Plot Construction of The Novel David Copperfield

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Shapeless and Incoherent Plot

      Charles Dickens's early novels are all shapeless and incoherent; they lack in unity. To quote Allen "His early novels are like shapeless bags which contain something for everybody and parts which are not liked can more or less be ignored. We remember the early novels not as wholes but as episodes." For example, in David Copperfield, the entire Steerforth-Emily episode is not only melodramatic but it contributes very little to the biography of David Copperfield, which is the theme of the novel. But it must be accepted that this episode has been woven skillfully with the main story. But the digression in which Dr. Strong's relations with his wife, her mother, and her cousin are narrated, is entirely irrelevant and unnecessary.

Characters have no Organic Relation with Plot

      There are other reasons which indicate that Charles Dickens's plots lack the skillful art of construction. As Hugh Walker remarks, "One of his faults as an artist is that he introduces unnecessary characters, characters who drop in from nowhere, exercise no influence on the story, and sometimes disappear unnoticed." For example, Mrs. Micawber and Mrs. Gummidge are mere excesses as they are not at all required by the story. Sometimes he cares more for character than for plot. Thus unity and integrity of plot is often sacrificed at the cost of character. Sometimes he "freely indulges in humorous conversation. After pages of scintillating talk, he returns to the main story. The result is that the readers have already forgotten the main story and find it difficult to link together the old threads. To quote David Cecil, "Very often he leaves a great many threads loose till the very last chapter; and then finds there is not enough time to tie them up neatly. The main strands are knotted roughly together, the minor wisps are left hanging forlornly." But David Copperfield is an exception. The plot of David Copperfield is free from such blemishes. To quote Ward, "It is a story with a plot, and not a mere string of adventures and experiences." It has been observed creditably that it is not a incoherent and formless as the plots of his other novels.

Minor Stories Badly Treated

      Some of the minor stories are badly done. One feels, for instance, that the Rosa Dartle story has too much mention that is in disproportion to its substance. Miss Trotwood's husband's appearances are rather pointless and make a lame sort of tale altogether. And the Jack Maldon - Annie story is melodramatic and unnecessary. The reader feels that the author has deliberately led him astray in this connection. The denouement of the affair is a surprise to everybody except the mad Mr. Dick. Annie's character is too good to be true, and the whole affairs seem pointless and leads nowhere, though it occupies much space.

Improbabilities in David Copperfield

      Some situations and events in David Copperfield are unconvincing due to improbabilities in the plot. Charles Dickens's plots are seldom concerned with the plain motives of human life. There is much in them that is absurd and fantastic. To quote A.O.J. Cockshut, "Throughout the book there is no real pressure on reality; no logic of cause and effect.'' There are so many examples which reflect this glaring drawback of Dickens's plot construction, in David Copperfield. Firstly, there is the sudden conversion of Mr. Creakle into the governor of a prison. Secondly, the case with which Betsey Trotwood acquires legal control over David is unconvincing. Thirdly, the Murdstones come like ogres and go like a nightmare. Fourthly, David is employed in washing bottles. He needs some friends and relatives, money and education and he gets them. He wants to marry Dora. Her father does not give his consent. He dies quite conveniently to clear the way. When she dies, her dog too at that very moment expires. In order to make room for Agnes's marriage with David, her father must be saved. So, Mr. Micawber finds proof of all the crimes of his partner, Uriah Heep. Thus dangers and difficulties disappear like mist.

      The improbabilities in David Copperfield are endless. To add more examples, Mr. Peggotty's setting out on his quest for Emily all over Europe, though he has no idea where she has gone, is improbable and unreal. The relations between Uriah Heep and Mr. Wickfield are improbable, no matter how far Mr. Wickfield had decayed - though he could not have been as bad as all that, judging from his recovery; of which we are told towards the end of the story. And again take Mr. Micawber's part in the unmasking of Heep. We have been accustomed to thinking of Mr. Micawber as a delightful comic character but hopelessly inefficient. Hardly of the proportions to smoke out the willy Uriah. And, finally, there is the prison scene at the end. It is a fair coincidence that the two villains of the piece, Littimer and Heep, are side by side in jail, and that it is David's and Traddles's old tyrant of a schoolmaster, Mr. Creakle, who is the visiting magistrate. But one feels that the entire episode is unreal and irrelevant and introduced by Dickens merely to ridicule those people who have pet notions on the reforming of jailbirds and as good a way as any other of informing the reader what has happened to the villains of the story. Similarly, Mr. Chilip has been resurrected, and found to have the Murdstones for neighbors once again, so that we may know what has happened to them. Moreover, the situation in which Mr. Micawber brings Uriah Heep to book is theatrical and unconvincing.

