another proof of her identity. My father had often hinted that she seldom conducted herself like any ordinary Christian; and now, instead of ringing the bell, she came and looked in at that identical window, pressing the end of her nose against the glass to that extent that my poor dear mother used to say it became perfectly flat and white in a moment.
She gave my mother such a turn, that I have always been convinced I am indebted to Miss Betsey for having been born on a Friday.
My mother had left her chair in her agitation, and gone behind it in the corner. Miss Betsey, looking round the room, slowly and inquiringly, began on the other side, and carried her eyes on, like a Saracen's head in a Dutch clock, until they reached my mother. Then she made a frown and a gesture to my mother, like one who was accustomed to be obeyed, to come and open the door. My mother went.
'Mrs. David Copperfield, I think,' said Miss Betsey; the emphasis referring, perhaps, to my mother's mourning weeds, and her condition.
'Yes,' said my mother, faintly.
'Miss Trotwood,' said the visitor. 'You have heard of her, I dare say?'
My mother answered she had had that pleasure. And she had a disagreeable consciousness of not appearing to imply that it had been an overpowering pleasure.
'Now you see her,' said Miss Betsey. My mother bent her head, and begged her to walk in.
They went into the parlour my mother had come from, the fire in the best room on the other side of the passage not being lighted—not having been lighted, indeed, since my father's funeral; and when they were both seated, and Miss Betsey said nothing, my mother, after vainly trying to restrain herself, began to cry.
'Oh, tut, tut, tut!' said Miss Betsey, in a hurry. 'Don't do that! Come, come!'
My mother couldn't help it notwithstanding, so she cried until she had had her cry out.
'Take off your cap, child,' said Miss Betsey, 'and let me see you.'
My mother was too much afraid of her to refuse compliance with this odd request, if she had any disposition to do so. Therefore she did as she was told, and did it with such nervous hands that her hair (which was luxuriant and beautiful) fell all about her face.
'Why, bless my heart!' exclaimed Miss Betsey. 'You are a very baby!'
My mother was, no doubt, unusually youthful in appearance even for her years; she hung her head, as if it were her fault, poor thing, and said, sobbing, that indeed she was afraid she was but a childish widow, and would be but a childish mother if she lived. In a short pause which ensued, she had a fancy that she felt Miss Betsey touch her hair, and that with no ungentle hand; but, looking at her, in her timid hope, she found that lady sitting with the skirt of her dress tucked up, her hands folded on one knee, and her feet upon the fender, frowning at the fire.
'In the name of Heaven,' said Miss Betsey, suddenly, 'why Rookery?'
'Do you mean the house, ma'm?' asked my mother.
'Why Rookery?' said Miss Betsey. 'Cookery would have been more to the purpose, if you had had any practical ideas of life, either of you.'
'The name was Mr. Copperfield's choice,' returned my mother. 'When he bought the house, he liked to think that there were rooks about it.'
The evening wind made such a disturbance just now, among some tall old elm-trees at the bottom of the garden, that neither my mother nor Miss Betsey could forbear glancing that way. As the elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too wicked for their peace of mind, some weatherbeaten ragged old rooks'-nests burdening their higher branches, swung like wrecks upon a stormy sea.
