Reading Guides for David Copperfield

Reading Guides to David Copperfield

Chapters I-IV

Key characters (in addition to David Copperfield himself):  Clara Copperfield (later Clara Murdstone), Peggotty, Miss Betsey Trotwood, Mr. Murdstone, Jane Murdstone, Mr. Peggotty, Ham Peggotty, L’il Emily, Mrs. Gummidge

Note the reflective first-person narration by David himself, which Dickens takes great pains to set up in the beginning of Chapter I, even before he is born.  David is very much a reflective narrator (remember Odysseus) who is continually commenting on the story as it develops.  Also note in these chapters one of the techniques Dickens is most famous for – the ability to reflect the understanding and perception of a child through an adult narrator’s eyes (for example, the beginning of Chapter II, or the description of attending church on page 26). 

Miss Betsey Trotwood’s visit to the Rookery on the occasion of David’s birth is an example of foreshadowing.  Take note of Miss Betsey’s personality and character in Chapter I.  Why does she leave angrily after David is born?

One of Dickens’s continual themes is parenting; on a larger scale, he is often concerned with the general treatment of children.  Parents in many Dickens’s novels are either absent, ineffectual, or cruel.  Here David’s father is absent (dead), his mother is kind and loving but weak and immature, and his stepfather (Mr. Murdstone) is brutal and uncaring.  Note how in Chapter III David finds an alternative family – what are they able to provide for him?

The first major conflict in the story begins on page 55.  Pay attention to David’s “lessons” under the intimidating eye of Mr. and Miss Murdstone.  On page 59, Mr. Murdstone makes a decision that drives David to a desperate act that seals his childhood fate and leads to Chapter V (“I Am Sent Away From Home”).


Chapters V-VIII

Key characters (in addition to David Copperfield himself):  Mr. Barkis, Mr. Mell, Mr. Creakle, Tommy Traddles, J. Steerforth

Take note of Mr. Barkis, as he will reappear and be important later.  What does “Barkis is willing” mean?

The dinner scene in Chapter V with the very forward waiter (65-68) is an interesting commentary on both the nature of gluttony in the British character and (Dickens’s particular interest) the relationship between the working class and the middle class.  Why is the waiter able to treat David so unfairly, and what motivates him?

As David enters school, Dickens returns to his theme of the mistreatment of children, with Mr. Creakle as a villain almost the equal of Mr. Murdstone.  During the nineteenth century, the British education system was in its infancy and abuses were rife, as David the narrator comments on in the beginning of Chapter VII (85-86).

The most important episodes of note involve David’s relationships with two friends in school: the charismatic Steerforth and the hapless Tommy Traddles.  While Steerforth appears to the young David as an entirely heroic and admirable, (note the meeting with Mr. Peggotty and Ham), the reader sees some foreshadowing that this character will have a more complex role later in the story in the episode with Mr. Mell (90-95).  Note Tommy Traddles’s response and David’s own ambivalence.


Chapters IX-XII

Important new characters:  Mr. Omer, the Micawbers

Chapter IX is entitled “I Have a Memorable Birthday,” in which the next great turning point in David’s life occurs.  (You might note the foreshadowing at the end of chapter VIII).  This begins one of the most well-known passages of the novel – David’s exile to Murdstone and Grinby’s.  Much of the inspiration for this section comes from Dickens’s own experiences in the blacking factory.  What larger social point is Dickens making during this section?

Wilkins Micawber is one of Dickens’s most famous and beloved characters.  Note his personality and character, particularly the way he speaks (as on page 141 or page 156).  On what persons from Dickens’s past might Mr. and Mrs. Micawber be based?  One critic has noted that David (here barely 10) must take care of the Micawbers when they should be taking care of him.  What evidence in the text might support this assertion?

As we noted in earlier class discussion, David Copperfield was published serially, with each episode quite close to the sections we are reading.  You might note that each section ends with a “cliffhanger,” designed to pique the readers’ interest in the next episode.  What is the teaser ending of Chapter XII?

