Critical Analysis of The Novel David Copperfield

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Critical Appreciation of David Copperfield

      In this long autobiographical novel David Copperfield, Dickens presents his most immortal gallery of unforgettable characters. It is the young life of David Copperfield and all the personages with whom he comes into contact. This was Dickens's own favorite novel and has become perhaps the most loved piece of English fiction for its freshness, realistic effects, and sympathetic treatment of character. As David Copperfield is an autobiographical novel, it affords us a glimpse into the grim background of Dickens's early life and struggles to fame. This explains the strain of ferocity that makes its appearance in his works every now and then, and for which he tried to escape into the world of humor and fantasy.

Plot Construction of David Copperfield

      The plot construction in Dickens's novels is faulty They lack in continuity and suffer from superfluity. In the words of Walter Allen, his plots are like shapeless bags in which he puts all that comes into his head. However, David Copperfield is a better-constructed novel than many of his other novels. It is not simply a collection of adventures and experiences but a coherent whole. Even though the Emily-Steerforth episode may not have a direct effect on the story of David's life, it has been very cleverly interwoven with the main thread of the story. The only serious defect in the plot is the long description in which Dr. Strong tells us about his relations with his wife, and her mother and sister.

Characterization in David Copperfield

      Characterization in David Copperfield is of the most astonishing variety, with a vividness and originality unparalleled in English literature. Dickens's characters are taken from various walks of life. The author exaggerates particular oddities in dress, character and physical appearance. Their speech and manners are also exaggerated. The eccentric Betsey Trotwood with her obsession with donkeys and male children and the mad Mr. Dick with his obsession with the head of King Charles I will ever be immortal. Who can ever forget Mr. Micawber with his bombastic language and ever-changing moods?

Autobiographical Element in David Copperfield

      David Copperfield is a novel which is autobiographical in many respects. Charles Dickens's life is reflected in the central character of David. But the author has managed to mingle the facts of his life with the fiction of the story Mr. Micawber's portrait was sketched, keeping in mind the author's own father but the real life character has also been transformed here to a great extent. Other characters in the novel also resemble to some extent the novelist's friends and acquaintances in real life. The headmaster of Salem House, Mr. Creakle very much resembles the cruel headmaster of the Wellington House Academy; David's love for Dora Spenlow is Dickens's own love for Maria.


      Dickens was something of a sentimentalist. In several of his novels notably in the descriptions of death, he overdid it pathetically: The modern reader finds those episodes tediously artificial and embarrassing. But in David Copperfield, there are passages of genuine pathos where this defect is avoided. Thus the reader feels the sadness of David's isolation at Blunderstone and his mother's divided loyalty and love between her new husband and David. Dora's realization of her own failure as a wife and her desire that after her death David should marry Agnes Wickfield has genuine pathos in it. There is genuine pathos in the description of Mr. Barkis's death and in Martha's projected suicide as well. However, the pathos in the relations of Doctor and Mrs. Strong is felt by the reader to be artificial and not so genuine.


      Dickens's reputation as a humorist is based on his great humorous characters. The most outstanding of these in David Copperfield are Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Miss Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick and Traddles. Among the minor characters, Mr. Barkis too is hilariously a funny character. 'Barkis is willin' had once become a household word. Dickens is very skillful in devising situations which bring out to best effect the well-defined eccentricities of his comic characters. One of the best examples of this is the famous interview at Dover between Miss Trotwood and the Murdstones.

      The mechanical repetition of some phrases or personal characteristics as a means of producing humorous effect, is rather overdone by Dickens. There is a little too much of Miss Betsey and the donkeys, Mrs. Gummidge and the "old un." Mr. Spenlow's references to Mr. Jorkins and so on. This sort of thing is all right in moderation, but even Mr. Micawber gets a little restless when told repeatedly by Mrs. Micawber that she will never desert him.

Satire of Social Abuses

      Many nineteenth-century novelists, influenced by the humanitarian movement which had resulted from the French Revolution, made the novel a vehicle for exposing contemporary social evils. None did this more than Dickens. Unlike his other novels which satirized social abuses, David Copperfield had less of propaganda. The social reform motive is given an episodic and subordinate treatment in David Copperfield.

      In David Copperfield, Dickens is much concerned with education. Salem House with its brutal and ignorant headmaster, Creakle, is the author's example of what a school ought not to be. Similarly, the Murdstones provide an example of what parental treatment ought not to be. Doctor Strong's school, where there is plenty of liberty and recreation, is intended to contrast with Salem House - it is described as the "best" school and 'as different from Mr. Creakle's as good is from evil." Likewise, Dickens satirizes many other public institutions like the Doctors' Commons, prisons and mental asylums.


      The details and vividness of Dickens's character creations have won for him a popular reputation for 'realism' which is somewhat misleading. In many respects, his stories and characters are very unreal. His pictures of the poor people, for example, are idealized and sentimentalized, and ignore altogether the coarseness of the life they are compelled to live. Even David Copperfield one of his novels with possibly the greatest claim to realism, gets less real as the story develops.


      The chief characteristics of Dickens's prose are its simplicity; its emotional quality and the frequent use of humorous terms and phrases. Dickens, in his own natural style, avoids the defects of Mr. Micawber's speech and writing, who is a character in his novel David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber's speech and writing throughout is a burlesque of bombastic language and tautology. The emotional tension like the denouement of the story of Annie and Doctor Strong. It is apt, however, to be overdone and become stilted and artificial. In Dickens, there are straightforward narrations and descriptions as well. Another feature of his novel is the great proportion of dialogue written in narrative style.


      In this long autobiographical novel, Dickens presents his most immortal gallery of unforgettable characters. It is the young life of David Copperfield and all the personages, with whom he comes into contact. This was Dickens's own favorite novel and has become perhaps the most loved piece of English fiction for its freshness, its realistic effects and its sympathetic treatment of character. However, as a social reformer, Dickens has one great defect. He can expose abuses wonderfully well, but seems to have no grasp of practical politics. His only constructive suggestion seems to be the substitution of evils by a vague benevolent philanthropy. And he was not so up-to-date with his information on some of the things he satirized as many have supposed. But when all is said and done we can add as an epilogue in the words of Hugh Walker. "The pen which wrote David Copperfield was often dipped in his own blood."


"David Copperfield is Dickens's most varied, and at the same time most serious and best sustained effort." Discuss.

How does foreshadowing contribute to the overall narrative flow
of David Copperfield?

How does Dickens use contrasting pairs of characters to illustrate good and evil in the novel?

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