Autobiographical in David Copperfield

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      It has been recognized that David Copperfield is Dickens's autobiography. Some biographers have gone so far to identify David is Dickens. As Hugh Walker remarks, "The pen which wrote David Copperfield was often dipped in his own blood." This dictum is correct. The hero David Copperfield has undergone all the trials and tribulations which Charles Dickens had undergone in his personal life. To quote Baker, "It happens to be to a great extent his autobiography and even the reader who is unaware of this, feels the warmth and movement and buoyancy which Dickens, in his maturity; put into reminiscences which he loved to dwell and ponder on and, not unnaturally to idealize and embroider, for it is his life as he would fain have reconstructed it, not exactly the life of fact. There is a plot in " David Copperfield" and some of the largest episodes are theatrical as any he ever devised ... It is a tale of ups and downs, joys and sorrows; but the prevailing tone is one of 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, it is one of his didactic stories. On the contrary except for the exposure of Uriah Heep, a few reformation of sinners and the lurid tragedies of Steerforth, all of which are extraneous to the history of David this is tolerably free from both moralism and melodrama. Dickens had some inkling of the great truth, that virtue is its own reward; or else he would not have been so simple yet so moving in the speech put in the mouth of Betsey Trotwood."

      The other critic E. Johnson has elaborated the autobiographical element in David Copperfield in his book Charles Dickens - His Tragedy and Triumph. The autobiographical element in this novel has admittedly enhanced (increased) the literary quality of this novel. It has added to the power and poignancy of the work. This intensity of personal experience which pervades the entire novel, has made it realistic and impressive. As E. Johnson says, "Few novelists have captured more poignantly the feeling of childhood, the brightness, and magic and terror of the world as seen through the eyes of a child and colored by his dawning emotions." The experiences of the young this critic repeats, "Above all, they are steeped in his childhood unhappiness and sense of rejection, and in the misery and heart-break of his love for Maria Beadnell."

      Dickens felt degraded because he had to mix with boys of his own age whom he did not regard his social equal. Again E. Johnson is quoted to express the views of Dickens. "The soul-wrenching agony with which Dickens sank into the loneliness and neglect of washing and labeling bottles in Hungerford Stairs shadows all of David's bewildered and hopeless desolation as he toils for Murdstone and Grinby. Only the sick humiliation with the very smell of blacking is omitted. David's employers are in the wine trade, a shade above being makers of stone blacking. Thus David is spared that nauseated visceral loathing that made Dickens as a man cross the street to avoid the odour of Robert Wareen's blacking establishment. But otherwise David’s slavery in that rat-infested, tumbledown tenement is steeped in all the anguish of Dickens's solitary ordeal, day by day and in all his sense of being rejected by his natural protectors and cast into a bottomless abyss of pain. The mystery that pervades David’s odyssey of despair reveals with heart-rending intensity how a child can suffer."

      E. Johnson narrates that Mr. and Mrs. Micawber are a close resemblance to John Dickens's character who was the father of the novelist. In fact, they are his actual parents in disguise. To quote again, Johnson, "Mr. Micawber, with his plump figure, imposing shirt collar and tasseled walking stick, represents the pompous, financially bankrupt, slipshod, irresponsible side of John Dickens's character. Poor careworn Mrs. Micawber, always nursing her twins, pawning the spoons, making blurred, ineffectual plans to establish a girls' school, elastically recovering from fainting fits to eat lamb chops and drink warm ale is drawn from Elizabeth Dickens as she was in Bayham Street and Gower Street."

      The character of Maria Beadnell has deeply influenced Charles Dickens. When he was portraying Dora she was in his mind. He considers love like David, "the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart." "And in the book, with deep pathos, but unwaveringly, Dickens shapes the story toward the death of the brainless pretty creature who is both his own youthful sweetheart and a wife."