EXTRA-CREDIT OPPORTUNITY:  Find and bring to class a clear, understandable definition of the term bildungsroman with an explanation of why it is relevant to David Copperfield.


Chapters XIII-XVI

New characters:  Mr. Dick, Mr. Wickfield, Agnes Wickfield, Uriah Heep, Doctor Strong, Annie Strong, Jack Maldon, Mrs. Markleham (a.k.a. The Old Soldier).

Chapter XIII begins with some of the darkest events in David’s life, and some of Dickens’s descriptions here are quite frightening.  While Dickens was generally sympathetic to the lower classes, here he paints a realistically ugly picture of the criminal element among the bottom feeders of English society.  Note the contrast when David describes his first impression of Miss Betsey Trotwood’s cottage on page 167.

                How is the character of Miss Betsey Trotwood developed further and more clearly in these chapters?  After seeing her only in her brief cameo appearance in Chapter I, what about her behavior and attitudes surprise you now?  Why does Miss Betsey call David “Trotwood”?

David says on page 171 that Mr. Dick’s appearance made David “suspect him of being a little mad,” i.e., crazy or insane.  Is Mr. Dick, with his Memorial, his kites, and his obsession with Charles I, insane?  

Beginning in Chapter XV, David begins to meet a number of characters who, along with Miss Betsey and Mr. Dick, will play some of the most positive roles in his life – the Wickfields and Doctor Strong.  What do all these characters share in common that lets us know immediately that they are among the “good guys” in this novel?

Foreshadowing:  Look carefully at our first meetings with Uriah Heep in Chapter XV.  Also pay attention to the introduction of Annie Strong and her cousin, Jack Maldon.  What clues does Dickens give us that all is not as it seems in the Strong household (note the party on pages 208-212).

Chapters XVII-XX

Key new characters:  Misses Shepherd and Larkins, Mrs. Steerforth, Rosa Dartle

Mr. Dick’s narrative to David on pages 216-217 about the man who frightens Miss Betsey is more famous Dickens foreshadowing.  Recall what we know about Miss Betsey’s history that might give us a clue regarding the identity of this mysterious stranger.  (Dickens, who was raised on ghost stories by a favorite nursemaid, loved mysterious strangers.)

David’s tea with Uriah Heep and his mother also gives us some subtle clues about their characters and further roles in the story.  Beyond their cloying and unctuous humility, note how the two of them pump David for gossip about the Wickfields (p. 221-222).  And as we have noted before, Dickens also loves the recurring character, here Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, as jocular, mercurial, and impecunious as ever.  Note Mrs. Micawber’s defense of Mr. Micawber’s inability to succeed at Portsmouth on page 225, and Mr. Micawber’s melodramatic farewell note on page 228 (and brief reappearance on page 229). 

Chapter XVII (“A Retrospect”) is another of Dickens’s skillful “montage” chapters as we trace young David’s burgeoning interest in the opposite sex.  Note both the young David’s attitudes about romance and the tone of the older narrator in describing his younger self. Chapter XIX is a somewhat darker chapter, with Mr. Wickfield’s drinking problem paralleled with the still unclear relationship among Doctor Strong, Mrs. Strong, and Jack Maldon.  Based on what you read here, what connections can you make and what can you predict? 

David, returning home before selecting a career, is once again abused by a waiter (p. 246) as well as a coachman (p. 244).  Contrast David with the reappearing Steerforth, whose aristocratic bearing and confidence make the servants respond to him completely differently (248).  What does Dickens’s visit to Steerforth’s home reveal about his character?


