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David Copperfield

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David Copperfield
Copperfield cover serial.jpg
Cover, first serial edition of 1849
Author(s) Charles Dickens
Original title The Personal History, Adventures,
Experience and Observation
of David Copperfield
the Younger
of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)
Illustrator Hablot Knight Browne ( Phiz)
Cover artist Hablot Knight Browne ( Phiz)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Monthly: May 1849 – November 1850
Genre(s) Fiction
Social criticism
Publisher Bradbury & Evans
Publication date 1850
Media type Print ( Serial, Hardback, and Paperback)
Pages 721
Preceded by Dombey and Son
Followed by Bleak House

David Copperfield or The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account) is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a novel in 1850. Like most of his works, it originally appeared in serial form a year earlier. Many elements within the novel follow events in Dickens' own life, and it is probably the most autobiographical of all of his novels. In the preface to the 1867 Charles Dickens edition, he wrote, "… like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."

Plot summary

The story deals with the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David is born in England in about 1820. David's father had died six months before he was born, and seven years later, his mother marries Mr Edward Murdstone. David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Mr Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Mr Murdstone thrashes David for falling behind with his studies. Following one of these thrashings, David bites him and is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, with a ruthless headmaster, Mr. Creakle. Here he befriends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles, both of whom he meets again later on.

David returns home for the holidays to find out that his mother has had a baby boy. Soon after David goes back to Salem House, his mother and her baby die and David has to return home immediately. Mr Murdstone sends him to work in a factory in London, of which Murdstone is a joint owner. The grim reality of hand-to-mouth factory existence echoes Dickens' own travails in a blacking factory. His landlord, Mr Wilkins Micawber, is sent to a debtor's prison (the King's Bench Prison) after going bankrupt, and is there for several months before being released and moving to Plymouth. David now has nobody left to care for him in London, and decides to run away.

He walks all the way from London to Dover, to find his only relative, his aunt Miss Betsey. The eccentric Betsey Trotwood agrees to bring him up, despite Mr Murdstone visiting in a bid to regain custody of David. David's aunt renames him 'Trotwood Copperfield', soon shortened to "Trot", and for the rest of the novel he is called by either name, depending on whether he is communicating with someone he has known for a long time, or someone he has only recently met.

The story follows David as he grows to adulthood, and is enlivened by the many well-known characters who enter, leave and re-enter his life. These include Peggotty, his faithful former housekeeper for his mother, her family, and their orphaned niece Little Em'ly who lives with them and charms the young David. David's romantic but self-serving schoolfriend, Steerforth, seduces and dishonors Little Em'ly, triggering the novel's greatest tragedy; and his landlord's daughter and ideal "angel in the house," Agnes Wickfield, becomes his confidante. The two most familiar characters are David's sometime mentor, the constantly debt-ridden Mr Wilkins Micawber, and the devious and fraudulent clerk, Uriah Heep, whose misdeeds are eventually discovered with Micawber's assistance. Micawber is painted as a sympathetic character, even as the author deplores his financial ineptitude; and Micawber, like Dickens's own father, is briefly imprisoned for insolvency.

In typical Dickens fashion, the major characters get some measure of what they deserve, and few narrative threads are left hanging. Dan Peggotty safely transports Little Em'ly to a new life in Australia; accompanying these two central characters are Mrs. Gummidge and the Micawbers. Everybody involved finally finds security and happiness in their new lives in Australia. David first marries the beautiful but naïve Dora Spenlow, but she dies after failing to recover from a miscarriage early in their marriage. David then does some soul-searching and eventually marries and finds true happiness with the sensible Agnes, who had secretly always loved him. They have several children, including a daughter named in honour of Betsey Trotwood.


The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of the first person narrator, David Copperfield himself, and was the first Dickens novel to be written as such a narration.

