Two Different Portrayals of Orphans in Dickens
Victorian literature is over-populated with orphans. The Bronte sisters, Trollope, George Elliot, Thackeray and Gaskell all positioned orphans as leading characters in their novels. This trend continued into the Edwardian period, as Frances Hodgson Burnett created the orphaned protagonists Colin, Mary, and Sara. While it can be argued that the use of orphans reflects the enormous number of orphaned children and a different definition of “orphan” than is commonly used today (a Victorian “orphan” could have one parent), the number of orphans in nineteenth century English literature remains disproportionately high – and nowhere is it higher than in the works of Charles Dickens. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield all include a plethora of orphans. Dickens’ treatment of these individual characters, however, varies widely. For example, while both protagonists of Great Expectations and David Copperfield are missing mother and father, their paths in life differ markedly. Whereas David Copperfield is portrayed as the stereotypical plucky orphan who charts his own way in the world, Pip remains trapped in situations in which he has little agency. Despite David’s “undisciplined heart,” youth, and gullibility, he remains free from the taint of criminality that so doggedly follows Pip throughout Great Expectations. The two different approaches illustrated in Great Expectations and David Copperfield are consistent with the contradictory Victorian attitudes to orphaned children and the curious blend of fascination and fear with which they approached this social issue. Auerbach discusses Victorian attitudes to orphans at length. She notes that the “orphan is born to himself and establishes his own social penumbra” (Auerbach 395). Victorians viewed orphans as unencumbered by family histories or the other societal expectations that bind as much as they support. Thus, the orphan is a free agent, potentially capable of writing his own life story in ways that “regular” children, burdened as they are with parental and social expectations, are not free to attempt. The literary orphan’s “appearance of winsome fragility” is deceiving because it masks an enormous “power of survival” (Auerbach 395) necessary for creating a position in the world. This view is consistent with how Dickens portrays David. The “winsome fragility” of David is repeatedly emphasized in the early chapters of the novel. David is first seen as an infant, and then as a small child chattering about crocodiles. Dickens creates an endearing picture as the reader sees the young David frolicking on the beach with little Em’ly. David himself comments on the fragility of this time, noting “as to any sense of inequality, or youthfulness, or other difficulty in our way, little Em’ly and I had no such trouble because we had no future. We made no more provision for growing older, than we did for growing younger” (DC 39). This sense of winsome fragility is underscored by the pleasure with which Mrs. Gummidge, Peggotty and Mr. Peggoty take in the children, “as if they might have had in a pretty town, or a pocket model of the Colosseum” (39-40). The hero’s winsome nature only makes the cruelty of the Murdstones all the more devastating. Lest there be any doubt as to David’s size and strength, the illustrations by Hablôt Knight Browne emphasize David’s smallness. We first see him sitting in a church pew, very much alone among the adults that tower above him. His small size is emphasized in the subsequent illustrations, in which David is seen in a largely adult world, entirely dwarfed by the chair in which he is seated. While it can be argued that all children are winsomely frail, Victorians held that the orphans possessed this trait in spades, given their uncertain status in the world. The winsome fragility of the infant David soon gives way to surprising strength as David begins to react against his lot in life. After the death of his mother, David starts to take on the roles associated with independent adults. He is conscious that other children behave differently from him. He wonders whether his “precocious self-dependence” confused Mrs. Macawber with respect to his age (GE 140). Similarly, he wonders “what the waiter thought of such a strange little apparition coming in all alone” (DC 142). He demonstrates a surprising maturity and avoids getting entangled in the Macawbers’ financial ruin. After Mr. Macawber’s arrest, he notes that he lived “the same secretly unhappy life; but I led it in the same lonely, self-reliant manner” (DC 148). This singular “otherness” allows David to interact with adults as an adult without the diminished expectations of intelligent discourse that are frequently placed upon children. Unlike other children, he makes his own place in the world as an adult. His secret uphappiness merely serves as fuel for further self-development.This transformation from being dependent upon adults to becoming a singularly self-reliant child in London reaches a new level when he resolves to run away from Murdstone and Grinby’s in the hope that his Aunt Clara can provide him with a better situation. While it can be argued that David is regressing back to a parental situation, the better view is that he has realized what he needs and has formulated a plan to meet those needs. David’s execution of his “resolution” illustrates the enormous power of survival of which Auerbach speaks. The reader sees David struggling with the logistics of getting from London to Dover, having his money stolen, pawning clothing for food, cooling his blistered