David Copperfield: A Typical Victorian Novel

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      Dickens is a representative novelist of the Victorian age. All great literature is a mirror of the society in which it is born. A literary artist is a product of his age and surroundings. Thus Dickens's works reflect both the merits and demerits of the period to which he belongs.

      Dickens masterpiece David Copperfield is a typical product of the Victorian age. All the merits and demerits of Victorian novelists can be found in it.

      The Victorian novelists reflect the setting or atmosphere of the age. Dickens had a keen eye for observation. He was interested in the externals. He described the town life in David Copperfield specially London life. He depicted in it the deplorable conditions prevailing in the private schools, the horrors of prison life and the corrupt legal system. He described London's squares and shops; its murky slums and prison. We come to get a vivid picture of London in the 1820s and 1830s in the novel.

Extraordinary Mixture of Strength and Weakness

      David Cecil is of the opinion that Victorian novels are an extraordinary mixture of strength and weakness. This dictum is properly applicable to David Copperfield because Charles Dickens presents in his works the various virtues and vices of the Victorian novels. Certain common features of the Victorian novelists emerge out of the study of Dickens's David Copperfield.

(A). Some Typical Victorian Faults in David Copperfield

      The following are the main limitations and faults of David Copperfield which characterize the Victorian novel:

      The plot of the Victorian novels is inorganic. All their incidents and characters do not form an integral part of the plot. David Copperfield suffers from this weakness. In this novel, various characters and incidents are superfluous. Some of the characters are irrelevant. They cannot be linked with the main plot of the novel. They have little to do with furthering the story. David Copperfield is very popular because of its charming episodes and individuality of their characters. But the novel lacks the unity of tone which is an essential part of a good novel. There is a melodramatic element in the novel, but it does not arouse our emotions of pity and fear.

      Dickens is a slave to the Victorian conventions. As in Victorian novels, there is mistaken identity; long-lost heirs, and the other elements of romance in Dickens's novels. In David Copperfield, we note the elements of romance. The novel can be regarded as a fairy tale. It is full of intrigues and conspiracies. For example, there is the intrigue of Uriah Heep. The novel ends with the marriage of David and Agnes who subsequently live happily. The main plot and various intrigues and episodes are purely conventional.

      The Victorian novelists are melodramatic. Their novels are melodramas which are sources of entertainment. A melodrama gives us thrill, and a pleasant sensation of relief. It does not arouse the emotions of pity and terror. In this respect David Cecil avers, "Moreover; this melodrama is wedged in between solid blocks of reality and in this way unity of tone is spoiled."

      Similarly, Dickens was unable to create a truly pathetic situation. He overdid the whole thing to entertain the reader. We note this serious drawback in David Copperfield. In this novel, Dickens tries to create a tragic situation by the addition of foreign elements. The tragic situation is spoiled by his ridiculous exaggeration. So, the reader cannot derive pleasure out of the pathetic situations. Dickens tries to delineate a pathetic situation at the time of Little Emily's elopement but he is not successful.

      The characters of David Copperfield are either too good or too bad. Thus the novelist fails over his character. His serious characters, with few exceptions, like David, are full of conventional virtues and vices. The good is perfectly good and the bad is completely bad. In other words, they lack the redeeming features which could make them really human.

      Like other Victorian novels, David Copperfield does not deal with man in relation to thought, art or public affairs. In the novel, Dickens does not discuss sex frankly. There is no discussion of religious, political and aesthetic matters. If he ever introduces these subjects, he makes fun of them. There is no free and frank discussion of sex. He always makes fun of the serious matters in this novel.

      Victorian novelists failed to create great artists, intellectuals, politicians and men of religion in their novels. Similarly, Dickens was not inclined to probe into the deeper issues of life. In the novel, there are no complete gentlemen of statements or great intellectuals. We find ill the novel many caricatures and not characters. In the novel, Dickens's interest lies in oddities and idiosyncrasies in the characters rather than in their relation to any general problems or interests of human nature.

      Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens did not satirize those more profound feelings and sentiments. David Copperfield reveals that Dickens was good at comedy rather than at tragedy or epic. In the novel his pathos do not stop with shedding tears of sympathy; He enlivens the context with a great deal of laughter.

(B). Reasons for the Faults and Limitations of David Copperfield

      Firstly, in the Victorian age, the novel did not evolve its own laws. The novel was considered as a sort of light reading. The Victorian readers did not expect high literary standards. Secondly, a lot of importance was given to morality (especially in matters of sex) and propriety. The crime of little Emily was regarded as heinous. She had to go to Australia to pass her days in low spirits. Finally, David Copperfield is in the tradition of Fielding and Smollett. This novel was written for the middle class. In other words, the novel was not considered the dominant literary form. The Victorians did not take the genre of novel seriously. It was still considered a frivolity, an entertainment and a relaxation. It was not meant for serious reading. Dickens wrote this novel to please the great middle class which had become a predominating force in England. Thus David Copperfield cannot be brought to the level of the modern novel.