Table of Contents
Introduction PREFACE TO 1850 EDITION
CHAPTER 1. — I AM BORN
CHAPTER 2. — I OBSERVE
CHAPTER 3. — I HAVE A CHANGE
CHAPTER 4. — I FALL INTO DISGRACE
CHAPTER 5. — I AM SENT AWAY FROM HOME
CHAPTER 6. — I ENLARGE MY CIRCLE OF ACQUAINTANCE
CHAPTER 7. — MY ‘FIRST HALF’ AT SALEM HOUSE
CHAPTER 8. — MY HOLIDAYS. ESPECIALLY ONE HAPPY AFTERNOON
CHAPTER 9. — I HAVE A MEMORABLE BIRTHDAY
CHAPTER 10. — I BECOME NEGLECTED, AND AM PROVIDED FOR
CHAPTER 11. — I BEGIN LIFE ON MY OWN ACCOUNT, AND DON’T LIKE IT
CHAPTER 12. — LIKING LIFE ON MY OWN ACCOUNT NO BETTER, I FORM A GREAT RESOLUTION
CHAPTER 13. — THE SEQUEL OF MY RESOLUTION
CHAPTER 14. — MY AUNT MAKES UP HER MIND ABOUT ME
CHAPTER 15. — I MAKE ANOTHER BEGINNING
CHAPTER 16. — I AM A NEW BOY IN MORE SENSES THAN ONE
CHAPTER 17. — SOMEBODY TURNS UP
CHAPTER 18. — A RETROSPECT
CHAPTER 19. — I LOOK ABOUT ME, AND MAKE A DISCOVERY
CHAPTER 20. — STEERFORTH’S HOME
CHAPTER 21. — LITTLE EM’LY
CHAPTER 22. — SOME OLD SCENES, AND SOME NEW PEOPLE
CHAPTER 23. — I CORROBORATE Mr. DICK, AND CHOOSE A PROFESSION
CHAPTER 24. — MY FIRST DISSIPATION
CHAPTER 25. — GOOD AND BAD ANGELS
CHAPTER 26. — I FALL INTO CAPTIVITY
CHAPTER 27. — TOMMY TRADDLES
CHAPTER 28. — Mr. MICAWBER’S GAUNTLET
CHAPTER 29. — I VISIT STEERFORTH AT HIS HOME, AGAIN
CHAPTER 30. — A LOSS
CHAPTER 31. — A GREATER LOSS
CHAPTER 32. — THE BEGINNING OF A LONG JOURNEY
CHAPTER 33. — BLISSFUL
CHAPTER 34. — MY AUNT ASTONISHES ME
CHAPTER 35. — DEPRESSION
CHAPTER 36. — ENTHUSIASM
CHAPTER 37. — A LITTLE COLD WATER
CHAPTER 38. — A DISSOLUTION OF PARTNERSHIP
CHAPTER 39. — WICKFIELD AND HEEP
CHAPTER 40. — THE WANDERER
CHAPTER 41. — DORA’S AUNTS
CHAPTER 42. — MISCHIEF
CHAPTER 43. — ANOTHER RETROSPECT
CHAPTER 44. — OUR HOUSEKEEPING
CHAPTER 45. — MR. DICK FULFILS MY AUNT’S PREDICTIONS
CHAPTER 46. — INTELLIGENCE
CHAPTER 47. — MARTHA
CHAPTER 48. — DOMESTIC
CHAPTER 49. — I AM INVOLVED IN MYSTERY
CHAPTER 50. — Mr. PEGGOTTY’S DREAM COMES TRUE
CHAPTER 51. — THE BEGINNING OF A LONGER JOURNEY
CHAPTER 52. — I ASSIST AT AN EXPLOSION
CHAPTER 53. — ANOTHER RETROSPECT
CHAPTER 54. — Mr. MICAWBER’S TRANSACTIONS
CHAPTER 55. — TEMPEST
CHAPTER 56. — THE NEW WOUND, AND THE OLD
CHAPTER 57. — THE EMIGRANTS
CHAPTER 58. — ABSENCE
CHAPTER 59. — RETURN
CHAPTER 60. — AGNES
CHAPTER 61. — I AM SHOWN TWO INTERESTING PENITENTS
CHAPTER 62. — A LIGHT SHINES ON MY WAY
CHAPTER 63. — A VISITOR
CHAPTER 64. — A LAST RETROSPECT
Reading Group Guide
"Even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."
Charles Dickens composed this passage between 1845 and 1848 referring to the dark times of his youth when his family moved to London in the early 1820s. The imprisonment of his father forced the family to send the twelve-year-old Dickens to work in a blacking factory. This disruption to Dickens's childhood and education remained a source of intense grief throughout his life. Dickens found these memories too painful to continue his autobiography; in fact, he jealously guarded the facts of his London youth. It was only after his biographer John Forster published his Life of Charles Dickens in 1872 that readers learned of Dickens's difficult youth and of the autobiographical nature of one of his finest creations, David Copperfield.
Originally published in serial form from May 1849 through November 1850, David Copperfield is the first of Dickens's novels written entirely in the first person. Converting his autobiographical impulse into fiction allowed Dickens to explore uncomfortable truths about his life. David Copperfield's time at Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse, his schooling at Salem House, and his relationship with Dora all have their bases in Dickens's own life. But, it may be Dickens's most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield is a work of fiction.
