Art of Characterization in The Novel David Copperfield

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Art of Characterization in David Copperfield

      Although Dickens's art of characterization has been criticized yet he is supreme as a creator of character which, for their vividness and variety, may be placed next only to those of Shakespeare. In fact, he is a master in the art of characterization. He has created and populated a world of his own with his exuberant energy and creative vision. This world is immatched in English fiction for its richness, variety and complexity. Regarding his inexhaustible creative fertility, it has been humorously remarked that his character would make a town populous enough to elect a member of Parliament. To quote Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his book Charles Dickens and other Victorians, "If it comes to the mere wonder-work of genius the creation of men and women, on a page of paper who are actually more real to us than our daily acquaintances, as companionable in a crowd as even our best selected friends, as individual as the most eccentric we know of yet, as universal as humanity itself, I do not see what English writer we can choose to put second to Shakespeare save Charles Dickens."

Types of Characters in David Copperfield

      Dickens always presented a great number of characters in his novels; there are over ninety-five in David Copperfield as many women as men, for in most cases he was equally good at drawing either sex. His best characters are those who have oddities and are grotesque, and his moral and professional types, and people of low social position. With 'gentlemen' and 'ladies' of the higher class he is not very successful. Dickens's characters are unreal in the sense they are usually either completely good or completely evil very rarely the mixture of good and bad which people in real life are - very often the personification of one grossly exaggerated characteristic, with very few other qualities. They do not alter and develop as the story proceeds - which real human beings do as they are affected by the experience of life. David Copperfield himself is, of course, an exception, the story being the portrayal of his development. But all the characters have a marvelous fictional reality of their own with which they are endowed by the vividness of Dickens's conception of them and the essentially a dramatic way in which they are made to act and speak in the narrative. And that is why using the term loosely, most people speak of the "reality" of Dickens's creations. However, it must be kept in view that all his characters are not equally important. The majority of them are but slightly sketched, many make only a casual appearance, many have nothing to do with the story and might be omitted without the slightest loss; but their greater number is a striking proof of the exuberance of Dickens's imagination.

No Conflicting Emotions and Psychological Subtleties

      The dominating feeling after closing a book of Dickens is that we do not feel that we have been absorbed in the study of conflicting emotions and psychological subtleties as we do after reading Meredith. We do not feel we have been moving in a world of fierce, primal passions as we do after closing a book of Victor Hugo. But we do feel that we have been living in a quaint, picturesque world, inhabited by a variety of human beings whose every detail of manner; appearance and dress, is impressed upon our memory. A fantastic burlesque of the world we live in, is our first impression perhaps with some people it is the ultimate impression. But to others, the fantasy fades from view after a while and the essential reality and humanity of the world of Dickens remain. Despite the broad caricature, despite the over insistence on the externals of his characters, he makes them live; and they live sheerly by virtue of their humanity. Like Smollett, Dickens delighted in delineating the external peculiarities of character; i.e. their appearances, their physical peculiarities and habits of speech. He describes his character from the skin inwards, describing their physiognomy, manners and habits rather than giving us a glimpse of what goes on in their minds.

Infinite Diversity of Mankind

      "Dickens’s affair was with characters, not with characters to portray the infinite diversity of mankind, not to analyze the individual; his genius was for the extensive, not the intensive vision. He vouchsafed not a glimpse of what goes on below the surface, though his intuition so far was unerring, and everyone of his characters behaves with self-evident consistency; they are all people with conspicuous peculiarities of obvious resemblances to familiar types, the peculiarities strengthen to make the flavor unmistakable. Dickens presents a very obvious contrast with George Eliot and Meredith, who emphasize the psychological aspect of their characters. Dickens attached the label or a trademark to his characters, and sometimes one finds difficulty in recognizing the character if that trademark happens to be missing. Such, for example, is the 'umbleness' of Uriah Heep and the chronic buttonlessness of Peggotty in David Copperfield.

His Technique of Objectification

      Dickens makes use of the technique of objectification for making his characters impressive and unforgettable. This technique of objectification consists in labeling his characters with an object. For example, Dora's pet dog, Traddles's skeletons, Barkis's box, Peggotty's piece of candle-wax, Dr. Strong's dictionary, Mr. Dick's memorial, a gesture (e.g. Miss Betsey's worried pacing up and down at David's Chamber or David's morning plunge in the Roman bath), an image (Uriah Heep as a reptile, or Miss Murdstone's metallic rigidity) make them lifelike, vivid and recognizable.