feet, confronting the ruffians, and persevering throughout the twenty-three mile trip to Aunt Betsy’s. This trip transforms Pip; never again will we see him as dependent upon others as he was upon the Murdstones and others who hijacked his childhood. This transformation went to the heart of the Victorian fascination with the orphan, whom they invested with enormous personal strength and fortitude. No longer bound by ties to father and mother, his job at Murdstone and Grinby, or the cruel Murdstones, David can make his own path in the world. While David may seem immature, gullible, or undisciplined, he is never again completely at the mercy of others. It is little surprise that this transformation coincides with a name change – from David to Trotwood. The Victorian fascination with the orphan as a free agent also dovetails with their belief in the Protestant work ethic. The abhorrence of idleness and a belief in the redeeming power of labor allowed Victorians to believe it conceivable for a orphan to pull himself up by his bootstraps – and perhaps be far more successful than one who is burdened with family and other obligations. David’s rise from the bottle shop where he begins “the world on your own account” (DC 136) to a successful writer makes him very much an English Horatio Algers. Curiously, Algers was writing at roughly the same time in the United States. Literary orphans were routinely used as examples of the Protestant work ethic – and in this regard, David is no exception. The Victorian belief in the singular strengths of the orphan that is operative in David Copperfield is barely present in Great Expectations. In its place are other, far darker notions. As much as the Victorians were fascinated with the ability of the orphan to negotiate his own place in the world, they also viewed orphans as “faintly disreputable,” of “uncertain parentage,” and “always threatening to lose focus and definition” (Auerbach 395). The same freedom from binding social ties that allowed orphans to succeed also permitted them to violate the social contract in other more damaging ways. Because of this belief, Great Expectations is a far darker novel, that plays to Victorian fears of crime and uncleanness. While also a bildungsroman, the life story of its orphaned protagonist follows a very different trajectory as Pip becomes ever more mired in conflicted emotion and criminality. The orphan’s violation of the social contract plays straight into the Victorian fear of crime. As much as the Victorians were enamored by the idea of the orphan as a free agent, they were also wary of the orphan’s aura of criminality. This belief was not entirely fanciful. After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, aid for orphans was sharply curtailed. Relief (such as it was) was no longer provided by the local parish, but rather by a union of parishes. The only public relief was the workhouse – which was intentionally redesigned to be as harsh as possible to prevent freeloaders. Taken together, these changes had the effect of driving the poor into the cities where crime became rampant. Although the inception of the London Metropolitan Police was no doubt inevitable, a strong argument can be made that the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was responsible for the crime wave that necessitated the inception of the police in 1868. Citizens were preyed upon by roving tribes of child criminals much like Fagan’s gang. Since orphans had no means of support, they were suspected of harboring enormous, untapped criminal potential. This contradictory attitude toward orphans was recognized by the Victorians themselves. Laura Peters relates that the Inspector of Parochial Union Schools had difficulty reconciling the fact that many orphans “took the highest honours in teaching examinations, yet simultaneously orphans furnished 60 percent of the criminal population” (Peters 7). As of January, 1854, 50-60% of those attending pauper schools or housed in reformatory prisons were orphans. Peters goes on to describe what she calls “the penal narrative,” which she argues arises from “the sense of social failure…within the middle class psyche” that is occasioned by the existence of orphan criminals (Peters 38). Such penal narratives typically involve the arc of a criminal scheme actuated by or upon orphans. Very little of this Victorian fear of crime is seen in David Copperfield. While the forgery and frauds committed by the orphan Uriah Heep provide a subplot, these acts do not subsume the entire novel. Likewise, the Macawber’s brush with debtor’s prison is hardly criminal. In comparison, Great Expectations is saturated with crime. Although Peters holds out Oliver Twist as a penal narrative, Great Expectations would be an equally applicable example. As the novel begins, Pip steals brandy, a pie and a file after being threatened by a convict on the marshes. While a modern reader may become impatient with Pip’s apprehension of being unmasked, such feelings would make far more sense to the Victorian reader who associates orphans with criminal ventures and anticipates further unfolding of the criminal schema. Having been told that Pip is capable of crime and has associated with escaped convicts, the Victorian reader would keep a watchful eye for further such developments. Pip shares this feeling – and as much as he tries to rise above his station in life, he is perpetually reminded of his criminal taint. The appearance of the second convict in the Three Jolly Bargemen reaffirms the dubious social legitimacy of orphans. After establishing that Pip is sent to the bar by his