Dickens divides the life of Copperfield into two distinct parts, the first recounting the untimely loss of his innocence. In this orphan tale, Copperfield endures the hardships of his mother's death, a wretched education at Salem House, the toiling at Murdstone and Grinby's, and a desperate escape to his aunt's. Made aware of the vicissitudes of life, Copperfield also learns of the cyclical patterns of life as "David Copperfield of Blunderstone" is reborn at his aunt's as "Copperfield Trotwood"; the barbarous schooling of Mr. Creakle is replaced by the kind instruction of Mr. Wickfield and Dr. Strong; the callous neglect of his stepfather is replaced by the solicitude of his aunt. The practical lesson for Copperfield is to eschew the sternness of Murdstone as well as the carelessness of Micawber, the grandiloquent and improvident father figure who lodges Copperfield.
In the novel's second part, Copperfield establishes himself first as a legal clerk and parliamentary reporter, and later as a novelist. But his professional matters are of less importance than Copperfield's two emotional attachments that frame this part of the novel: his relationships with James Steerforth and Dora Spenlow. Both relationships are portrayed as the "mistaken impulses of an undisciplined heart," and we are meant to second Betsey Trotwood's comment, "Blind! Blind! Blind!" In retrospect, Copperfield confesses that he "loved Dora to idolatry." Dora, who resembles Copperfield's mother in looks and manner, lacks the maturity required to share actively in David's life or to take up the Victorian burdens of housekeeping. The relationship falters and Copperfield begins to see parallels with the marriage of the aging Dr. Strong and his "child wife" Annie. When the marriage dissolves, Dora dies in labor—quite conveniently, some critics have charged, for her death releases Copperfield of his conjugal obligations. Idolatry also characterizes his relationship with the Byronic James Steerforth, whom Copperfield unwittingly assists in the seduction of young Emily away from her uncle's care at Yarmouth.
The concluding chapters function as an epilogue to the first two parts. Copperfield, now a famous novelist, takes his sufferings to Europe in a listless journey. He eventually returns to London with renewed vigor to learn of the emigration to Australia of the Micawbers, Peggotty, Emily, and Martha, and of the imprisonment of Steerforth's servant, Littimer, and Uriah Heep. The novel concludes with Copperfield marrying Agnes.
Throughout the novel, Dickens addresses several important social issues of his time: the problem of prostitution in nineteenth-century London, lack of professional opportunities for women in Victorian England, need for humane treatment for the insane, the injustice of debtors' prison, and indictments against the rigidly conventional, purse-proud nineteenth-century English middle class. Against these dilemmas, Dickens offers the intuitive wisdom of Mr. Dick, the genuineness of the Micawbers, and, above all, the simple earnestness of Peggotty.
But Copperfield is foremost a novel about memory. Amidst the tumultuous rise and fall of the London cityscape (obsessively cataloged in the novel), Copperfield's memory preserves the links to his past and brings continuity and coherence to his life while the sudden recollection of the past charges the present with meaning. However, memory also proves to be a source of anguish. Copperfield prefaces the time he spent at Murdstone and Grinby by remarking: "I now approach a period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything; and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times." The act of remembrance, even uninvoked remembrance, dredges up early trauma to experience anew.
Given the intimate connection between the lives of Copperfield and his author, it is little wonder that Dickens considered this book his "favourite child." And it is little wonder, given its vast array of memorable characters and its brilliant treatment of the quest for self-knowledge, that Copperfield is Dickens's best loved and most quoted novel. The words of the great English critic G. K. Chesterton perhaps best summarize the experience of reading it: "In this book of David Copperfield, [Dickens] has created creatures who cling to us and tyrannise over us, creatures whom we would not forget if we could, creatures whom we could not forget if we would, creatures who are more actual than the man who made them."
ABOUT CHARLES DICKENS
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, the first son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His family moved often throughout his childhood, living variously in Chatham, Kent and Camden Town, London. In 1824, his father was sent to Marshalsea Debtors' Prison for three months, and the young Dickens was forced to work six months labeling bottles at Warren's Blacking warehouse.