His Use of Dialogue in the Art of Characterization

      Dickens can make his characters vivid and lifelike by his marvelous use of dialogue. This device of Charles Dickens is highly praiseworthy. He had a rich experience in amateur theatricals and his early readings of the eighteenth-century novelists. "It has been pointed out that if Shakespeare's dramas had been printed without the names of the characters so distinct are the style of each one that there would usually be little difficulty in assigning the lines. There is no denying that dialogue plays an important part in the characterization of the Micawbers, Uriah Heep, Dora, Mr. Peggotty and even the taciturn Barkis."

The Great Dickensian Characters are Caricatures

      What is the definition of caricature? This word implies a grotesque representation of a person or thing by over-emphasizing characteristic traits. If a particular trait or quality of a character is magnified to such a great extent that the entire portrait becomes an absurd and ludicrous representation of the original form, it may be called a caricature.

      It is quite true that Dickens often overdrew his pictures. He lays special stress on certain tricks and mannerisms. His characters are often incarnations of certain qualities. In this sense, we may say that many of the Dickensian characters are caricatures. He has been mercilessly criticized for making his characters mere caricatures. As a critic remarks, "The word caricature that is used a thousand times to reproach Dickens is the word that does him singular honor."

      Let us examine Dickens's art of caricature. We may quote Lord Cecil from his book Early Victorian Novelists, "Not two are the same and there are enormous numbers of them. Of all the crowded Victorian canvases his is the most crowded. His books are like mobs, huge seething chaotic mobs; but mobs in which there is no face like another; no voice but reveals in its lightest accents a unique unmissable individuality" If we elaborate on this dictum, no two characters are exactly alike and yet they are throbbing with life and vitality. Dickens stresses on their individuality and exaggerates their individual differences. That is why they often look like caricatures. He is concerned more with caricatures than with characters. His genius is for the extensive and not the intensive vision, and so he has tried to portray the infinite diversity of men and women in his novels. We think of Pickwick, Sam Weller, Jingle, Oliver Twist, Smile, Micawber, Peggotty; Pip, and David Copperfield among many others. So extreme is their diversity that they bring out the essential individuality of living beings.

The Abnormal Characters of Dickens are Caricatures

      The characters of Dickens may be classified under two heads. Firstly, they are the normal characters of Dickens. In this group, we may include many of his men, and the majority of his women and children. The abnormal is the second group of Dickens's characters, who consist of the eccentrics and villains. Miss Betsey Trotwood and Micawber are eccentrics and Uriah Heep is a villain. David Copperfield, Miss Peggotty and Miss Agnes are among the normal characters.

      Micawber is considered one of the most enchanting and interesting characters in the entire range of the English fiction, which fall in the group of caricatures. To quote Somerset Maugham from his book The Novels And their Authors, "Mr. Micawber was drawn from his father. John Dickens was grandiloquent in speech and shifty in money matters, but he was no fool and far from incompetent; he was industrious, kindly and affectionate. We know what Dickens made of him." In addition to the two characteristics of Micawber's grandiloquence in speech and fickleness in money matters, the most important trait of his character is his optimism and sincerity. Micawber may be considered to be an incorrigible optimist. When he is in the midst of the darkest gloom of despair, he is cheered by a ray of hope that something would return up for the better. His sincerity and straightforwardness are highly commendable. The way in which he exposes Uriah Heep at the cost of his own job shows his great moral courage. Dickens also describes his dress, the habits of speech and the personality of Mr. Micawber in a caricature like fashion. There is an element of exaggeration in drawing his characters. Thus the way in which the character has been drawn, makes him an immortal comic creation. To quote Compton Rickett "Herein comes the special and enduring value of Dicken’s’s character painting. So sure is his touch, so vital his imagination that the credibility or psychological accuracy of characters live with us, as do few of the correctly drawn personages of other novelists."

Eccentric Characters

      Another example of an eccentric character; Miss Betsey Trotwood can be classed with Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, for in both the cases the eccentricity is the product of frustrated love. We feel Miss Havisham gets frustrated and trains Estella in the art of breaking young male hearts, while Betsey Trotwood hides her softer feeling beneath a harsh exterior. Her manners and her first appearance have been described by Charles Dickens in a caricature-like fashion. As the novelist says, "On a Friday afternoon she comes walking up to the door with a rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have belonged to nobody else. She looks in at the window, pressing the end of her nose against the glass to such an extent that it becomes perfectly flat and white in a moment." She carried her eyes like a Saracen's Head in a Dutch clock, until they reached my mother. Then she made a frown and a gesture to my mother, like one who was accustomed to being obeyed, to come and open the door."

