David Copperfield as the Bildungsroman Reflecting the Victorian Values

March 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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