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David Copperfield (Dickens)

David Copperfield 
Charles Dickens 1849-50
700-800 pp. (varies by publisher)


Summary
Charles Dickens’s most celebrated novel and the author’s own favorite, David Copperfield is the classic account of a boy growing up in a world that is by turns magical, fearful, and grimly realistic. In a book that is part fairy tale and part thinly veiled autobiography, Dickens transmutes his life experience into a brilliant series of comic and sentimental adventures in the spirit of the great eighteenth-century novelists he so much admired.

Few readers can fail to be touched by David’s fate, and fewer still to be delighted by his story. The cruel Murdstone, the feckless Micawber, the unctuous and sinister Uriah Heep, and David Copperfield himself, into whose portrait Dickens puts so much of his own early life, form a central part of our literary legacy. (From the Everyman's Library edition.)

More
Hugely admired by Tolstoy, David Copperfield is the novel that draws most closely from Charles Dickens's own life. Its eponymous hero, orphaned as a boy, grows up to discover love and happiness, heartbreak and sorrow amid a cast of eccentrics, innocents, and villains.

Praising Dickens's power of invention, Somerset Maugham wrote: "There were never such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis, Traddles, Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep and his mother. They are fantastic inventions of Dickens's exultant imagination...you can never quite forget them. (From the Modern Library edition. Cover image above.)



Author Bio
Birth—February 7, 1812
Where—Portsmouth, England, UK
Education—Home and private schooling 
Died—June 9, 1870
Where—Kent, England


Born on February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was the second of eight children in a family burdened with financial troubles. Despite difficult early years, he became the most successful British writer of the Victorian age.

In 1824, young Charles was withdrawn from school and forced to work at a boot-blacking factory when his improvident father, accompanied by his mother and siblings, was sentenced to three months in a debtor's prison. Once they were released, Charles attended a private school for three years. The young man then became a solicitor's clerk, mastered shorthand, and before long was employed as a Parliamentary reporter. When he was in his early twenties, Dickens began to publish stories and sketches of London life in a variety of periodicals.

It was the publication of Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) that catapulted the twenty-five-year-old author to national renown. Dickens wrote with unequaled speed and often worked on several novels at a time, publishing them first in monthly installments and then as books. His early novels Oliver Twist (1837-1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), and A Christmas Carol (1843) solidified his enormous, ongoing popularity. As Dickens matured, his social criticism became increasingly biting, his humor dark, and his view of poverty darker still. David Copperfield (1849-1850), Bleak House (1852-1853), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865) are the great works of his masterful and prolific period.

In 1858 Dickens's twenty-three-year marriage to Catherine Hogarth dissolved when he fell in love with Ellen Ternan, a young actress. The last years of his life were filled with intense activity: writing, managing amateur theatricals, and undertaking several reading tours that reinforced the public's favorable view of his work but took an enormous toll on his health. Working feverishly to the last, Dickens collapsed and died on June 8, 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood uncompleted. (From Barnes & Noble Classics edition.)



Book Reviews
(Older works, have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

There were never such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis, Traddles, Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick, Uriah Heep and his mother. They are fantastic inventions of Dickens's exultant imagination...you can never quite forget them.
Somerset Maugham


The most perfect of all the Dickens novels.
Virginia Woolf



Discussion Questions
1. Critics have noted that David Copperfield is less a character who makes things happen, and more one who witnesses things happening. Do you agree or disagree? How might this notion relate to David's profession as a writer? Consider David Gates's claim that David's "colorlessness" makes him a convincing representation of a writer.

2. David Copperfield, the narrator, begins his story by claiming that the succeeding pages will show whether he-or somebody else-will be the hero of his own life. Discuss the ways in which the notion of the hero is invoked throughout the novel. Who do you suppose might be David's hero?

3. Discuss the role of coincidence in David Copperfield. Specifically, discuss the novel's re-introduction of characters (such as Mr. Micawber in Chapter XVII, Tommy Traddles in Chapter XXV, and Uriah Heep in Chapter LXI) who were seemingly forgotten. To what extent do you think Dickens represents the normal coincidences of everyday life? Consider John Lucas's idea that the re-introduction of characters helps measure David's growth as an individual.

4. In David Copperfield, Dickens presents several relationships that fall outside traditional categories. For instance, the relationship between Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick; that of David, his mother, and Peggotty; and that of Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle. Discuss the role these relation-ships play in the novel. How does the novel define "family"? What makes up a family? Indeed, must the members of a "family" be related by blood?

5. In William Wordsworth's poem, "My heart leaps up, " Wordsworth posits, "The Child is father of the Man." Discuss this notion in relation to David Copperfield.

6. Discuss the role of female characters in David Copperfield. Compare David's relationship with such women as his mother and Peggotty, Agnes and Dora. How are they similar? Different? Historians have noted that middle-class Victorian culture relegated women to the private world of the home and imagined that women provided a moral center for the family, offsetting a husband's exposure to the amoral marketplace. In what specific ways do you think Dickens might be constrained by this idea of woman as "angel of the house"?

7. In the beginning of Chapter II, David finds "the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy." He then stops himself to say: "I might have a misgiving that I am 'meandering' in stopping to say this, but that it brings me to remark that I build these conclusions, in part upon my own experience of myself; and if it should appear from anything I may set down in this narrative that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I may have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both of these characteristics." Discuss the significance of this passage. Why might David need to claim "a strong memory" for himself? Consider David Gates's assertion, in his Introduction to this volume, that David's lapses in memory help make his story more believable.

8. Discuss David's relationship with Steerforth. In what specific ways is Steerforth a foil for David himself?

9. David Copperfield offers, among other things, a critique of the nineteenth-century English prison system, in part through Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, and Mr. Creakle. What are David's attitudes to the prison he visits in Chapter LXI? Do the prisoners seem repentant to him? Compare nineteenth-century attitudes toward incarceration with contemporary ones. How is the prison David visits similar to and different from prisons today? Discuss Chapter LXI's relevance to the novel as a whole. What does Dickens accomplish by re-introducing Mr. Creakle, Uriah Heep, and Mr. Littimer?
(Questions from the Modern Library edition; cover image, top right.)

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