      Miss Betsey Trotwood, as an eccentric character may be examined by her subsequent behavior. She is quite cock-sure that a girl has been born and asks the doctor in a sharp voice, "And, she-how is she? The baby-how is she?" "Madam", replies the doctor, "I apprehended you had known. It is a boy." And then follows the scene which is described in the simple but inimitable language of Charles Dickens: "My aunt said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it, put it on, bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like a discontented fairy - or like one of those supernatural beings, whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back anymore." All her hopes are dashed to the ground because of the birth of the boy. This fact elucidates her eccentric behavior. Her eccentricity has been further brought out by the novelist by his master touches. The readiness with which she welcomes David and gives him loving protection reveals the maternal instinct in her. This fact indicates that she is undoubtedly an eccentric lady but she has the milk of human kindness in her. Her advice to her nephew sums up her own character, "Never be mean, never be false, never be cruel." Throughout her career, she is never mean, never false and or cruel. Thus, Miss Betsey, Trotwood is a caricature but she is an immortal creation of Charles Dickens, because of her sterling qualities of self-respect, self-confidence and calm determination.

Villains in David Copperfield

      Uriah Heep is the greatest villain in the novels of Charles Dickens. He is a living symbol of meanness, selfishness and hypocrisy His continuous harping on his 'umbleness' exceeds the bounds of all proportions. His unscrupulous nature, his fawning hatred of the upper class people and his shrewdness make him at once a despicable and dangerous character. He retains his villainy to the end. There is an element of caricature in drawing his character but his is imbued with life and vitality.

Dickens's Normal Characters in David Copperfield

      This fact has been recognized that Dickens's normal characters are not caricatures. For example, Peggotty, Miss Agnes and David Copperfield are not caricatures. Miss Agnes is a very amiable character. Her keen intelligence and strong commonsense, her tender-hearted devotion to her father, her sincere love for David and her spirit of self-sacrifice have endeared her to us and made her an unforgettable character in the novel. Peggotty is a devoted maidservant. In the portrayal of this character, Charles Dickens has tried to bring out the qualities of his mother as well as the maidservant, Mary Weller and Peggotty cooks food and maintains the household. She renders service to Mrs. Copperfield with sincerity and faithfulness. She remains a true friend and well-wisher of David till the very end. David Copperfield is also a normal character, because of his mother's affection and stepfather's cruelty; his tragic experiences at school and then Messers Murdstone and Grinby, his friendship with Micawbers, his unhappy marriage with Dora and his love for Agnes, have all been described with the sure touch of an imaginative artist. It appears Dickens can always delineate the tragedy of sensitive, ill-used children with force, tenderness and imaginative insight.

The Characters of Dickens are flat: They do not Grow and Change

      E.M. Forster has classified characters into two groups (i) round characters (ii) flat characters. Dickens's characters are types and caricatures because they are constructed round a single idea or quality We note the absence of dynamism in them. Hence they are static and not dynamic characters. The round characters are expected to grow and develop under the stress of circumstances.

      We observe that characters in David Copperfield have little growth and development. For example, Mr. Micawber is an incorrigible optimist. Secondly, Uriah Heep retains his hypocrisy till the end. Some of the characters of David Copperfield are both types and individuals like Chaucer's characters. As Lord David Cecil observes, "Mr. Picksniff is not only Mr. Picksniff, he is the type of all hypocrites, Mrs. Jellyby is not only Mrs. Jellyby-though that is enough make her a delight for ever-she is also the type of all professional philanthropists; Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz, is not Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz, he is the type of all legal advocates." Thus certain characters like David, Betsey and Pip indicate some growth and change in their characters under the stress of circumstances. There is an element of roundness in David who acquires more self-confidence with the lapse of time. Further Miss Betsey Trotwood is a more tender-hearted and affectionate woman at the end of the novel than she is at the beginning.

Dickens Depicts his Characters through the Eyes of Little Children

      Santayana, in his remarkable essay on Dickens in Soliloquies in England feels that it would be misinterpreted to call-his characters humorous or caricatures in the Johnsonian sense. As he remarks, "When people say Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me they have no eyes and no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally at their diplomatic value. Their minds run on in the region of discourse, where there are marks only and no faces; ideas and no facts; they have little sense for those living grimaces that play from moment to moment on the countenance of the world."