The Conventional Element and Lack of Invention in David Copperfield

      David Copperfield's plot reveals that Dickens mars the interest in the novel to his poverty of invention. The conventional element has poured into the story. The story of Emily is unhappily conceived. The intrigues are half-heartedly introduced because intrigue appears essential. For example, the mysteries surrounding Wickfield and the knaveries of Uriah Heep do not claim our belief. All this appears to be conventional, unconvincing and theatrical. The author of David Copperfield is writing the novel in the tradition of Fielding whose novels are full of long lost heirs, mistaken identity; disguised lovers, artificial intrigues etc. Similarly, the scene between Emily and Rosa Dartle is entirely theatrical and melodramatic. It fails to carry conviction. David's flight from London and the direction he takes are unaccounted for. Some critics are of the opinion that the conventional element is very strong in Dickens's other novels. But in David Copperfield, Charles Dickens is remarkably free from such conventional elements, although they do exist. To quote Ward, "The double love-story of the hero-David’s love and marriage with Dora and then with Agnes - has been managed with great skill."

The Excessive Use of Coincidence

      Another point to be noticed is the excessive use of coincidence. On the night that David and Steerforth arrive at Yarmouth, Emily and Ham announce their engagement. Agnes is at the theatre on the very night that David is there the worse for drink. No other but Miss Murdstone is Dora's "confidential friend", Barkis is on his deathbed at precisely the right moment to bring David to Yarmouth to be present at the first news of Emily's flight. It is a marvelous coincidence that Steerforth has to die at Yarmouth, that David happens to be there at the very time, and that Ham returns exactly at the right time to lose his life in attempting to save that of the man who had so deeply wronged him. Spenlow's sudden death upon his forbidding David to associate with Dora comes out of the blue - the reader has no idea that anything is wrong with him. This leaves Dora free to marry David. Similarly; later on Dora dies and that leaves David free to marry Agnes. And Jip dies just as Dora dies. Again, what a coincidence that David and Mr. Peggotty should seek out Martha and be at hand to save her on the night she had determined to commit suicide; and that David and Martha should arrive at Martha's room at the exact time to witness Rosa Dartle's interview with Emily. This is a coincidence, Dickens is not willing to spoil it by allowing David to interfere and bring it to an end before Mr. Peggotty arrives, though it would have been much more probable and true to life if he had done so. "The sin most palpable, most gross, which Dickens everywhere commits is the abuse of coincidence."

Too much Moralizing is Superfluous

      Dickens's narrative power suffers from the dull and monotonous morality preached by him in the novel. He opens a chapter with a long passage of conventional moralizing which has no connection with the story. The story of David Copperfield is told in the first person. But David elaborates in details, conversations which took place before his birth. Thus verisimilitude or exactness is violated in the novel. The question put by the readers is obvious that is, how did David come to know all that happened before his birth.

Poetic Justice Creates an Atmosphere of a Fairy Tale

      Dickens's philosophy of life is simple; he was a great believer in poetic justice, that in the end virtue triumphs and evil loses. So the novel ends in an atmosphere like that of a fairy tale. Australia is presented as a cure-all for all those characters who have been presented in a good light and for whom continued residence in England is for some reason difficult Emily, Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Gummidge, even "Doctor Mell" are all transformed and prosperous in Australia; while Heep and Littimer, the villains, are taking their punishment though preserving their poses to the bitter end. No one is forgotten in this happy ending, though perhaps Dickens is a little hard on Julia Mills, who had assisted David in his courtship of Dora.

Reasons for Faulty Plot Construction of David Copperfield

      The serial method of writing for the magazines leads Dickens into some defects of structure. He did not plan the entire story at the beginning but made it up largely as he went along. For example, he wrote to Forster of the various professions he had in mind for David, rejecting those of special pleader and banker for that of proctor in November 1849, six months after the publication of the first number. Thus it is that he is able to introduce Dora, a new character and an important person in the story at Chapter XXVI, almost halfway through the book. An even better example is the case of Miss Mowcher, who was based on a real person. On the objection of this person Dickens changed her from an unpleasant character to a more tolerable one in the novel.