Following the completion of his formal education in 1827, Dickens went to work for various London legal firms and became a solicitor's clerk. At eighteen, Dickens met Maria Beadnell whom he courted unsuccessfully until 1833. The episode left a deep impression on Dickens who subsequently based the character of Dora in David Copperfield and Estella in Great Expectations on Maria. In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of a prominent theater and music critic. That same year he also met John Forster, his literary advisor and future biographer, and began serialization of his first novel The Pickwick Papers. Dickens was hired to edit Bentley's Miscellany where his novel Oliver Twist was serialized over a period of two years (1837-9). This work as an editor and fiction writer continued throughout the rest of his life. Dickens achieved tangible success in the coming years by publishing Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.
Dickens made his first visit to North America in 1842, a trip he later recorded in American Notes. In December of that year, Dickens published his immortal holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol," completing the text in a space of two months. The story proved to be an enormous success with the general public, was dramatized and represented the first of many Christmas stories he would write over the years. At the close of the 1840's Dickens published Dombey and Son and began serialization of his novel, David Copperfield. These novels were followed by Bleak House (1853). From this time onwards, Dickens maintained a furious public reading schedule that proved to be a great popular and financial success.
In the spring of 1859, he initiated a new magazine All the Year Round, which began serialization of A Tale of Two Cities in weekly installments. In the fall of 1860, Dickens, now separated from his wife but with custody of all but one of his children, began work on Great Expectations. His last two novels were Our Mutual Friend (1865) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished at his death. In the fall of 1867, Dickens visited the United States again where he gave readings and visited with Longfellow, Emerson, and President Andrew Johnson. The following fall he began, what would prove to be, his farewell reading tour of England. On June 9, 1870, Dickens died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving an estate of 93,000 pounds. His wish to be buried "in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall" and "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner" went unheeded, as a tomb in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey was prepared and the entire nation mourned.
- In the final chapters of the novel, evil is punished (e.g. Heep's and Littimer's imprisonment) and virtue rewarded (e.g. the success of Micawber in Australia), prompting some critics to argue that Copperfield is less a novel of self-discovery than a traditional fairy tale. Do you agree? While it may be the last of Dickens's novels with a "happy ending," how would you characterize the prevailing mood of the book?
- Although Peggotty assumes heroic stature in the novel, do you find anything obsessive, or even sinister, in his reclamation of Emily? Recalling Mr. Wickfield's confession that his fears of Agnes leaving him caused him to drink, compare his anxieties of his daughter's coming of age with Peggotty's.
- In his recent biography of the author, Peter Ackroyd claimed that London was for Dickens "an emblem of forgetfulness." Copperfield, in its record of the perpetual destruction and rebuilding of London, would seem to indicate this but is there anything redeemable about the city as it is portrayed in the novel? What about urban life? What is London's relation to Yarmouth?
- When musing on Steerforth, there are times the narrator reaches a state of rapture. When Steerforth's treachery is discovered, Copperfield admits "I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken." Does Copperfield ever resolve his feelings for Steerforth?
- The critic Edmund Wilson claimed that all of Dickens's work revolved around the idea of the prison. How does the prison function as a metaphor in David Copperfield? Examine the role of the various key holders who possess or attempt to possess control of others—e.g. Mrs. Murdstone, Heep, Steerforth.
- Uriah Heep's career, in some respects, parallels Copperfield's: they both come from impoverished backgrounds; they both establish legal professions; and they both aspire to marry their employer's daughter. How is Heep Copperfield's double? What does his, at times extreme, hatred of Heep reveal about Copperfield?
- Blunderstone and Murdstone are two examples of names pregnant with meaning. Discuss the thematic significance of other names in the novel, especially those given to Copperfield throughout the book—Daisy, Trotwood, Doady. What do you make of the names that echo the author's own: Mr. Dick, King Charles I, and the initials (reversed) of Copperfield?
- From the caul with which Copperfield is born (believed to protect one from drowning) to the shipwreck scene at the end, David Copperfield contains countless allusions to and images of the sea. How do these elements function in the novel? Do they indicate a deliberate use of symbolism? What might they symbolize?
- The narrator relates several important dreams in the novel, particularly the dream he has after seeing Julius Caesar and the cannonading dream that prefigures the death of Steerforth. What do these dreams reveal about Copperfield's anxieties?