      The above statement of Santayana shows that Dickens is the supreme mimic of people as they really are. By this he means that Dickens depicts his characters through the eyes, of little children. The feelings which we think serious in a man, seem comical to a boy. So, Dickens tried to render his characters exactly in the same way as little children see grown up men. This fact has been further elucidated by Walter Allen distinguished critic on the English novel. As Allen remarks, "As adults, we no longer, or only very rarely meet people who might have stepped out of the pages of Dickens, but childhood, when we look on it, appears to have been full of genuine Dickensian figures. The child sees adults through the mind and eye unobscured by the associations we bring to the contemplation of people in later life. Simply because he is inexperienced in life he cannot accept them conventionally at 'their diplomatic value', they are, because they must be old, arbitrary, incomprehensible sometimes absurdly comic, sometimes terrifying, sometime both at once. When people have very powerfully impressed us in childhood they remain forever so fixed in the memory, with the sharp idiosyncrasy of the Dickensian character." Dickens has this childlike vision of human beings conditioned, throughout his view of the world. He has made it a universe at times crude it! conflicting black and white and at times sinister and bigger than reality. But Dickens has seen this world through the eyes of the child and hence it is not to be condemned. It may be therefore be said in defense of Dickens that the child's view of human being is not less real than the adult's and it is the child's view that Dickens captures so unerringly. As Walter Allen remarks, "He catches with merciless delight the externals, the apparently meaningless gesture and nervous tricks we all have without knowing we have them, and he catches too the habits of speech, repetitions of favorite words and phrases, obsessional harping on single themes whose victims we all tend unconsciously to be and which, taken together, make us in some degrees walking caricatures of ourselves. And he does it not only with his great characters, the Micawbers, Gamps, Picksniffs, Weggs, and the rest, but almost all the time with characters who appear only for a page or so and are then dropped altogether. They are all, within the limits set, perfectly rendered"

Dickens's Treatment of Children

      Dickens also excels in portraying a child. "He is capital at a baby." As Compton Rickett avers," Dickens did not describe a child, he became a child for the time being. He lived over again his own childish days. Hence the poignancy and actuality of his pictures." Thus his affection for the suffering child reveals his extraordinary success in this field too.

Dickens's Method of Visualising Character or the Device of using Name Tag (Label)

      Dickens excels in delineating the external peculiarities of his characters. He is a master in portraying a very vivid and precise picture of the externals i.e. the face, the gesture, and the dress. Further he attaches to his characters some tag or label, by describing their surroundings and atmosphere. His process for visualizing character is highly commendable, e.g. by reiterations. In other words, the same things are repeated again and again till the salient characteristics bear their brunt on the mind of the reader. He reveals the temperament of a man by the tag he gives him. Thus Micawber is always waiting for something to turn up; Mrs. Micawber is always repeating that she will never desert him, and Uriah Heep refers constantly to his humility.

Some Faults and Limitations of His Art of Characterization

      Dickens's art of characterization suffers from a number of limitations and faults. Firstly, his characters are unreal in the sense that they are usually either completely good or completely evil-very rarely the mixture of good and bad which people in real life are. Secondly, he can portray characters only from lower middle class or lower classes. The characters belonging to the upper classes are beyond his range. He has no knowledge of the aristocracy. He makes a mess of it when he strays beyond his range. Thirdly, he cannot draw intellectuals. We hardly think of David Copperfield as an intellectual. The scene in which he writes "with Dora holding the pens" is entirely theatrical. Fourthly, Dickens cannot draw men and women of deep passionate nature. Fifthly, his tragic figure remains thin, shadowy and unconvincing, for example, Rosa Dartle is not clearly visualized in David Copperfield. Finally, he cannot portray a gentleman, if we mean by this word "charm of manners and external grace."