      The main drawback of the Victorian novel is the formlessness of its plot which is loosely constructed. The reason for this formlessness is mainly the serial system of publication. Like other Victorian novels, David Copperfield was published in monthly installments. Thus it has certain loose parts. We take the example of Mrs. Strong-Jack Maldon affairs in David Copperfield which is an excrescence on the main plot of the novel.

(C). Merits (Strength) of the Victorian Novel in David Copperfield

      The Victorian novelists have some merits which have made them immortal. Their drawbacks are counter-balanced by their merits:

      The Victorian novelists were good story-tellers. They intended to entertain their readers with their ability of narration. David Copperfield reveals Dickens's superb art of telling. He narrates a very interesting story in a pleasant manner in this novel. He keeps the readers in a sense of suspense with his improbable chain of incidents which maintains their interest till the end of the story. The story grips the attention of the readers from the very opening sentence. It amuses them continuously till he reaches the end. "We enjoy David Copperfield not because it is full of ideas about life-like Point Counter Point, or gives us a great deal of information about the professional classes in early twentieth century England like The Forsyte Saga, but because it is a delightful object in itself." (David Cecil).

      The Victorian novelists' range was very large as compared with the modern writers. Their novels have panoramas of whole societies. They are not simply concerned with the fortunes of their chief characters as it happens in the modern novels. David Copperfield presents a panoramic picture of the Victorian society in all respects. All sections of the Victorian societies are represented in it. For example, David, Traddles and Mr. Micawber represent the middle class. Mrs. Steerforth and her son represent the aristocrats. The Mell, the Peggottys and the Heeps represent the poor people of the Victorian age. Prostitutes and slum dwellers of the Victorian age have also been represented. It appears that Dickens stressed on portraying the panorama of Victorian society rather than presenting the fortunes of his individual characters.

      The Victorian novelists were superb as creators of characters. David Copperfield reveals Dickens's supreme art in creating characters. There is no psychological insight into characters of the novel, but Dickens knew how to draw a character vividly and graphically. David, Mr. Micawber Uriah Heep and Miss Betsey Trotwood are the immortal characters of fiction. Even the minor characters have great vitality. Barkis, Mrs. Micawber and Peggotty are unforgettable minor characters. These principal and minor characters have breadth of vision.

      All Victorian novelists had vitality because of great creative imagination which was their distinguishing characteristic. As an autobiographical novel, David Copperfield is based on the facts of Dickens's life. But these facts are not reproduced like photographs. They are fired and colored by the rich creative faculty of the artist. Out of the real world, Dickens creates a new world.

      While the Victorian novelists used to write pertaining to different moods, the modern novelists are specialists. They were unsurpassable in blending realism with fantasy; thrill with theories and farce with artistic beauty. We note that in David Copperfield we get "sweets and sandwiches, pots of Jam with their greased paper caps, cream, and nut, and glossy apples." Thus, the novel appeals to different moods and tastes of the readers.

      The Victorian novelists were great humorists, Likewise, Dickens was the prince among humorists. Priestly has correctly remarked, "Fashions come and fashions go, and now it is the French who are the greatest novelists in the world and now it is the Russian but the supremacy of humorists remains unchallenged. "Dickens's humor is par excellence because of his rich creative imagination. Humour is a kind of comment on interesting incidents. His greatest humorous creation is Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield.

      Like the Victorian novelists, Dickens had a fantastic imagination. Thus he could exaggerate the individuals' eccentricities, oddities and peculiarities of characters. David Copperfield reveals that he could write well of those facets of life which were capable of fantastic treatment. When he did not exaggerate the particular traits of his characters they become colorless. For example, Agnes's character is colorless as Dickens did not exaggerate her character. The world of Dickens's novel is extraordinarily alive because of his creative and fantastic imagination. The Victorian novelists could create picturesque incidents and dramatic situations. Dickens was an expert in this respect. David Copperfield is full of such picturesque incidents and dramatic situations which always linger in the mind of the readers.


      We may say that Dickens is not only the most famous of the Victorian novelists, but he is also the most typical. The novel, David Copperfield reflects his faults and virtues which are mentioned above.


"Dickens is not only the most famous of the Victorian novelists, but he is also the most typical." (David Cecil) Discuss.

"Dickens in his merits and in his defects is the typical Victorian novelist." Discuss.

In what various ways does David Copperfield illustrate the typical merits and defects of Dickens as a novelist.

Examine with special reference to David Copperfield the view that Dickens is a slave to conventions.

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