Notes on “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens

Collection of short notes on the classic novel

Assignments for the class LIT 118 Dickens’s Masterpiece: David Copperfield, Stanford Continuing Studies

Prof. Dr. Rebecca (Becky) Richardson 

28 April 2021

Note #1: Dickens’ power over words and narrative

Note #2: Social Commentary, especially on the legal profession

Note #3: Dickens writes a mystery, perhaps?  

Note #4: Dickens as a poet

Note #1: Dickens’ power over words and narrative

In David Copperfield, Dickens has penned a sequence that is funny, poignant, and heartbreaking at the same time. A true testament to the writing genius of Dickens. The scene is set at an Inn at Yarmouth where young David stops for dinner on his way to London when he is being sent away to boarding school. This is the beginning of a harsh journey for a young and naive David. He is suddenly thrown into a world much bigger and sinister than his small village. 

Dickens sets up for the reader the state of the mind of a hardly eight or nine-year-old David as he sees the maps hung up on the walls of the dining room: 

I doubt if I could have felt much stranger if the maps had been real foreign countries, and I cast away in the middle of them.

Dickens has visually painted for us a very interesting mixture of several emotions. Clearly, as adult readers, we can see that David is being taken for a ride. But while narrating the incident, the author maintains a child’s innocent view of the situation. And even looking back, there is not a hint of anger or resentment at the treatment that was doled out to a child. 

As the scene moves forward, we see an increasing amount of chicanery happening. All the while Dickens maintains an almost playful tone of narration while making the readers cringe at the young boys suffering. This is truly the hallmark of a wonderful writer. In the passage below he showcases how the child gets convinced by a lie and actually sympathizes with the unscrupulous character:

When he did throw his head back, and take it off quick, I had a horrible fear, I confess, of seeing him meet the fate of the lamented Mr. Topsawyer, and fall lifeless on the carpet. But it didn’t hurt him.

After reading this, are we supposed to feel happy for the child who is relieved at not seeing someone die or should we feel angry at the way he is being cheated? Perhaps some might find the passage funny in a way.

Dickens continues to play on this theme of the young child being made use of. The passages further in the scene evoke a sense of sympathy for the protagonist, while inducing anger towards the villains in the form of Mr. Murdstone and his sister. They are partly responsible for sending David out into the world at such a young age. And trying to make up for it by paying ahead for dinner at a byway inn. 

The ultimate travesty is heaped on poor David when he is made to pay for the piece of paper he borrows to write a letter to his dear Peggotty. Again we see a play on emotions where the waiter lays out a tale of woe filled with his troubles of having to support a family and then using that to extract out of little David a lot more money that the paper is worth

  As with many characters and sequences in the book, Dickens wants to seem to shine a light upon people who are not morally upright. Perhaps by creating these conflicting emotions he is challenging readers to evaluate their own actions in situations where they are dealing with someone less experienced or naive. And to question if they are taking undue advantage of the situation. 

Note #2: Social Commentary, especially on the legal profession

Charles Dickens offers several pieces of social commentary in this book. He talks about the English boarding school system (as in the description of the operations at Salem House and the way in which Mr. Creakle came into the “schooling business” –  “he had been, a good many years ago, a small hop-dealer in the Borough, and had taken to the schooling business after being bankrupt in hops, and making away with Mrs. Creakle’s money. Pg 97”), Debtor prisons (In the episode of Micawber family taking refuge in the debtor’s prison and Mr. Micawbers petition for a prison overhaul) and child labor (In the sequence where David is forced to work sticking wine bottle labels at the establishment of Murdstone and Grinby)

The one I found most interesting is his critique of the legal profession. After David completes his education Aunt Becky has decided to enroll him as a legal copywriter. This endeavor starts out with Ms. Becky having to pay a huge sum of money to get David enrolled (“thousand pounds including stamp fees”). This points to the built-in barriers in society for people to get into the profession.

Another interesting episode is that of Mr. Spenlow describing himself as a very genteel and giving soul, but laying the blame for all stringent business practices on the shoulders of Mr. Jorkins (“I am actuated by no mercenary considerations; few men are less so, I believe; but Mr. Jorkins has his opinions on these subjects, and I am bound to respect Mr. Jorkins’s opinions.” pg 360). In reality, David finds out the Mr. Jorkins is a very meek person who is clearly a subordinate to Mr. Spenlow. Here we see commentary on the class system and also how a person like Mr. Spenlow who hails from the upper class portrays himself as a charitable person, while laying the blame on the working class Mr. Jorkins. A clever way of deception and deflecting responsibility for the less hospitable aspects of business deals.