Chapters XXI-XXIV

Key new characters:  Littimer, Miss Mowcher, Martha, Spenlow and Jorkins, Mrs. Crupp

David’s periodic visits to Yarmouth create a sort of pattern for and punctuation to the narrative, with David returning to that locale at key moments in his life.  Why does David feel the need to revisit the Peggotty family? What do they provide for him? In this visit, David’s maturation is paralleled with that of Little Em’ly, who has a job and a fiance now (note whom).  How does Steerforth’s presence affect this reunion?  Note particularly David’s exchange with Steerforth at the end of Chapter XXI (271-72) and Steerforth’s expostulation in Chapter XXII (“I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!” – 275).

                Miss Mowcher in Chapter XXII was a controversial character upon her appearance, so much so that Dickens rewrote her character in later chapters.  What do you think Miss Mowcher does?  What is her relationship to Steerforth?

More mysterious strangers!  Both the haggard Martha, with her checkered past, and the dark stranger who accosts Miss Betsey, shed some light on the characters to whom they are connected (Emily and Miss Betsey, respectively).  In both cases, women whom David sees as almost angelic figures in his life are shown to have dark sides to their pasts.

Chapter XXIV is one of English literature’s most famous (and funniest) drunk scenes.  Note the wonderful detached narrative technique in which David comments on himself in the third person.  An old friend reappears (surprise!) to get David back on the right track.


Key new character:  Dora Spenlow

These are transitional chapters in David Copperfield, and here we can see Dickens reemploying his forces, appropriately, for a new narrative attack.  Thus only one new character appears in David’s new love, Dora Spenlow.  Look at how Dora’s personality comes across in Chapter XXVI – does she remind you of anyone from David’s distant past?  And David himself has shown us already his attitude toward romance and his disposition toward the opposite sex in earlier chapters.  How would you describe him in this case?  Also remember Dickens’s own biography.  Whom might Dora Spenlow be based from the author’s life?

                The dinner party at Mr. Waterbrook’s is an excellent example of the Victorian attitude toward class.  Read the description of Mr. Waterbrook on page 316, and the disquisition on “Blood” on page 317.  Also note David’s own condescending attitude toward Uriah Heep when David invites Uriah for coffee after the party (320).

A remarkable number of characters from David’s past converge in these chapters – Tommy Traddles, the Micawbers, even Miss Murdstone.  The culmination is the reappearance of Steerforth at the end of Chapter XXVIII.  The upshot of this reunion is to show us David’s dawning realization that most of his friends are more complex than he had realized in his younger days.  Here we see Dickens letting us in on David’s own maturation of perception – we learn and realize more about these characters as he does.  Note, too, Dickens’s command of tone in these chapters – the light-hearted tone of the dinner with Traddles and the Micawbers with the darker undertones of Micawber’s financial difficulties and the disappearance and reappearance of the increasingly mysterious Steerforth.  And it is of course Steerforth, who has been the subject of so much speculation and foreshadowing, who becomes the key figure in these chapters. Dickens has been setting us up for quite a while regarding Steerforth’s activities and motives – what do you believe will happen next?



All of the buildup evident in the past few reading assignments comes to a head in these chapters; notice that there are no new characters introduced here.  The tone takes a dark turn here, beginning with David’s unsettling visit to Steerforth’s, where he is at a loss to understand the stranger-than-usual behavior of Rosa Dartle.  What is Rosa so concerned about here? (Notice who is missing from the household.)          

Mr. Barkis’s death in Chapter XXX presents the beginning of the major turn in this section.  Note the philosophical discussion with Mr. Omer, the undertaker and David’s old acquaintance.  Barkis’s deathbed scene is a good example of what is both lionized and abhorred in Dickens – his sentimentality.   What effect is Dickens’s description of Barkis’s death designed to have on his audience?

                Chapter XXXI is titled “A Greater Loss,” i.e. greater even than death.  Note the interposition of the reflective narrator on page 377. (“A dread falls on me here . . . . “) The loss referred to here has been foreshadowed quite heavily over the last several chapters.  Read carefully so that you understand the true nature of what has happened here.  What does Emily mean, for example, when she writes “unless he brings me back a lady”?

