Women and Love: in The Novel David Copperfield

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      One of the themes of David Copperfield is love and marriage. Naturally, women have an important role in a story with such a theme. In a way, this theme provides some of the intricacies of Dickens’s plots. But because of certain peculiarities of his mind and genius, Dickens is not at his best in the treatment of love and marriage. In this field, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy have achieved greater success.

Theme of the Undisciplined Heart

      The theme of the undisciplined heart, implicit from the beginning, Dickens does not state explicitly until about three-fourths through the story: Unlike his other novels, Dickens emphasizes the need for personal discipline in David Copperfield. H. Ross Danby puts it very succinctly, "Central to Dickens's treatment of the growth of David's character and the development of his self-knowledge is the theme of the undisciplined heart. This theme is not, however, confined to David and Annie Strong it pervades the novel.....On the one hand is awful passion, enthusiasm, fancy, romance; on the other hand, commonsense and worldly wisdom expressed in prudent marriage." Dickens lays emphasis throughout the book on true marriage and loyalties to the purities of the home. This aspect has been brought out very strongly in the story of David, Dora and Agnes.

      The first section of the Novel traces the growth of David's mind. The longer, second section is concerned mostly with the disciplining of his heart. In this novel Dickens is continuously occupied with the relationships of men and women. Marriage is presented in almost every possible variation and the various love tangles are shown from many different angles.

Love and Marriage

      There is David's marriage to Dora and then to Agnes. He was madly in love with Dora. His affection for Agnes, initially, is of a different sort. In the case of Agnes, it is not what is called love. He is impressed by her intelligence and practicality He goes to her for advice when he requires it and considers her almost to be his sister. He marries her ultimately more out of wisdom, taking a lesson from the utter failure of his marriage with Dora. With Dora, it was a case of 'blind love', which equally ended in a blind alley. It was only with the death of Dora that David could make the more fortunate and rational choice of Agnes for a life partner.

      In his novel David Copperfield, Dickens seems to have reversed his prerogative. "In the earlier novels a bad marriage was a mercenary one, characteristically forced on young people by their calculating elders. In David Copperfield, most of the bad marriages are disinterested, innocent and impulsive while the good marriages - Peggotty's to Barkis, Annies's to Dr. Strong, David's to Agnes - are passionless and carefully weighted." (Rose H. Danby). In fact, there are three types of marriages in David Copperfield which more or less make up the plot. There is the impulsive marriage, the necessary marriage and the prudent marriage.

Love and Woman

      There are three types of women in the novel who are coveted by men and the ultimately married with different results. There are women like Clara Copperfield and Dora, who are charming little angels but whose married life doesn't seem to be ideal. Clara cannot stand up to the tyranny of her husband - Mr. Murdstone and his sister Miss Murdstone. Her life becomes hell and ultimately she dies. Dora too proves to be an ineffectual wife. She is incapable of managing her household and messes up everything. Both the women were lovely, and married in a fit of passion and impulse. Both the marriages turned out to be ineffective and that of Clara even tragic.

      Then there is the second wife of Mr. Murdstone - an insane woman, whom he marries because she brings him some "very good little property." Uriah Heep's intended marriage to Agnes too is for mercenary reasons. And finally, there is the marriage of Agnes to David after Dora's death, Peggotty's to Barkis, Annie's to Dr. Strong and Traddles's to Sophy - all very prudent, passionless and carefully weighed marriages. The marriage of Dr. Strong is the most striking example of a prudent marriage. Dr. Strong is old and rich, Annie is young and poor. Dr. Strong has saved Annie from "the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart'' by marrying her, or else she would have been miserable with the flashy, sponging Jack Maldon, Peggotty too married Barkis after the death of David's mother.

Sexual Love

      It has been charged that Dickens's novels are lacking in true love - that is sexual love. It is said that sexual love is almost outside his scope. Spilka believes that Dickens's ''unhealthy predilection for sexless love.... was reflected in his novels by his concentration on the love of fathers and daughters, uncles and nieces, sons and mothers, or brother and sisters, and by his sentimentalization of adult romances." We cannot deny Spilka's charge and have to accept that Dickens has glorified sexless love in David Copperfield. An example would be the love of David and Dora. Nowhere in this relationship can we see what is now a days called "adult sexuality" It seems depicting sexual love is almost outside his scope. But George Orwell defends him on this point in the following words, "Actually his books are not so sexless as they are sometimes declared to be, and considering the time in which he was writing, he is reasonably frank." If we read a bit carefully we may find that Dickens did try to depict this type of "adult love". The treatment of the three "fallen" women - Emily; Martha, and Rosa Dartie - shows that Dickens's treatment of sexual relationship is not unrealistic.

Marriageable Maidens

      Though most of Dickens's female characters are from the lower middle class, they are of varied nature. There are ill-tempered women, shrewish and tyrannical women, women of the working class and eccentric women, as well as marriageable maids. These marriageable women are among Dickens's masterpieces. In their portrait, there is very little of exaggeration and they seem to be very much true to life. They smile and shed tears off and on. Little Emily and Dora may be placed in this category. Dora feigns to get upset at the slightest hint of being rebuked. It is her way of getting affection and sympathy Actually this sort of behavior has become a part of her and is also a defense mechanism.


      Thus after making a careful study of Dickens's treatment of women, love, marriage and sex we come to the conclusion that the sexual aspect in love did not hold much importance for him. His interest lay in showing that impulsive marriages and mercenary marriages are a source of unhappiness, while prudent marriages go to make a happy and prosperous life. It is to emphasize this end to end the book on a happy note that he concludes his novel David Copperfield with a radiant picture of David's happiness after his prudent marriage to Agnes. However, it must be mentioned that he has not been able to write a real love story with all its pangs and joys. Perhaps this failure is due to his humorous style which is not suited for the writing of a serious love story.


Write a critical note on Charles Dickens's treatment of love and marriage in David Copperfield. Do you agree with the opinion that sexual love is totally beyond his range?
Write a note on the treatment of female characters by Charles Dickens.
How does Dickens challenge the accepted views of women during his time to promote the idea of the empowered female?
How does the idea of constancy of emotion and love figure into the novel and illuminate David's character?

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