Critically, it is considered a Bildungsroman, i.e., a novel of self-cultivation, and would be influential in the genre which included Dickens's own Great Expectations (1861), Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, published only two years prior, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Tolstoy regarded Dickens as the best of all English novelists, and considered Copperfield to be his finest work, ranking the "Tempest" chapter (chapter 55, LV – the story of Ham and the storm and the shipwreck) the standard by which the world's great fiction should be judged. Henry James remembered hiding under a small table as a boy to hear instalments read by his mother. Dostoyevsky read it enthralled in a Siberian prison camp. Franz Kafka called his first book Amerika a "sheer imitation". James Joyce paid it reverence through parody in Ulysses. Virginia Woolf, who normally had little regard for Dickens, confessed the durability of this one novel, belonging to "the memories and myths of life". It was Freud's favourite novel.

Characters in David Copperfield

  • David Copperfield – An optimistic, diligent, and persevering character, he is the protagonist. He is later called "Trotwood Copperfield" by some ("David Copperfield" is also the name of the hero's father, who dies before David is born). He has many nicknames: James Steerforth nicknames him "Daisy", Dora calls him "Doady", and his aunt refers to him, as a reference to his would-be sister (if he had been born a girl), in and on "Trot" – as in Betsey Trotwood Copperfield.
  • Clara Copperfield – David's kind mother, described as being innocently childish, who dies while David is at Salem House. She dies just after the birth of her second child, who dies along with her.
  • Peggotty – The faithful servant of the Copperfield family and a lifelong companion to David (referred to at times as Mrs. Barkis after her marriage to Mr. Barkis). Inherits £3,000—a large sum in the mid-19th century—when Mr. Barkis dies. After his death, she becomes Betsey Trotwood's servant.
  • Betsey Trotwood – David's eccentric and temperamental yet kindhearted great-aunt; she becomes his guardian after he runs away from Grinby and Murdstone's warehouse  in Blackfriars (London). She is present on the night of David's birth but leaves after hearing that Clara Copperfield's child is a boy instead of a girl.
  • Mr. Chillip – A shy doctor who assists at David's birth and faces the wrath of Betsey Trotwood after he informs her that Clara's baby is a boy instead of a girl.
  • Mr. Barkis – An aloof carter who declares his intention to marry Peggotty. He says to David: " Tell her, 'Barkis is willin'! ' Just so." He is a bit of a miser, and hides his surprisingly vast liquid wealth in a plain box labeled "Old Clothes". He bequeaths to his wife the then astronomical sum of £3,000 when he dies about ten years later.
  • Edward Murdstone – Young David's cruel stepfather, who beats him for falling behind in his studies. David reacts by biting Mr Murdstone, who then sends him to Salem House, the private school owned by his friend Mr. Creakle. After David's mother dies, Mr Murdstone sends him to work in a factory, where he has to clean wine bottles. He appears at Betsey Trotwood's house after David runs away. Mr Murdstone appears to show signs of repentance when confronted with Copperfield's aunt, but later in the book we hear he has married another young woman and applied his old principles of "firmness."
  • Jane Murdstone – Mr. Murdstone's equally cruel sister, who moves into the Copperfield house after Mr. Murdstone marries Clara Copperfield. She is the "Confidential Friend" of David's first wife, Dora Spenlow, and encourages many of the problems that occur between David Copperfield and Dora's father, Mr. Spenlow. Later, she rejoins her brother and his new wife in a relationship very much like the one they had with David's mother.
  • Daniel Peggotty – Peggotty's brother; a humble but generous Yarmouth fisherman who takes his nephew Ham and niece Emily into his custody after each of them has been orphaned. After Emily's departure, he travels around the world in search of her. He eventually finds her in London, and after that they emigrate to Australia.
  • Emily (Little Em'ly) – A niece of Mr. Peggotty. She is a childhood friend of David Copperfield, who loves her in his childhood days. She leaves her cousin and fiancé, Ham, for Steerforth, but returns after Steerforth deserts her. She emigrates to Australia with Mr. Peggotty after being rescued from a London brothel.