      The serial method also leads to the necessity of closing each part with some sort of suspense, so that the story proceeds from one omen to another, of things to come. But like the Jack Maldon affair, this does not always turn out to be as exciting as expected.

      Dickens's plots are faulty also because of his fondness for the theatre and the picaresque traditions. The serial method of writing had far reaching repercussions since the work could not be revised and also because Dickens did not have the intellectual ability to see his work as a whole.

David Copperfield's Plot Structure better than other Novels of Charles Dickens

      There are various reasons given below to indicate that the plot of David Copperfield is admittedly better than those of his early novels,

(i). Holding Together the Various Strands of the Novel

      The construction of the narration does not seem to have been Dickens's forte. He prefers usually to wander where he pleases and where his characters show off to best advantage. Nevertheless, David Copperfield is fairly well held together partly by the autobiographical motive and partly because in this novel Dickens is not, as in so many of his others, concerned to such an extent with satire of various social institutions. There is a genuine attempt to trace David's life carefully; and to show his feelings and experiences and their development as he is influenced by the characters with whom he comes into contact Such plot as appears is in the sub-stories of Uriah Heep and Mr. Wickfield, Steerforth and Emily, Doctor and Mrs. Strong and Jack Maldon, Miss Trotwood and her husband, Rosa Dartle and the Steerforths. These stories are all skilfully woven into the story of David's life, but their proportions may be criticized on the ground that, though not strictly part of it, they contain so much interest in themselves that in parts supersede the interest of David's own life story. And in the latter part of the book the interest in Uriah Heep's scheming does to some extent replace the interest in David.

      A life story going from birth to the time of writing cannot be of itself a plot. It is a necessity to make a string of incidents in David Copperfield. Such "plot" in David Copperfield can only be extraneous to David's own story; though it nevertheless affects his life.

(ii). Dickens's Skillful Use of Suspense

      Dickens makes skillful use of suspense. Coming events vaguely cast their shadows before the reader wonders what exactly will happen and this binds his interest. For example, these lines quoted below in a way anticipate Steerforth's death on the sea:

      "That's wind, sir. There'll be mischief done at sea, I expect, before long"... Mercy on them and on all poor sailor; said he, if we had another night like the last... Both became overshadowed by a new and indefinable horror... my whole frame thrilled with objectless and unintelligible fear.

(iii). Charles Dickens: A Good Story-teller in David Copperfield

      As David Cecil remarks, "Dickens may not construct the story well, but he tells it admirably. With the first sentence, he grips the attention of the readers, and does not let it go till the very end." In David Copperfield, we note all the characteristics of a good story teller. Charles Dickens's description of the scenery is charming in this novel. Here the dialogue is commendable: and incidents are enchanting, thrilling and exciting. Moreover, there is super-abundance of wit and humor in this novel to delight and entertain the reader. The two distinguished critics A.C. Ward and Ernest A. Baker have admirably noted the merits in this novel. For example, this novel is not a mere string of adventures and experiences. It has a well-marked theme. The story moves smoothly forward. All the sub-plots have been harmoniously blended. It is not the case of other novels of Charles Dickens. Moreover, the scenes are less melodramatic and theatrical. Finally, there is less tone of moralizing in the novel.

(iv). In David Copperfield the Craftsmanship of Dickens is Better than in Other Novels

      When Charles Dickens was writing David Copperfield he was mentally alert. He displayed rare skill in constructing the sub-plots of the novel. The novelist has artistically highlighted the main points of the plot in relation with the sub-plots.

(v). David's Discipline of Heart

      This story reveals David's discipline of heart in the end of the novel. The sentiments and impulses of his undisciplined heart have given way to rationality. He makes love to Agnes under the influence of Miss Betsey Trotwood who is a prudent lady There are two phases of David's love in this story. In the first phase, he is under the influence of passion which leads to ruin. Imprudence in love brings disaster; on the other hand prudence, and sensible love can bring harmony peace and happiness. Tommy Traddles, who is a very sensible character in the story waits for his marriage for many years and ultimately he leads a very happy life because of his hold over the impulses. Similarly, Barkis who marries Peggotty for her cooking and housekeeping skills leads a very blissful domestic life. But the unsuccessful and unfortunate loves of David's father and Aunt Betsey, Emily's seduction by Steerforth, Mr. Murdstone's insane second wife, the ruin of Emily's friend Martha and Mrs. Strong's infatuations with Jack Maldon, indicate that passions and sentiments ungoverned can lead to ruin and destruction. Therefore, it is evident that Charles Dickens has harmonized the sub-plots of the novel in the texture of the main plot very artistically and successfully.