This section ends with two striking scenes.  Consider the intention of the first – David’s surprise visit from Miss Mowcher, the dwarvish hairdresser from Chapter XXII.  How is her presentation and attitude different here than in her first appearance?  Why?  Finally, consider the brutal scene in which Mr. Peggoty confronts Mrs. Steerforth (pages 392-96).  In Mrs. Steerforth’s response is everything you need to know both about the relationship between the classes and how Steerforth turned out as he did.  Add Rosa Dartle’s vehement denunciation of Emily to David on page 396.


In Chapter XXXIII (“Blissful”), pay particular attention to the reflective narration of David.  With what attitude does he treat his courtship of Dora Spenlow?  Note the nice summary at the end of the chapter (“there is none that in one retrospection I can smile at half so much, and think of half so tenderly” -- 410).  It is this combination of humor and tenderness that has been the hallmark of Dickens’s style.

Chapter XXXIV provides another series of plot twists as Dickens begins to quicken the pace of his narrative.  One might think of this chapter as a series of proclamations of bad news.  Everyone – Aunt Betsey, Tommy Traddles, Agnes – seems to appear with some sort of dire tidings (and that is a hint for Tuesday’s homework reading quiz J). We see here once again how anxieties about money can turn the world upside down for a Victorian, with David’s happy, relatively uneventful life under Betsey Trotwood’s patronage (rather like Mr. Dick’s) replaced by immediate anxiety about food and shelter.  (No surprise, then, that Tommy Traddles and even the Micawbers become important again in these chapters.)

                As David becomes reacquainted with the Strong family (including the newly returned Jack Maldon), Dickens returns to the mysterious relationship between Jack and Annie.  Whom does Jack remind us of in this chapter with his behavior?  And of course, like the Peggottys, the Micawbers must appear as punctuation for this period in David’s life.  Mr. Micawber believes that something has in fact “turned up,” but what possible obstacles can we see here?



Chapter XXXVII begins on rather a light note as David begins to accustom himself to his new life as a poor working man and Aunt Betsey begins to make herself mistress of Mrs. Crupp’s household.  Most important in this chapter is Dora’s response to David’s earnest protestations of love despite his future poverty.  What do we learn about Dora’s character in this chapter, and what is presaged about David and Dora’s future?

The tone becomes darker quickly, however, as a number of new twists confront David.  First is Miss Murdstone’s discovery of David’s love letters to Dora, and her revelation of these to the disapproving Mr. Spenlow – what is the nature of Mr. Spenlow’s disapproval of the proposed match?  This rather standard plot development takes a bizarre turn at Mr. Spenlow’s sudden death, leaving Dora to move away with her two aunts.  Why does Dickens take this surprising turn in his narrative?

Worse is the horrible scene at the Wickfields and the Heeps in Chapter XXXIX as Uriah tortures the dissolute Mr. Wickfield with a marriage proposal to Agnes.  Pay particular attention to Uriah’s explanation of his upbringing on page 480, and Mr. Wickfield’s recounting of his own ruination on page 482.  Some critics have criticized Dickens for what they saw as a one-dimensional portrayal of Agnes.  Does Agnes seem flat and uninspired in this chapter?

Chapter XL provides further proof that Dickens never wastes a character.  Two important Yarmouth residents reappear here.  Note the use of expository dialogue in this chapter.  When an author employs a first-person narrator, often the reader must hear events explained to that narrator rather than experience the events directly.  What is the effect of the extensive exposition in this chapter?

Chapters XLI-XLIV

New characters: Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa Spenlow, Sophie Crewler

Dickens manages to get David married to Dora in these chapters, though he has had to kill off poor Mr. Spenlow in order to do so.  Some critics have complained that Dickens resolves the obstacles to David and Dora’s marriage – class, money – too easily here.  (One might compare Traddle’s betrothal difficulties as described in Chapter XLI.)  David and Dora’s early years are the focus of these chapters, and Dickens paints a rather complex, certainly even-handed, picture of this time, in which we understand more fully why David has fallen in love with Dora, and what problems they might encounter in the future. Note particularly how Agnes and especially Aunt Betsey respond to Dora – do these relationships surprise you?