  • Ham Peggotty – A good-natured nephew of Mr. Peggotty and the fiancé of Emily before she leaves him for Steerforth. He later loses his life while attempting to rescue a sailor, who happens to be Steerforth, from a shipwreck. His death is hidden from his family due to the fact that David does not want them to worry on the brink of their journey.
  • Mrs. Gummidge – The widow of Daniel Peggotty's partner in a boat. She is a self-described "lone, lorn creetur" who spends much of her time pining for "the old 'un" (her late husband). After Emily runs away from home with Steerforth, she changes her attitude to better comfort everyone around her and tries to be very caring and motherly. She too emigrates to Australia with Dan and the rest of the surviving family.
  • Martha Endell – A young woman of a bad reputation who helps Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She has worked as a prostitute, and been victim to the idea of suicide.
  • Mr. Creakle – The harsh headmaster of young David's boarding school, who is assisted by Tungay. Mr. Creakle is a friend of Mr. Murdstone. He singles out David for extra torment. Later he becomes a Middlesex magistrate, and is considered enlightened for his day.
"I am married". Etching by Phiz.
  • James Steerforth – A close friend of David, he is of a romantic and charming disposition and has known David ever since his first days at Salem House. Although well-liked by most, he proves himself to be lacking in character by seducing and later abandoning Little Em'ly. He eventually drowns at Yarmouth with Ham Peggotty, who had been trying to rescue him.
  • Tommy Traddles – David's friend from Salem House. They meet again later and become eventual lifelong friends. Traddles works hard but faces great obstacles because of his lack of money and connections. He eventually succeeds in making a name and a career for himself.
  • Wilkins Micawber – A gentle man who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtor's prison. Eventually he emigrates to Australia where he enjoys a successful career as a sheep farmer and becomes a magistrate. He is based on Dickens' father, John Dickens.
  • Mr. Dick (Richard Babley) – A slightly deranged, rather childish but amiable man who lives with Betsey Trotwood. His madness is amply described in as much as that he claims to have the "trouble" of King Charles I in his head. He befriends David when he arrives at the Trotwood household.
  • Dr. Strong – The headmaster of David's Canterbury school, whom he visits on various occasions.
  • Anne Strong – The young wife of Dr. Strong. Although she remains loyal to him, she fears that he suspects that she is involved in an affair with Jack Maldon.
  • Jack Maldon – A cousin and childhood sweetheart of Anne Strong. He continues to bear affection for her and tries to seduce her into leaving Dr. Strong.
  • Mr. Wickfield – The father of Agnes Wickfield and lawyer to Betsey Trotwood. He is prone to alcoholism.
  • Agnes Wickfield – Mr. Wickfield's mature and lovely daughter and close friend of David since childhood. She later becomes David's second wife and mother of their children.
  • Uriah Heep – A wicked young man who serves first as secretary, and then as partner to Mr. Wickfield. He is finally discovered-by Wilkins Micawber-to have stolen money, and cheated Mr. Wickfield, while Mr. Wickfield was intoxicated. Uriah Heep is imprisoned as a punishment. He always talks of being "'umble" (humble) and nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and many others.
  • Mrs. Steerforth – The wealthy widowed mother of James Steerforth. She herself is incredibly like her son.
  • Miss Dartle – A strange, vitriolic woman who lives with Mrs. Steerforth. She has a secret love for Steerforth and blames others such as Emily and even Steerforth's own mother for corrupting him. She is described as being extremely skinny and displays a visible scar on her lip caused by Steerforth. She is also Steerforth's cousin.
  • Mr. Spenlow – An employer of David's during his days as a proctor and the father of Dora Spenlow. He dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home.
  • Dora Spenlow – The adorable but foolish daughter of Mr. Spenlow who becomes David's first wife. She is described as being impractical and with many similarities to David's mother. She dies of illness on the same day as her dog, Jip.
  • Mr.Sharp – He was the chief teacher of Salem House and had more authority than Mr.Mell.He looked weak,both in health and character;his head seemed to be very heavy for him:he walked on one side.He had a big nose.
  • Mr.Mell – A tall, thin young man with hollow cheeks.His hair was dusty and dry too,with rather short sleeves and legs.