sister (and thus is not there by choice), the second convict reappears. His surprise appearance affirms the Victorian suspicion of the inexplicable link between criminality and orphans that transcends the rational mind. Although the second convict is “a secret-looking man who I had never seen before” (GE 292), there is little doubt that he is related to the convicts Pip met on the marsh. The convict establishes the identity of Joe and Pip, and pries out of Joe his relation to Pip, thereby establishing for himself that Pip is an orphan. Even the images of the gravestones with which the novel opened appear again, as the convict fixes Joe’s residence near “the lonely church, right out in the marshes, with the graves around it!” (292). After the convict establishes his identity by surreptitiously flashing Joe’s file at Pip, the men discuss turnips. However, even this innocuous subject is a mere cover, as the reader later learns that the Magwitch’s earliest memories are of stealing turnips. Upon returning home, Mrs. Joe is quick to correctly characterize the stranger saying “A bad un, I’ll be bound” (GE 55). The entire incident sits uneasily with Pip, who sleeps poorly, thinking “of the strange man taking aim at me with his invisible gun, and of the guiltily coarse and common thing it was, to be on secret terms of conspiracy with convicts – a feature in my low career that I had previously forgotten” (GE 55). Pip is aware of his origins and is understandably uneasy that his one-time random association will uncontrollably develop into further criminal proclivities. Having established Pip as tainted by criminality, it comes as no surprise when the convict reappears and reveals a past that matches Pip’s darkest fears. Magwitch relays I’m not a going fur to tell you my life. But to give it to you short and handy, I’ll put it into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. There, you’ve got it. That’s my life pretty much, down to such times as I got shipped off… I’ve done everything pretty well – except been hanged. I’ve been locked up, as much as a silver tea kettle. I’ve been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town and put out of that town. I’ve no more a notion of where I was born than you have – if so much. I first became aware of myself down in Essex, a thieving turnips for my living (GE 236). This association between criminality and orphanhood is exactly what the Victorians – and Pip – feared. In Great Expectations, this association becomes more tortured when Pip learns that Magwitch was his anonymous benefactor. Magwitch destroys Pip’s fantasies of social advancement when he tells Pip, “I’ve made a gentleman on you. It’s me wot has done it. I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore arterward, sure as every I spec’lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth. I worked hard, that you should be above work” (GE 220). Predictably, Pip is absolutely horrified; he relays that “the abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast” (GE 220). Although unstated, Pip’s sense of horror is directed as much at himself as at the convict. By providing Pip’s fortune, the convict has contaminated Pip’s fundamental being. His flight from the commonness of the blacksmith shop was in vain. The success and domestic bliss in which David invested so much time and work will never be Pip’s because he has based his “expectations” on what turned out to be a criminal scheme. Even the dubious object of his dreams, the orphan Estella, is tainted when Pip learns that she is Magwitch’s daughter. The long-ago criminal association in the marshes festered over the years so that it now undermines everything important in Pip’s life. Other criminal characters reveal further insights into the contradictory Victorian attitudes toward orphans. Such insights can be gleaned by comparing Uriah Heep and Orlick. On the surface, these characters have much in common. In addition to being Dicken’s most unqualifiedly revolting creations, both engage in criminal acts for which they have no remorse. Dickens uses both of them as doubles for the protagonists. However, these surface similarities fail. The differences between Heep and Orlick reveal as much about their respective doubles as they do about Victorian notions about what it meant to be an orphan. The inescapability of criminal contamination is illustrated by Orlick. Pip has absolutely no control over Orlick, as Orlick inevitably appears wherever Pip is found. Initially a fellow worker at the forge, he appears later as a gatekeeper at Satis House. He crouches in the darkness in Pip’s London lodging and finally ambushes Pip on the marsh. No matter where Pip goes, Orlick eventually appears. The very inescapability of Orlick corresponds to the impossibility of Pip’s divesting himself of the criminal taint that is part and parcel of being an orphan. Like Orlick, Uriah is frequently in close proximity to David. For example, Uriah and his mother fix themselves upon David in an attempt to prevent him from speaking freely with Agnes or Mr. Wickfield. Even the object of Uriah’s mother’s knitting which “looked like a net; and as she worked away with those Chinese chopsticks of knitting-needlles…getting ready for a cast of her net by-and-by” is seen as an snare for David as she stubbornly refuses to leave the room (DC 482). However, despite this proximity, the association between Uriah and David is not as relentless as the association between Orlick and Pip. There are numerous subplots in which Uriah does not figure at all, such as David’s marriage to Dora, his relationship to the Peggotty