Dickens's Genius in Portraying Reality

      Although Dickens's characters, are caricatures yet they reveal a certain aspect of real human nature - its individuality. Dickens has no special insight into the qualities which are characteristics of man as man. On the other hand, he has acute discernment of these qualities which divide him from other men. Thus he does not reveal the inner life. It is by the process of contrast that he differentiates different individuals so that their individual characteristics are exposed most vividly. As Lord David Cecil remarks in his book Early Victorian Novelists, "His power to perceive the spark of individuality that resides in everyone, is unequaled. Dickens's characters are not drawn from the exceptional among the sons of men: they are not geniuses or kings or saints or great criminals; they are women and schoolmasters and shopkeepers and tramps. Yet they are none of them types. No two are the same, and there are enormous numbers of them. Of all the crowded Victorian canvases his is the most crowded. His books are like mobs, huge seething chaotic mobs; but mobs in which there is no face like another, no voice but reveal sin its slightest accents a unique unmistakable individuality."

Dickens's Portrait Gallery of the Legal Profession

      Members of the legal profession have been set forth with the greatest of realism and dexterity. Even the clerks are as alive as their masters. They are the finest examples of characterization in Dickens - realistically depicted without exaggeration. The legal profession is also well represented in the novel. Here also Dickens introduces two types of professional men. One type is represented by Wickfields and the other type is represented by Spenlow. Lawyers take life easily and pay dearly for it. They have certain irregular habits which are exploited by some unscrupulous fellows like Uriah Heep who keeps Wickfield under his thumb and almost ruins him. On the other hand, there is the shrewd lawyer Spenlow belonging to Spenlow and Jorkins lawyers' firm. This shrewd lawyer; Spenlow makes hard bargains but always says that his partner Jorkins is a terrible fellow. But in reality Jorkins is a mild gentleman. It is Spenlow who takes the leading part and is the assertive character.

      It is a professional custom that when a man thinks of taking up the profession of law, he has to get his training under some settled lawyer and pay him a premium. There are two kinds of lawyers: advocates who take a degree at college, practicing at courts; proctors who are employed by advocates and prepare their case for them. David gets trained as a proctor under Spenlow. Another peculiarity of Spenlow is that he goes on bluffing that he is a very rich man. But on his sudden death, the truth is exposed that he has more debts than property. Uriah Heep who finally joins Wickfield as a partner is an extreme type in the legal profession. He is a mean, man of unscrupulous plotting, swindler, Dickens is fond of exaggeration. The picture of Uriah Heep is thus a humorous, magnified type of the mean member of the profession. Then there is Traddles who settles down as an honest straightforward industrious member of the legal profession. Such is the various picture of lawyers and legal life, available in the novel David Copperfield.


      "Indeed, David Copperfield is filled with characters of the most astonishing variety, vividness and originality. They were never such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis; Traddles, Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick; Uriah Heep and his mother; they are the fantastic inventions of Dickens's exultant imagination; but they have so much vigor, they are so consistent and are presented with so much verisimilitude and with so much conviction, that while you read, you cannot but believe in them. They may not be real, but they are very much alive." (Somerset Maugham: The Novels and their Authors) Dickens's affair was with characters, not with character; to portray the infinite diversity of mankind not to analyze the individual; his genius was for the extensive, not the intensive vision." (Baker: A History of the English Novel).


"David Copperfield's characters are living human beings, with the strong points and weaknesses." Discuss.

Write an essay on Dickens's Characterization.

Discuss the view that the strength of Dickens's artistry lies in the creation of characters rather than in the manipulation of plot.

"The characters of Dickens are my personal friends," said Tolstoy; Comment on the meaning of Tolstoy's remarks.

Are Dickens's characters in David Copperfield only caricatures? If not, why?

"Dickensian characters are all flat and yet there is feeling of human depth in them." Discuss with special reference to characters in David Copperfield.

Dickens's people are nearly all flat. Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence. Do you agree? Discuss Dickens's method of drawing characters in David Copperfield.

Consider Charles Dickens as a master of caricature with special reference to David Copperfield.

"Dickens is memorable and to be loved (if loved at all) for his characters rather than for his plots." Justify the statement with reference to David Copperfield.

"Perhaps they (the characters of David Copperfield) never seem to us human beings, yet they have a colossal vitality of their own." Do you agree with the dictum.

"The word 'caricature' that is used a thousand times to reproach Dickens is the word that does him singular honor." Elaborate this in the light of David Copperfield.

"The characters of Dickens are caricatures of comedy or monstrous puppets of melodrama." Do you agree with this statement? Reject or justify in the light of David Copperfield."

"The characters of Dickens are flat: they do not grow and change." How far is this statement true in the light of David Copperfield?

"In depicting character, Dickens dwells only on the peculiarities that express themselves externally." Elaborate this dictum.

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