David Copperfield: A Work of Fertile Imagination

      From the above critical assessment, it is evident that there is a great deal of autobiographical element in David Copperfield. As Somerset Maugham rightly remarks, "David Copperfield is in great part autobiographical but Dickens was writing a novel, not an Autobiography, and though he drew much of his material from his own life he made such use of it as suited his purpose. For the rest he fell back on his fertile imagination." Some incidents and characters belong to the imagination of Dickens. So all parts of David's story are not taken from Dickens's life. There are various incidents and characters-the marriage of Peggotty to the coachman Barkis who is always 'Willin', the hypocrisy and the exposure of Uriah Heep, the betrayal of little Emily and the death of her lover, Ham, in his effort to rescue her betrayer, Steerforth from the shipwreck. These facts have nothing to do with the novelist's private life. So the question does not arise whether David Copperfield is a full-length portrayal of Charles Dickens or not. Dickens replied, "the true particulars about my life I keep to myself."

      Dickens has mixed fact with fiction. In this manner, he has woven real incidents with imagination at the source. It is considered that this novel is autobiographical in inspiration. Some places and people are the creation of Dickens's fancy and his idealism. Let us examine Dr. Strong’s school which represents Dickens's ideal of a good educational institution, and which were rare in Victorian England."The gentle, erudite old Doctor and the well-ordered teaching, the grave serenity of the building and the noble games in its green close so different from the red faced and ferocious Creakle and the dirty desolation of Salem House, were the visions of what Dickens had longed for and never had. Perhaps too, since the story of a boy who becomes a reporter and then a famous novelist was bound to be identified by readers with Dickens himself, he was unable to resist the temptation to portray his schooling in a fuller and less fragmentary manner than it was."

      Dickens found that some changes were necessary because their Eteral and painful truth could not be expressed except in disguise. "In all these intermingled strands of fact and fantasy, the shining memory of early childhood, the nightmare reality of boyhood, the unrealized dreams of what might have been, the softening of some humiliations, Dickens still felt too sick at heart to portray as they were, and the lurid enchantment of griefs that had swelled too bitterly into misery to be remembered with literal accuracy, the sad distortions and the playful exaggerations too, have a deep and undeniable significance. They pierce to the very heart of how Dickens felt about those buried days upon which, since the hour when they had come to an end, he and his parents had been as if they were struck dumb. Their very elements of invention are truer than the fact, because they symbolize that emotional reality."

Recapitulation of a Comparative Study of the Characters and Incidents in the Novel and the Life Experiences of the Author

      (I) David Copperfield, like Dickens, enjoyed the happiest period of his life in his childhood in the company of his mother and the nurse. His experiences at Salem House and the punishments he received from Mr. Creakle were akin to those of the novelist. Most of the schools in his time were money-making institutions where the rod was never spared. The sixth and seventh chapters entitled 'I Enlarge my Circle of Acquaintance' and 'My First Half at Salem House' describes a picture reminiscent of the school life of the novelist. Dickens was a voracious reader in his childhood. A glimpse of his reading habit is found in David Copperfield in the fourth chapter entitled 'I Fall Into Disgrace'. He said, "My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own), and about which nobody else in our house ever bothered. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphry Clinker, Tom-Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company."

      (II) David Copperfield worked at the warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby who dealt in wine. He had to leave school at an early age and earn his livelihood. The work was a drudgery to him and the company of fellow-workers like Mealy Potatoes and Mick Walker was insufferable. David describes his feelings in these words, "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in my bosom... As often as Mick Walker went away in the course of that forenoon, I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the bottles, and sobbed as if there were a flaw in my own breast, and it were in danger of bursting."

      The above description very well expresses the feelings and experiences of the novelist himself when, in his childhood, he was taken out of the school and sent to work in a blacking factory. He was compelled to do so on account of the adverse family circumstances and his father's improvidence. At last Dickens left the blacking factory and went to study further in some good school. The same thing happened with David who afterwards went to Miss Betsey who sent him to Dr. Strong's school.