family, his friendship with Steerforth, and his educational and professional achievements. Unlike Orlick, Uriah is ultimately escapable because his sliminess is external to David. David has overcome the taint of the orphan, while Pip has internalized it. This difference is further is further established by an examination of the individual culpability of David and Pip. Uriah’s crimes are wholly independent of David. David’s role is merely to “assist at an explosion” (DC 623) in which Uriah is confronted by Mr. Macawber, Traddles, Agnes, and Aunt Betsy. While Uriah blames David for the revelation of his crimes, saying “”You’ve always been an upstart, you’ve always been against me” (DC 638), this is distinctly different from shifting the blame to David. Indeed, Uriah wholly takes responsibility as he threatens his confronters saying “Miss Trotwood, you had better stop this or I’ll stop your husband shorter than will be pleasant to you…Miss Wickfield, if you have any love for your father, you had better not join that gang. I’ll ruin him, if you do…I have got some of you under the harrow. Think twice before it goes over you” (DC 629) . In comparison to Uriah’s sole culpability, Orlick’s criminality adheres to Pip at every step of the way. Falling back upon English common law, Orlick provides the actus reus, while Pip provides the mens rea. Pip “was always in Old Orlicks way”; he “cost him that place”, and he “come betwixt me and a young woman I liked”. Orlick attempts to kill Mrs. Joe because Pip “was favored,” while “Old Orlick [was] bullied and beat” (GE 292). If the point were not made sufficiently, he says “but it warn’t Old Orlick as did it; it was you” (GE 292). This wholesale transfer of culpability to the orphan was sufficiently believable to the Victorian mind. While Orlick’s assertions are far-fetched, they contain just enough merit to cause the Victorians to view Pip with suspicion. The reversal of roles and shifting of blame is not enough to obviate Orlick’s guilt, but it does serve to unquestionably contaminate Pip. It is noteworthy that Uriah is punished for his offenses, while Orlick remains uncharged. Uriah bears the sole responsibility for his crimes, whereas since Orlick has shared culpability, he is punished only for his subsequent attack on Mr. Pumblechook. The uncharged offense remains part of the tainted penumbra surrounding Pip, not Orlick. In conclusion, a comparison of Great Expectations and David Copperfield reveals that unlike some other Victorian writers, Dickens does not seem to have a single defining view of the orphan. (Reed 251) Rather, Dickens takes numerous contradictory positions – as indeed the Victorians themselves did. On one hand, Dickens sees the orphan as evidence that the social contract has been broken. According to this view, the orphan becomes an untrustworthy, a potential “bad seed,” and the cause of much of the criminality that afflicted London. No matter how well situated the orphan may become, he is still viewed with suspicion. His tainted background means he is never completely redeemable. In writing about Jude the Obscure, John Reed remarks that there is “no way for these orphans, emblems of man’s isolated, disinherited condition, to place themselves in harmony with a higher authority” (251). This view is just as applicable to the orphan Pip. On other hand, this is not the sole view. The Victorians could not limit themselves to such a narrow view of the orphan problem without attacking the throne itself. After all, Queen Victoria was fatherless; Albert was motherless. Moreover, the very number of orphaned children was so huge (various estimates suggest that 10% of all children were missing a father and 13% of children were missing a mother), that this narrow view lacked complete versimilitude. Dickens’ use of the orphan also suggests that while “partial and genuine orphans may go bad for lack of guidance…they may also make of their isolated condition a basis for solid growth” (Reed 252). This view is applicable to the orphaned David. As noted supra, David’s rise to success is a confirmation of the tenets of the Protestant work ethic. His hard work and persistence enable him to rise above his dubious beginnings. This contradictory view of orphans stems in part from how the Victorians viewed the poor. While the adult poor were seen as suffering from a moral failing, Victorians were reluctant to extend this view to orphaned children of the poor. Properly raised, the orphan is seen as a tabula rasa. Insofar as David fits this categorization, he is never tainted by poverty in the same way Pip is – and consequently avoids being mired in complex intrigue that prevents Pip from achieving his great expectations. Works CitedAuerbach, Nina. Incarnations of the Orphan. ELH 42.4 (1975): 395-419.Byrd, Max. “Reading” in Great Expectations. PMLA 92.2 (1976): 259-265.Dessner, Lawrence Jay. Great Expectations: “The Ghost of a Man’s Own Father”. PMLA 91.3 (1976): 436-449.Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.Dickens, Charles. Four Complete Novels. New York: Random House, 1982.Engel, Monroe. The Politics of Dickens’ Novels. PMLA 71.5 (1956:) 945-974Finkel, Robert J. Another Boy Brought up “by Hand”. Nineteenth Century Fiction 20.4 (1966): 389-390.Hara, Eiichi. Stories Present and Absent in Great Expectations. ELH 53.3 (1986): 593-614.Needham, Gwendolyn B. The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield. Nineteenth Century Fiction 9.2 (1954) 81-107Peters, Laura. Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.Reed, John. R. Victorian Conventions. New York: Ohio University Press, 1975.