(vi). David Copperfield's Unity of Impression

      This novel is above all a collection of certain disjointed episodes. Dickens himself admitted, "I have been poring over Copperfield (which is my favorite), with an idea of getting a reading out of it, to be called by some such name as "Young Housekeeping and Little Emily" But there is still the huge difficulty that I constructed the whole with immense pains, and have so woven it up and blended it together that I cannot yet so separate the parts as to tell the story of David's married life with Dora, and the story of Mr. Peggotty's search for his niece, within the time."

      The above statement reveals the difficulty encountered by the author to give this story an admirable unity of impression like that of a ballet, although it may lack dramatic unity. The main plot of the story convinces us that Charles Dickens has successfully achieved unity and harmonized the various strands of the novel which make the story convincing. In fact, the novel is so carefully and flawlessly constructed that Dickens overcame all the difficulties of adopting the serial method of writing this novel.

(vii). David Copperfield's Plot Construction Reveals Charles Dickens's Wonderful Art

      The plot is wonderfully suited to the novelist's purpose. It is in no way a string of unrelated episodes and a gallery of characters who move here and there without any purpose. The story immediately captivates the readers with its sudden and incredible happenings. To quote A.C. Ward from his book Charles Dickens, "The reality of David Copperfield is perhaps, the first feature in it which is likely to strike the reader a new to its charms; but a closer acquaintance will produce and familiarity will enhance, the sense of its wonderful art."

(viii) Skillfully Constructed Plot

      Charles Dickens admitted that he liked David Copperfield-the best among all his books. He adjusted the details of this crowded canvas very superbly without letting it fall into chaos. "His dominant themes are always there, but they never crush his life story into the sort of intellectual geometry that Henry Adams makes of his autobiography. Dickens has ordered his materials so that for all their skillful appearance of artlessness they give meaning to his interpretation of his experience. Into David Copperfield he has not merely precipitated the painful experiences of his childhood and youth; he has so surrounded them with life itself as to make them part of a larger world." To quote Baker, "It is a tale of ups and downs, joys and sorrows; but the prevailing tone is one of the cheerfulness and confidence in the essential goodness of life. And though, it is not entirely free from the ensnaring device of poetic justice, a form of preaching and a misleading one, since it does not agree with ascertained facts, this is not one of his didactic stores. On the contrary, except for the exposure of Uriah Heepz a few reformations of sinners, and the lurid tragedy of 'Steerforth, all of which are extraneous to the history of David. This book is tolerably free from both moralizing and melodrama."


      But, when all is said, the story of David Copperfield hangs fairly well together and is a reasonable structure where in the characters of the novel may appear to best advantage. To quote A.C. Ward from his book Charles Dickens, "As to the construction of David Copperfield however I frankly confess that I perceive no serious fault in it. It is a story with a plot, and not merely a string of adventures and experiences like little Davy's old favorite upstairs at Blunderstone. In the conduct of this plot blemishes may here and there occur the boy's flight from London and the direction which it takes, are insufficiently accounted for. A certain amount of obscurity as well as of improbability, pervades the relations between Uriah and the victim, round whom the unspeakable slimy thing writes and wriggles. On the other hand, the mere conduct of the story has much that is beautiful in it. Thus there is real art in the way in which the scene of Barkis' death - written with admirable moderation - prepares for the 'greater loss' at hand for the mourning family. The best constructed part of David Copperfield is however, unmistakably the story of little Emily and her kinsfolk. This is most skillfully interwoven with the personal experiences of David, of which except in its very beginning it forms not the integral part and throughout, the reader is haunted by a presentiment of the coming catastrophe though unable to divine the tragic force and justice of its actual accomplishment. A touch altered here and there is Steerforth with the Rosa Dartle episode excluded or greatly reduced, and this part of David Copperfield might challenge comparison in terms of workmanship with all modem fiction."


Write a note on the plot-construction of David Copperfield.

It has been often said that Dickens's plots are weak. How far does David Copperfield support this criticism?

"The plots of Dickens were usually incredible, often monstrous. But he invented a world; he peopled it with men and women for our joy." Discuss this statement in the light of David Copperfield.

"Dickens may not construct his story well, but he tells it admirably". Elaborate this statement with reference to David Copperfield.

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