Social Criticism in The Novel David Copperfield

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      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. There is no objection to the introduction of this element into a novel provided that propaganda is not allowed to distort and swamp the story. In David Copperfield, Social Criticism is observed; the social reform motive being given an episodic and subordinate treatment.

David Copperfield Different from Dickens's Other Novels

      Ross H. Danby comments on the social reform aspect in Dickens: "One reason for its (David Copperfield's) singularity as well as its popularity is its comparative lack of concern with social reform. This lack of concern is not just a question of Dickens's failure to make a sustained attack on an institution (such as equity, jurisprudence, administration, or parish relief, or to call attention to the sufferings of the poor. These omissions are found in other novels such as well-Dombey and Son and Great Expectations for instance. But in all the rest of Dickens's novels from Oliver Twist to Our Mutual Friend, there is the sense that society is pervaded by ruthless egoism and needs radical reformation. David Copperfield, despite the Murdstones, Creakle, Steerforth, Uriah Heep and his mother; lacks this sense. Except in the early episode of David's conflict with the Murdstone, the emphasis is on the need for personal discipline."

      This shift in orientation can be seen in the marriage which constitutes the plot. In the earlier novels, a bad marriage was forced upon the young people by their elders for mercenary reasons. The bad marriages in Copperfield, however, are disinterested, innocent and impulsive acts. David's marriage to Dora and Clara Copperfield to Mr. Murdstone are good examples of such marriages. On the other hand, good marriages like that of Peggotty's to Barkis or Annie's to Dr. Strong or even David's to Agnes are passionless and carefully weighed.

Dickens's Limitations as a Social Reformer

      George Orwell, a modern critic of repute, says that Dickens's criticism of society in David Copperfield is "almost exclusively moral." He feels that there is hardly any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. "He attacks the laws, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places." Orwell goes on to say; "Of course, it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens's attitude is at the bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make much of a difference if it were overthrown. For in reality, his target is not so much society as human nature."

Dickens's Criticism of Society through the Criticism of Human Nature

      We cannot fully agree with Orwell's view that there is hardly any constructive suggestion in any of Dickens's works. Dickens has given, by way of contrast, glimpses of his own ideal of the aspects which he has criticized. In David Copperfield, for example, he has contrasted Mr. Creakle's school with that of his ideal school, Mr. Strong's. But on the whole Dickens's criticism of society is through his criticism of human nature. The rude and cruel behavior of Steerforth towards Mr. Mell, the attitude of Mr. Creakle about the whole affair and his dismissal of Mr. Mell from his school because his mother lives on charity is not merely a criticism of particular individuals or human nature in general but it is rather a scathing attack on the educational institutions of the time as also a vehement attack on society in general which allows such a state of affairs to continue.

Criticism of the Educational System in David Copperfield

      Except for the universities and the big public schools, Dickens launched a bitter attack on the kind of education imparted in his time. Charity schools which were seats of corruption could produce no better specimens than Uriah Heep and the private schools like Salem House, with people like Mr. Creakle, a bankrupt dealer, as the supreme authority could not be expected to do any better. In a school like Salem House which was carried on by sheer cruelty, any semblance of education could not be expected.

From School to Prison

      One day, when David had become a prosperous author, he receives a letter from Mr. Creakle-the schoolmaster, who had now become a magistrate of a model prison which was supposedly meant to reform its prisoners. David and Traddles go to visit the prison on Mr. Creakle's invitation. The old schoolmaster turned magistrate introduces them to two penitent prisoners. They turn out to be the scoundrels Uriah Heep and Littimer. This is what David has to say about the whole episode, "We had now seen all there was to see. It would have been in vain to represent to such a man as the Worshipful Mr. Creakle, that twenty-seven and twenty-eight (Uriah and Littimer) were perfectly consistent and unchanged; that exactly what they were then, they had always been; that the hypocritical knaves were just the subjects to make that sort of profession in such a place; .......We left them to their system and themselves, and went home wondering." After all, Mr. Creakle could not be expected to do any better than he did at Salem House in reforming his students. Of all the people it was a man like Mr. Creakle who was made the magistrate of a reformatory prison.