Discipline In Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield”
In “David Copperfield”, Charles Dickens reveals that discipline is like a weapon: those who misuse it are cruel, unjust, and a danger to everyone around them, while those who fail to use it at all endanger themselves and lower their defenses. Only those who use discipline properly can mature and live contentedly in this world. Extremists of any kind are unsuccessful, and never achieve fulfillment. As David embarks on his quest to maturity, he sees many different types of people, and learns through his experiences that balance is a necessary prerequisite for success. This need for balance and discipline can be observed in the names Dickens chooses for his characters, in his choice of wives for David, and also in his writing style.In many of his novels, Dickens suggests the personal qualities of his characters using their names. The name Micawber plays on the word “macabre”. True to his name, Mr. Micawber is “deathly” and “gloomy” as a consequence of his impoverished lifestyle. Mr. Micawber does not even show a glimmer of hope for success until the very end of the novel, when he decides to alter his lifestyle and move to the middle class. He no longer avoids creditors, and stops changing his name; finally, he finds happiness through self-discipline and responsibility. Another one of Dickens’ characters whose name reveals his significance is James Steerforth. James “steers forth” others to do his bidding in such a charming way that no one knows that his true motives are selfish. Steerforth is selfish and deceiving, but does not exhibit any discipline in his own life: he is always thinking of himself, and never about how others may be affected by his decisions. Due to Steerforth’s undisciplined manner, his is fated to meet an early death. Mr. Murdstone’s name is also significant, because it blends together the words “murder” and “stone”. Mr. Murdstone can be thought of as the cause behind Mrs. Copperfield’s death, and is a perfect example of misuse of discipline; he constantly physically abuses David as a means of disciplining him. Dickens’ strong disapproval of this violent manner of discipline is made evident in a number of his novels. However, “while Murdstone’s severity destroys the personality, spoiling children is equally destructive in failing to discipline the mind” (Glancy, 83). Dickens shows equal distaste for lack of discipline through the character of Dora Spenlow, David’s first wife, who is meant only to be “adored”. Dora “is a favorite child of nature” who has never felt anything of “mental suffering [or] trial” (504). She is a mere child, one who has not experienced discipline of the mind and is therefore very immature and defenseless; like Steerforth, she is a casualty of a lack of discipline and defense.Dickens’ choice of wives for David also reveal the effects that discipline, or the lack thereof, can have on an individual. Throughout the novel, David displays the emotions of a rather “undisciplined heart”. At one point, David thinks to himself:For I knew now that my own heart was undisciplined when it first loved Dora; and that if it had been disciplined, it never could have felt, when we were married what it had in its secret experience…I had endeavored to adapt Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself to Dora (647).David recognizes that his heart is undisciplined for loving Dora, who is so childish and undisciplined herself; however, he does nothing to remedy the situation. Because he lacks discipline, he abandons his defenses and leaves himself vulnerable to disaster. “Decidedly he is not ‘the hero of his own story'”(Gissing) and he is “blind, blind, blind” (467) because he does not have enough discipline to find someone to “sustain and improve him” (467); instead, he is married to Dora, who has “childlike beauty” (Needham, 47) and little else. Since David refuses to exhibit proper discipline, he cannot achieve contentment. He shows his discontent and misunderstanding of discipline when he thinks:This is the discipline to which I [try] to bring my heart…It made my second year much happier than my first; and what was better still, made Dora’s life all sunshine(647).However, after the doomed Dora dies because of her lack of discipline, David finds a second wife in Agnes Wickfield, who has exhibited discipline throughout her entire life. Finally, “his domestic joy [is] perfect, [he has] been married for ten happy years” (810). In choosing Agnes for a wife, David has shown great discipline and discretion, and is therefore extremely content; he has learned that “adult love is based upon a willing partnership of equal partnership” (Glancy,86) and that to find that kind of love, one’s heart must be disciplined: “the good heart must learn the nature of real truth and love in order to overcome evil and misfortune in the world” (Needham,50).Dickens’ writing style in “David Copperfield” also helps convey the theme of mental and physical discipline. He chooses to use the first person, thereby bringing readers directly into David’s mind. He utilizes a “narrative, a blending of irony, reflection, and humor as the adult narrator looks back with combined affection and dismay at his youthful follies and errors” (Glancy, 86). David