Film, TV, and theatrical adaptations

David Copperfield has been filmed on several occasions:

  • 1911, directed by Theodore Marston
  • 1913, directed by Thomas Bentley
  • 1922, directed by A.W. Sandberg
  • 1935, directed by George Cukor
  • 1969, directed by Delbert Mann, featuring a who's who of English classical actors.
  • 1974, directed by Joan Craft
  • 1986, directed by Barry Letts, shown on BBC 1986/87
  • 1999, shown on BBC – 25/26 December 1999
  • 2000, directed by Peter Medak
  • David Copperfield (2006), play adaptation. Shown in theatres.

The numerous television adaptations of the novel include a 1966 version with Ian McKellen as David and a 1999 version with Daniel Radcliffe (of the Harry Potter film series) playing the younger David and Ciaran McMenamin as the older David. In this latter version, McKellen returns, this time playing the horrendous schoolmaster Creakle. There was a musical animated version in 1993, where the cast was animorphic animals (not unlike Disney's Robin Hood) and starred Julian Lennon as the voice of David (a cat). A 2000 American TV film version featured Sally Field, Anthony Andrews, Paul Bettany, Edward Hardwicke, Michael Richards and Nigel Davenport with Hugh Dancy and Max Dolbey as the adult and boy Copperfield, respectively.

A play adaptation by Andrew Halliday was warmly approved by Dickens himself, and enjoyed a long run at Drury Lane. The novel was adapted for the unsuccessful musical Copperfield in 1981.


Like most of Charles Dickens's novels, David Copperfield was published in 19 monthly one-shilling instalments, containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), with the last being a double-number:

  • I – May 1849 (chapters 1–3);
  • II – June 1849 (chapters 4–6);
  • III – July 1849 (chapters 7–9);
  • IV – August 1849 (chapters 10–12);
  • V – September 1849 (chapters 13–15);
  • VI – October 1849 (chapters 16–18);
  • VII – November 1849 (chapters 19–21);
  • VIII – December 1849 (chapters 22–24);
  • IX – January 1850 (chapters 25–27);
  • X – February 1850 (chapters 28–31);
  • XI – March 1850 (chapters 32–34);
  • XII – April 1850 (chapters 35–37);
  • XIII – May 1850 (chapters 38–40);
  • XIV – June 1850 (chapters 41–43);
  • XV – July 1850 (chapters 44–46);
  • XVI – August 1850 (chapters 47–50);
  • XVII – September 1850 (chapters 51–53);
  • XVIII – October 1850 (chapters 54–57);
  • XIX-XX – November 1850 (chapters 58–64).

Release details

  • 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans ?, Pub date 1 May 1849 and 1 November 1850, Serial (first publication as serial)
  • 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans ?, Pub date ? ? 1850, Hardback (first book edition)
  • 1981 (Reprinted 2003) UK, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-812492-9 Hardback, Edited by Nina Burgis, The Clarendon Dickens (considered the definitive editions of Dickens's works) 781 pages
  • 1990, USA, W W Norton & Co Ltd ISBN 0-393-95828-0, Pub date 31 January 1990, Hardback (Jerome H. Buckley (Editor), Norton Critical Edition – contains annotations, introduction, critical essays, bibliography and other material.)
  • 1994, UK, Penguin Books Ltd ISBN 0-14-062026-5, Pub date 24 February 1994, Paperback
  • 1999, UK, Oxford Paperbacks ISBN 0-19-283578-5, Pub date 11 February 1999, Paperback
and many others
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