Financial Troubles: Debtors’ Prison

      Dickens scoffed at the idea that a social wrong could be put right by giving money to those wronged. In chapter seven, Steerforth, who has insulted Mr. Mell and got him kicked out of the school tells Traddles, who thinks that Mr. Mell has been ill-treated, that he will write to his mother to give some money to Mr. Mell.

      Dickens deals with the problem of debt as well. He feels debt is a tragedy only for the little man and imprisonment is the most painful form of suffering it can inflict. Mr. Micawber is a spectacular example of a person who is constantly in debt and is a frequent guest at the debtors’prison. His suffering has been depicted very acutely by Dickens. He and his family are able to survive all this suffering simply because of their peculiar nature.

Child Labour and Cruelty to Children

      Children were ill-treated in Dickens's time. Flogging was a common method of punishing a child. Children were condemned to work in factories and mines for a mere six shillings a week under very unhealthy circumstances. David and Traddles are innocent victims of cruelty and sadism of the authorities. Mr. and Miss Murdstone, Mr. Creakle and Tungay display sadism in their temperament. Mr. Ceakle is ever ready with his cane to punish the so-called 'evil child'. Mr. Murdstone flogged David mercilessly and banished him to the prison like school of Mr. Creakle. Later when David's mother died, he compelled the poor child to work for his living. There were many other children like David who worked for their living. Mick Water and Mealy Potatoes were some of those very unfortunate children whose future seemed to be blighted at a very tender age.

Government Administration

      The House of Commons had left a very bad impression on Dickens. He had a first hand experience of the House of Commons when he was working as a parliamentary reporter. He wished," to have made every man in England feel something of the contempt for the House of Commons that I have." We can get an idea of his contempt when he observes the noisy scenes in Mr. Mell's class at Salem House "might have made the speaker of the House of Commons giddy"


      Dickens ridicules the conduct of the law in the various courts at Doctors' Commons in his novel David Copperfield. Doctors' Commons was a fellowship of lawyers, advocates and Proctors, who had the exclusive right of appearing in all ecclesiastical matters which at that time included divorce, admiralty and probate cases. Dickens lashes out at the nefarious practice of the same set of people dealing with matters as diverse as wills, marriages and nautical cases, the same man being sometimes judge, sometimes advocate; the whole thing being a sort of round game for the benefit of the lawyers at the expense of the litigants. Snobbery dominated the law; barristers, for instance, were divided from solicitors (or attorneys, as they were then called), with other such irrelevant distinctions based on income or social position. Dickens's searching eyes lay bare all these flaws in the legal system which were then prevalent.

System of Private Asylums

      Dickens refers to the evils of the then system of private asylums. Miss Trotwood tells David, Dick's story—how his relatives had sent him to a private asylum where he was ill-treated, and how she had asked him to stay with her. This exposes that how people could be sent to private asylums by interested relatives in Dickens day, and the evils prevalent in those institutions -a scandal that was dealt with in detail by Charles Reader in his novel Hard Cash (1863). Everywhere there was much corruption in places high and low. (See what Traddles says in Chap. 61)


      Thus we see that Dickens's eyes were open to almost all the evils of his society. In David Copperfield, he has criticized the educational system of his times, the practice of child labor, the law, the system of private asylums and many other aspects of his society. However, he concentrated mainly on the problems of children and the moneyless. He did not criticize the society directly. In this novel, particularly; his target was human nature. He was by no means a revolutionary writer and we find no constructive suggestions in his writings. He seemed to believe that if men and women would behave decently, society would change for the better.


"It is certain that Dickens's stories did more to correct the general selfishness and injustice of society toward the poor than all the works of the literary men of his age combined." Discuss this remark in light of David Copperfield.
Write a short essay on Dickens as a champion of the poor with reference to David Copperfield.
Write a short note on Dickens as a social reformer.
Discuss this dictum: "Dickens was that rare type of reformer who could moralize with a smile on his lips, and mix his sermonic powders in such excellent jam that his contemporaries did not realize for a while that he was doctoring them for their good."

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