constantly reviews past events from the perspective of the adult narrator, showing that he finally has true discipline in his life. He uses self-discipline to evaluate his past actions, and vows never to repeat his mistakes. Another interesting writing style that Dickens uses to show David’s transformation from an “undisciplined heart” (Needham,47) is to use the present tense in chapters called “retrospects”. Using the present tense adds “immediacy” (Glancy, 86) and allows the narrator to separate his present self from his past. In order to detach himself, David says:Once again, let me pause upon a memorable period in my life. Let me stand aside, to see the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession (581).This separation in itself reveals the adult narrator’s discipline, because he can tell his story precisely as he experienced it at that point in his life without the influence of his adult opinions. In “David Copperfield”, Dickens posits that the proper use of discipline is necessary for a happy and successful life. Part of Dickens’ skill in expressing this theme comes from his willingness to utilize his own experiences. In the novel, Dickens offers elements of his own life to support his contentions: “In David Copperfield he suddenly unseals a new torrent of truth, the truth out of his own life. The impulse of the thing is autobiography; he is trying to tell all the absurd things that have happened to himself” (Chesterton). Although some of the characters in “David Copperfield” may seem either too “flat” or too extreme to have been real people in Dickens’ life (Clay), there are many coincidences that suggest that the novel is somewhat autobiographical. For example, there are strong implications that Dora Spenlow is based on one of Dickens’ first loves, Maria Beadnell, whose father, like Dora’s, tried to send her to Paris to keep her away from Dickens. Another coincidence that links Dickens’ life to David’s is their career choice, and the similar ways that they both arrive at their position. The autobiographical nature of this novel lends further credibility to Dickens’ theme; if readers understand that Dickens bases his themes on his own experiences, they are more likely to trust his contentions.WORKS CITEDChesterton, Gilbert Keith. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, reprinted at www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/66-Dickens.html. Accessed 3/11/04.Clay, George. “In Defense of Flat Characters,” printed in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol 2, 2001 at https://www.gale.com/databases/questia?a=3Do&d=3D5000998105Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield :Modern Library Classics. New York: Modern Library Paperbacks, 2000.Gissing, George. The Immortal Dickens, 1925, reprinted at www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/66-Dickens.html. Accessed 3/20/04Glancy, Ruth. Student Companion to Charles Dickens. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.Needham, Gwedolyn B. “The Undisciplined Heart of David Copperfield,” reprinted In Harold Bloom (ed) Major Literary Characters:David Copperfield. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
David Copperfield as the Bildungsroman Reflecting the Victorian Values
Created in the Victorian epoch, Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield is one of his most famous masterpieces scrutinizing how a person transits from childhood to adulthood. On the example of the protagonist, the author explores different stages of growing up and the challenges that each of them brings. Various situations and social contexts are pictured, and each of them is not only intertwined with the characters’ lives but also pertains to the morals of the society. Along with individual traits and wishes, the historical period determines people’s attitudes and behavior to a large extent. David Copperfield is a classical Bildungsroman in which the core values of the Victorian age, such as family, education, work and money, and marriage, are displayed.
The novel under consideration belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. From the first pages of the book, readers realize what kind of story expects them: “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.” Judging by this quote, the author’s intention is expressed clearly: to provide the description of the person’s life and maturation. Following the general patterns of the genre, the writer, however, introduces a feature that makes the story outstanding among similar works and marks Dickens’s preferences in creating texts: children become the central focus of his novels. Dickens is infatuated with childhood from the more or less traditional perspective when boys and girls are portrayed in their families positively, with love and admiration, but he goes far beyond the traditional perception. He effectively incorporates legislative and philanthropic concerns for children as the major motive which keeps pace with the epoch since these issues started drawing public attention. Apparently, childhood is the most represented life period: more than half of the book is about David Copperfield’s childhood, some happy moments, and ordeals he had to face. Thus, it is possible to state this novel is a childhood-oriented Bildungsroman.