      (III) In drawing the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, Dickens represented his own father and mother. The novelist's father was as extravagant and improvident as Micawber. The character of Micawber has been drawn in a manner that elicits our sympathy, even admiration for him. Though perpetually in debt, he never loses his sense of dignity and spirit of generosity. As he could not repay his debts, he was sent to prison. All these things happened with John Dickens, the father of the novelist Mrs. Micawber, like Dickens's mother tried to keep off the evil days by selling or mortgaging household articles. She advertised a boarding establishment for young ladies. Dickens's mother had also started a Boarding House to supplement her family income.

      (IV) David like Dickens, learned shorthand and became a reporter in Parliament. He also sent contributions to periodicals and this enabled him to supplement his income. He apprenticed himself to Spenlow and Jorkins to become a proctor. Dickens knew Doctors' Commons very well while he was working as a reporter. David wrote books which were published and became a famous writer in his later life. David's married life with Dora was a reflection of Charles Dickens's married life in which there was something lacking. David-Agnes episode was derived from his idealized memories of Mary Hogarth and gave the novelist a sense of compensation and a feeling of aesthetic satisfaction.

      (V) The love episodes with Dora and Agnes represent the two phases of Dickens's own love. Dora is drawn after his first love, Maria Beadnell. Agnes is drawn from his idealized memories, of Mary Hogarth. Mr. Micawber represents his own father. At the age of ten, David is compelled to do the work of drudge by his step-father just as Dickens himself had to suffer from the degradation of having to mix with boys of his own age whom he did not consider his social equals. Dickens's rise in life from a reporter to a novelist has been vividly portrayed in the later part of the novel. This vivid portrayal of men, women and incidents was possible because of the personal experiences of the novelist. The autobiographical element has infused vigor and vitality and a strong note of realism into the novel and has given the stamp of individuality to the characters.


      David Copperfield is a masterpiece of Charles Dickens. He has successfully blended the fictitious elements with autobiographical ones. The great artist has deliberately falsified and softened the harshness of reality so that it would appear a work of art rather than documentation of facts. In the novel there is fact and fiction, reality and imagination and truth and falsehood all fused together. He does riot wish to present the bare facts since it would disgrace his parents and would mean humiliation for himself. Under the cloak of affection, he has endeavored to present the facts of his life very artistically. Hence this novel is a source of inspiration and entertainment for even the future generation.

      The author wishes to convey the fictitious events of the novel through the autobiographical method. There is an objective presentation of emotional experiences of the novelist himself. His emotions and sentiments are objectively presented in the scene in which he wants to run away from the firm of Murdstone and Grinby. Betsey Trotwood's character may be the objective presentation of emotional experience when she expresses her longings and feelings for David who is encountering hardships because of the re-marriage of his mother. She is like a fairy god-mother who is an embodiment of parental affection. Charles Dickens's parents' personality is indicated by the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Micawber. Dickens achieves something in the world of wish-fulfillment which he lacked due to adversities in his life. He enjoys vicariously in writing the novel. Hence the emotional states are of the greatest reality. The autobiographical element in David Copperfield has a special appeal to the reader as the same element in the lyrics of Shelley or the essays of Charles Lamb have a special significance of their own.


Discuss the autobiographical element in Dickens's David Copperfield,

Discuss David Copperfield as an autobiographical novel.

Consider David Copperfield as Dickens's most personal book.

"David Copperfield is an autobiographical novel to a large extent". Illustrate, specially, pointing out some of the characters, incidents and scenes in the novel which remind you of the personal life of the author.

David Copperfield is Dickens's autobiography. Discuss this statement in the light of David Copperfield.

"The pen which wrote, David Copperfield was often dipped in his own blood.'' (Hugh Walker) Elaborate.

The novel was written by Dickens as something of an autobiography. What elements of the novel coincide with Dickens' own life? Why do you think Dickens made the story deviate from his own life at certain points?

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