The other major event of these chapters is Uriah Heep’s interference in Doctor and Mrs. Strong’s marriage.  We have seen foreshadowing of Annie Strong and Jack Maldon’s relationship earlier, and we see here, too, how this problem has been part of Mr. Wickfield’s decline.  What might be Uriah’s motivation for revealing all to Doctor Strong?  When David finally snaps, how does Uriah respond to this act of violence, and why?  (Note the effect his response has on David on page 518.)  Note too Mrs. Micawber’s concerned letter to David at the end of Chapter XLII.  Why might Micawber’s behavior have changed so drastically?  (Think of his current occupation.)

For our style note, consider how Dickens handles what should be one of the most important events in David’s narrative in Chapter XLIII.  Why does Dickens describe the marriage to Dora in such a detached and distant way, especially when we compare the vivid detail of the next chapter in which the chaotic daily life of the Copperfields is described?  As a narrator, David is becoming increasingly reflective – cf. the beginning of Chapter XLII or his ruminations on his marriage on page 539.



In these chapters, Dickens wraps up some loose ends while creating a few new ones.  Chapter XLV rids us of the problem and mystery of the Strong marriage, but in a way many critics have found unsatisfying.  Who ends up getting the blame here for Doctor and Mrs. Strong’s marital problems?  Here we note two perhaps surprising actors at center stage – Mr. Dick (“’A poor fellow with a craze, sir. . . may do what wonderful people may not do” – 546) and David himself, who finally confesses all to Annie Strong.  Is David becoming more of an actor in his own drama?  (Note, too, how David reflects on his own marriage at the end of Chapter XLV).

Chapter XLVI is entitled “Intelligence,” meaning here “information” (as in the “Central Intelligence Agency”).  Here Rosa Dartle and Littimer reveal to David the split between Steerforth and Emily, but the mystery deepens as David and Mr. Peggotty seek out Martha for help in locating Emily.  Note the metaphor of the river in Chapter XLVII (page 567) as well as David’s encouragement of Martha – “We can all do some good, if we will” (572), perhaps as good a summary of Dickens’s own philosophy as exists.  More mystery develops at the end of Chapter XLVII as Aunt Betsy’s stalker is revealed.

                The section again ends with a domestic scene between Dora and David (aptly titled “Domestic”).  Once again, David cannot handle the servant class (why not?).  More importantly, we see continued complexities in the relationship between David and his “child-wife.”  Note the references back to Chapter XLV on page 582, and the foreshadowing at the end of chapter as Dora seems to be failing (emotionally? spiritually? physically?)


Chapters XLIX-LII

More loose ends are tied up as Dickens heads toward his conclusion.  The mystery of Mr. Micawber’s strange behavior since his employment with Uriah Heep bookends the resolution of Mr. Peggotty’s pursuit of Emily.  In Chapter L, Martha is able to lead David to Emily in a London boarding house, where Emily is being confronted by Rosa Dartle.  Rosa’s excoriation of Emily is the novel’s most striking and disturbing expression of class prejudice and hatred.  Why does David refrain from intervening at this point?

The beginning of Chapter LI is another example of extended expository dialogue from Mr. Pegotty as he recounts Emily’s adventures overseas after her split with Steerforth.  Here Mr. Peggotty discusses his plan to emigrate to Australia with Emily (and later Mrs. Gummidge).  Note that Australia was originally a British penal colony, but it also was seen as a place where people who had suffered setbacks and reversals in England could get a fresh start (like the convict Magwich in Dickens’s Great Expectations).  David in this chapter has a couple of interesting conversations, one with the redoubtable Mr. Omer and one with Ham, both of whom have some subtly philosophical observations about the situation.  Ham’s feelings toward Emily are particularly thoughtful and complex.