With this choice of the subject, the values will manifest themselves in accordance with what actions a person performs in the process of growing up. To put it differently, Dickens interweaves the core values and David’s life situations. A small child gets acquainted with the environment and lives in the world of his parents and several closest people, for example, a nurse. David’s earliest years are full of love: although his father died before his son was born, his mother and nurse Peggotty do their best to take care of the boy. The tenderness, with which David recollects their peaceful moments, especially with the contrast between the merry times and further suffering, leaves no doubt: parent-child love is considered the greatest value for Dickens. Family is the fundamental of Copperfield’s manhood: he learned what love, care, and warmth of human relationships are, and they became the main force behind his sensitivity and empathy which will reflect in many situations, for example, he notices Em’ly “laughed so charmingly that I forgot the pain of being called by that disparaging name, in the pleasure of looking at her.” It corresponds to the general Victorian tendencies: people used to set an extraordinarily high value on hearth and home. The value of family is interpreted by Dickens with an increased focus on memories about perfect family moments and children’s emotions. Deep feelings are possible because they were nurtured in family, and David absorbs empathy and kindness from family to carry them throughout his whole life – he is shaped by family as a Victorian man.
Later on, when a child grows up, normally, they are to receive an education. Since the Victorian society was built on strict social stratification, children from different backgrounds would learn different things in accordance with their social class: while the poorest had to work from the early age, the upper and middle-class children could go to school, with a classical education being the sign of a gentleman. In David Copperfield, the author demonstrates how different schools may be. For instance, Salem House is unattractive in every sense: it is “of a bare and unfurnished appearance,” and the way the students are taught leaves much to be desired since teaching was based on fear and punishment. On the other hand, Doctor Strong’s school became a place where David began to feel happy again due to its sensible, well-thought organization. By this striking contrast, the author implies that education is about developing natural qualities of a child and making them content. School experience is an essential part of this coming-of-age story since David not only acquired knowledge but also saw that people might be bad and good and learned what is right and wrong: “I am sure when I think of the fellow now, my blood rises against him with the disinterested indignation I should feel if I could have known all about him without having ever been in his power.” Rather than the privilege of the upper-class students, education is pictured as the set of examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Although the writer interprets this Victorian value in his own way and describes both negative and positive moments, it nevertheless has to do with the understanding that education is significant to learn life and become a man capable of distinguishing between good and evil.
Another important value of the Victorian age reflected in the novel is wealth and hard work associated with it. Money is expected to be earned honestly by means of one’s systematic endeavor – this period does not hold affection for lazy people relying on luck or crime to achieve their goals. The formula for success is about doing what a person ought to – in the end, they get what they pay for, and it pertains not only to money but also, and mostly, to one’s effort and industry. This idea is materialized in Copperfield’s life since he manages to quit the work at Mr. Murdstone’s wine-bottling business and eventually become a successful man capable of earning money. Money is represented to demonstrate that a person should learn modesty and think about people, not benefit, in the first place. David is eventually successful because he comprehends it: “I am uneasy in my mind about that. It’s a large sum of money. You have expended a great deal on my education, and have always been as liberal to me in all things as it was possible to be.” In other words, the coming-of-age story is about work and money recognition: through both negative and positive experiences, such as hard work and aunt’s assistance, David gradually understands the importance of fortune and work, and money is a reward for the lesson learned by the young man.
Finally, as long as childhood is over, a young man is expected to marry. In the Victorian era, marriage is viewed through the comparison of the callowness of youth and the marriage necessary to obtain a mature social position. In this case, David’s first wife, indeed, is more like a young love and marriage which has actually no future. It is Agnes who can make Copperfield truly happy – this woman represents the mature ideal of love. She has always been not only loving and supporting but also wise because she realizes how such things as marriage should be arranged: “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.” Thus, these qualities make her a perfect person for the mature marriage with David in accordance with the Victorian worldview, and the main character finally understands it. As soon as he realizes who is the best match for him, he becomes an adult man – the one who accepts and follows the Victorian ideal of marriage. In this coming-of-age story, marriage is an important part of being a grown-up because it enables David to see things objectively, wisely – Agnes is a suitable wife. Consequently, it is the marriage-related matter that shapes Copperfield and turns him into the man who can make right from the Victorian point of view choices.
Overall, David Copperfield demonstrates how individuals develop in the course of their life from early childhood. Applying the basic principles of a Bildungsroman to practice, the author simultaneously touches upon the social values characteristic of the Victorian period and proves they make a significant impact on persons. Comparing the loving atmosphere within families and cold attitude of strangers, the author celebrates the ideal of a caring family making children happy. Education is pictured as an attribute of a gentleman unavailable to the poor while hard work and gaining wealth are encouraged for everybody since people obtain what they deserve. Marriage associated with maturity is essential for Dickens. Thus, the novel embraces fundamental spheres of life coinciding with the Victorian values.
Autobiographical elements in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield”
“David Copperfield” is an autobiographical novel, a family chronicle, which is written from a child’s viewpoint rather than an adult’s. As all things seem to be larger in the eyes of a kid, children tend to be more sensitive to what is happening around them. The writer recollects his past memories and gives us the opportunity to grow with the main character while passing through different stages of his life.