In an episode involving Uriah Heep, we see that many of the legal texts are written in a language that is hard to access for the common folk. He is working hard to study Latin words that someone with proper education might have had an easier time learning. While Uriah is a dubious character, we can still empathize with the challenges for working-class folks to learn the legal profession (“There are expressions, you see, Master Copperfield—Latin words and terms—in Mr. Tidd, that are trying to a reader of my umble attainments.” pg 263)1

In another narrative, Mr. Spenlow takes lots of effort to explain how the Doctors commons works (“Then, he launched into a general eulogium on the Commons”. Pg 395). This comes across as a gigantic racket of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ type of arrangements. Dickens, who himself had some experience working in the legal profession, portrays the various proceedings through his unique style of wry humor, with a great attention to detail. This includes a description of the books young David sees in the bookshelves at Spenlow & Jorkins and a detailed account of how a day in the court proceeds.  Particularly interesting are also Mr. Spenlows descriptions of cases that make the most money, including divorce settlements

Note #3: Dickens writes a mystery, perhaps?  

In David Copperfield, through certain characters and situations, I surmise that Dickens is exploring the genre of mystery writing. 

Dickens had several contemporaries who wrote mystery short stories and serialized novels. In particular, studies cite Wilke Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) who was an English novelist known for The Moonstone (1868), which has often been described as the first modern English detective novel

After completion of David Copperfiled, Dickens went on to develop a detective named Inspector Bucket for his novel Bleak House (1853) and thereafter a mysterious murder mystery The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

There were two plotlines in this novel that echoed for me the settings for a mystery story. 

The first one revolved around a dubious character who comes and goes out of the life of Ms. Betsy. Readers are led to believe that this person has some connection to Mr. Dick. We read about a brother who had to be paid off to get Mr. Dick out of the asylum.  Also, Mr. Dick talks about someone who hides in the bushes near their house and jumps out at Ms. Becky. When in London, Ms. Becky takes a ride with a stranger and implores David to not ask her about this person. This leads to more intrigue about the person. Finally, it’s revealed that he was Ms. Betsy’s husband who is still alive. 

(‘Trot,’ said my aunt, calmly, ‘it’s my husband.’

‘Your husband, aunt? I thought he had been dead!’

‘Dead to me,’ returned my aunt, ‘but living.’ Pg 695)

Another episode involving a mystery is that of Emily. After her disappearance, several characters try hard to locate her. We are introduced to Martha who used to work with Emily in Mr. Omer’s shop. More threads connect the two women, especially after the disappearance of Emily. The mystery deepens after David and Mr. Peggotty meet with Martha on the banks of the river. She seems very despondent and provides no clue to the whereabouts of Emily. Ultimately through following Martha home and encountering Rosa Dartle at the same location, we see a scene unfold where David is watching from the shadows. What follows is very much a revelation of a character or situation as is portrayed in a mystery novel –

(‘It matters little to me her not being at home,’ said Rosa Dartle haughtily, ‘I know nothing of her. It is you I come to see.’

‘Me?’ replied a soft voice.

At the sound of it, a thrill went through my frame. For it was Emily’s! Pg 723)

Through these passages, it appears that Dickens is weaving mystery stories into the narrative of David Copperfield. This is a writing form that he developed further over the years to come. 

Note #4: Dickens as a poet

 As was presented in Lecture #2 of the class by Dr. Richardson, it can be theorized that memory and experiences can conjure powerful feelings, which lead to interesting passages and reflections. We saw some great examples of poetry that echo impressions of nature (I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth) or memories of the past (In memoriam by Tennyson).

In many passages and character descriptions, Dickens pens a vivid portrayal of memories from David’s past. This stands out in passages from his childhood like when David walks from London to Dover. Each section of the journey is described in great detail. He also writes eloquently about how David experiences certain settings. Like the descriptions of Mr. Peggoty’s boat or the flat that Ms. Becky rents for him when he first starts his job in London or the lawyer’s offices in the Doctors commons. 

In these writings, Dickens excels at using prose to describe attributes and characters. However, in the closing chapters, I felt he starts to lay out words in a way that almost seems like written as a poem, rather than passages. This particularly stood out in Chapter 58, Absence. It’s perhaps the sorrow of losing Dora that overtakes David and perhaps puts Dickens in a melancholy mood as he pens these passages. 

Opening lines of the chapter read like a sonnet, an ode to grief –

It was a long and gloomy night that gathered on me, 

haunted by the ghosts of many hopes, of many dear remembrances, 

many errors, many unavailing sorrows, and regrets. (pg. 819)

And this section of the description of David’s travels in Europe seemed to me even more poetic. In particular the description of the valley in Switzerland. It’s a beautiful sequence where nature overpowers David who finally lets go of his grief. It’s the healing that he has been looking for. 

In the quiet air, there was a sound of distant singing—shepherd voices; but, as one bright evening cloud floated midway along the mountain’s-side, 

I could almost have believed it came from there and was not earthly music. 

All at once, in this serenity, great Nature spoke to me; and soothed me to lay down my weary head upon the grass, and weep as I had not wept yet, since Dora died! (pg. 821)

When reading these sections, I felt like I was reading poetry. Dickens’ poems evoke this sense of place and feeling (Squire Norton’s Song, The Song of the Wreck, The Ivy Green). It’s only fitting that he was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner inside Westminster Abbey.

Author: Manish

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