                After the teaser in Chapter XLIX, Dickens presents an “Explosion” in Chapter LII, as Uriah Heep finally gets his comeuppance through the agency not only of Mr. Micawber, but perhaps surprisingly of the quietly competent Tommy Traddles.  Here the real Uriah Heep, beneath the mask of hypocritical humility, is revealed in the ugliest fashion.  Note the irony here too in Mr. Micawber – after a situation has finally “turned up” with Heep, he is miserable: ruined and impoverished, he is again happy.  And the Micawbers, like the Peggotty’s, are bound to make a new start in Australia (a plot device so good Dickens used it twice).  

Final considerations: Are the resolutions of these two long-term plot threads satisfying?  Some critics have accused Dickens here of providing too neat and easy a resolution to the problems of Emily, Micawber, and the Wickfields.  Are these endings too “happily ever after”?


Chapters LIII-LVI

                We might be forgiven for calling this section of the novel the Obituaries since Dickens here sees fit to rid himself of a number of supporting characters.  First is the loss of Dora in the bittersweet chapter LIII – look at both David’s and Dora’s reflections of the ups and downs of their relationship on page 638.  Note how Dickens uses the death of the redoubtable Jip to represent the passing of his mistress – would you characterize this scene as mawkish?

                The fates of Micawber, Uriah Heep, and Aunt Betsy’s husband are settled in Chapter LIV.  Dickens kills off Betsy’s husband rather unceremoniously here; it appears that perhaps the author thought better of pursuing this subplot very far.  Note particularly Micawber’s last letter at the end of Chapter LIV (especially the postscript).

                In Chapter LV, Steerforth and Ham are lost in a brutally ironic episode.  The brave sacrifice of Ham as he wades into the storm to save the shipwreck victims leads to his death; his corpse is followed almost immediately by Steerforth’s.  As David breaks the news to Mrs. Steerforth in Chapter LVI, Rosa Dartle has her final say (perhaps only Micawber has more to say in this novel than Rosa) about Steerforth and his mother, who falls into catatonia.  Here we might be moving from the mawkish to the melodramatic.

                EXTRA CREDIT:  Find definitions of mawkish and melodramatic.


Chapters LVII-LXIV

The novel is rapidly winding down to its conclusion, so we shall consider the last two reading assignments together in one reading guide.  Chapter LVII gives us one last Micawber punch as the Peggottys and Micawbers celebrate their upcoming trip.  Martha’s final fate is settled here as well. 

Chapters LVIII and LIX (“Absence” and “Return”) provide the final development of David’s character, as he goes abroad in mourning, having by his own description lost everything (677), where he “sought out Nature, never sought in vain” (679). Chapter LVIII is the most Romantic chapter in the novel; the descriptions on page 678 are beautifully characteristic of the Romantic attitude toward the natural world.  Here David is rejuvenated and, most importantly, comes to realize his latent love for Agnes Wickfield.  In Chapter LIX, David finds a stark contrast in the grimy London scene and, just for good measure, is embarrassed once again by a couple of waiters.  Here, too, we not only learn of Traddles’s long-awaited marriage, but Mr. Chillip, the doctor, reappears, with news of the Murdstones.

Chapters LX-LXII provide a long, slow buildup to the eventual union of Agnes and David.  Pay attention here to the obstacles that David imagines stand between him and a declaration of love for Agnes.  In Chapter LXI, Mr. Creakle, Uriah Heep, Littimer, and Miss Mowcher all have cameos in an odd episode that appears to be designed to sound a final note on the theme of hypocrisy (a favorite target of Dickens, to be sure).  In Chapter LXII, David and Agnes are finally united romantically as Agnes reveals Dora’s last wish.

Mr. Peggotty visits in Chapter LXIII with news of his family, Mr. Micawber (now a magistrate!), and even Mr. Mell; Dickens is determined that no character be left behind.  We close with a happy ending as David revels in his career, his friends and family, and his soulmate.