Copperfield’s father died before his son’s birth and a few years later the mother married Mr. Murdstone, who was very cruel to his stepchild and wife. Murdstone’s sister, who is as harsh as her brother, also lives in Copperfield’s home. For the Murdstones the child is a burden and that is why David is sent to a boarding house. When David arrives at Salem House, Murdstone insists that they attach a sign to David’s back: “Take care of him. He bites.” After the death of his mother, David is sent to the ink factory, and at the age of ten he begins to make a living.
“David Copperfield” is the writer’s first and only autobiographical novel. And although Dickens invariably denied the autobiographical nature of the novel, “David Copperfield” is a perfectly recreated biography of the writer from childhood to 1836, that is, until Charles Dickens became a famous writer. The character traits of the central figure in the novel are similar to the author’s. The painful experiences, through which Charles Dickens went in his childhood and which did much to form his attitude to life, were reflected in “David Copperfield”. The other characters in the novel were also inspired by real people. For example, the comic Micawber is very much like Dickens’ father – John Dickens, while Dora is almost an accurate recreation of Maria Beadnell – the writer’s first love. Some of the scenes in the novel are very reminiscent of situations from Charles Dickens’ own life. For example, the matchmaking and marriage resemble the story of Dickens’ falling in love with Catherine Hogarth, who later became his wife. And yet the writer does not portray the specific individuals: the characters of his novel are very typical. The story of the main character in “David Copperfield” is not just realistic but absolutely true as well. And although Dickens does not directly address social concerns in this novel, it implicitly discloses social and moral abuses of the Victorian era. There is no fairy-tale element with an orphan boy, who miraculously inherits a large fortune that changes his life in an instant. But there is a skillfully recreated real life with many detailed household descriptions.
The composition of the novel and the writer’s manner of writing are harmoniously combined to reveal the author’s talent. The pages devoted to the main character’s childhood and youth remain the best in the world literature, for they give a true insight into the inner world of the child. In his earlier works Dickens portrayed deprived children with different degrees of persuasiveness. Later, the psychological observations in “Dombey and Son” laid the basis for recreating the child’s world at a completely different level in the novel “David Copperfield.” At the same time, Dickens not only traces David Copperfield’s life, but also makes ethical analysis of his experiences. Based on this analysis we form our own new understanding of the nature of good and evil. And that is a philosophical aspect of the novel. Thus, we have every reason to state that “David Copperfield” is an autobiographical, socio-psychological and philosophical novel.
Realistic typification involves deep psychological study, disclosure of complex inner world, thoughts and feelings. Dickens showed the development of David’s character, which was formed by the interaction of his personality and society. David Copperfield struggles against injustice, meets friends and fellow-thinkers… While discovering life and other people, David discovers his own potentials and develops his individuality. David’s main trait is his inexhaustible belief in people, in goodness and justice. This trait was an inherent quality of the author: despite having experienced adversity in his youth, (at the age of ten Charles had to leave school and make his own living because of his father’s imprisonment for debt), Dickens always believed in the humanistic ideals and democratic values. “My faith in the people governed is, on the whole, illimitable,” he said.
The novel reflects the essence of social and historical phenomena. Each character bears some collective features that are typical of a certain segment of English society. Dickens fairly described different sides of life while remaining faithful to the high ideals. Biographer Hesketh Pearson in “C.D. and D.C.: Charles Dickens and David Copperfield” writes, “Dickens possessed this power […] of seeing and sensing people and places and episodes, every detail being photographed on his memory, so that he could recall at will the slightest expression in a face, the least intonation of a voice, the smallest detail in a room, the almost imperceptible variation of atmosphere in scene or conversation.”
In “David Copperfield” Dickens analyzes the causes of moral corruption and ugliness. On the surface, Uriah Heep and Steerforth seem to have nothing in common. They belong to different segments of society, but finally they both fail, their fates are irrevocably broken, albeit for different reasons. Their lives illustrate the deep imperfection of the educational system and significant social inequalities.
1. Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Penguin Classics, 2004.
2. Fielding, K.J. The Speeches of Charles Dickens. UK: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1960.
3. Jones, Kaye. Dickens: History in an Hour. HarperPress, 2012.
4. Pearson, Hesketh. “C.D. and D.C.: Charles Dickens and David Copperfield.” Dickens: His Character, Comedy, and Career. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.
5. Wilson, Angus. The World of Charles Dickens. Penguin Books, 1972.