David Copperfield

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This article is about the novel by Charles Dickens. For the American illusionist, see David Copperfield (illusionist). For other uses, see David Copperfield (disambiguation).
David Copperfield
Copperfield cover serial.jpg
Cover, first serial edition of 1849
Author 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 Fiction
Publisher Bradbury & Evans
Publication date
Media type Print (Serial, Hardback, and Paperback)
Pages 624 (first book edition)[1]
Preceded by Dombey and Son (1848)
Followed by Bleak House (1852-3)

David Copperfield, (full 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).[2] is the eighth novel by Charles Dickens. It was first published as a serial 1849–50, and as a book in 1850. Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens' own life, and it is probably the most autobiographical of his novels.[3] In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, "like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."[4]

Plot summary[edit]

The story traces the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, in 1820, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years in relative happiness with his loving but frail mother and their kindly housekeeper, Peggotty. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone. David is given good reason to dislike his stepfather and has similar feelings for Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Murdstone attempts to thrash David for falling behind in his studies. David bites him and soon afterwards is sent away to a boarding school, Salem House, with a ruthless headmaster, Mr. Creakle. There he befriends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles.

David returns home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries a man named Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner.[5] Copperfield's landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is sent to debtors' prison (the King's Bench Prison) and remains there for several months before being released and moving to Plymouth. No one remains to care for David in London, so he decides to run away.

He walks from London to Dover, where he finds his only relative, his unmarried, eccentric great-aunt Betsey Trotwood. She agrees to raise him, despite Murdstone's attempt to regain custody of David. David's great-aunt renames him "Trotwood Copperfield" and addresses him as "Trot", and it becomes one of several names to which David answers in the course of the novel.

"The friendly Waiter and I"

As David grows to adulthood, a variety of characters enter, leave, and re-enter his life. These include Peggotty and her family, including her orphaned niece "Little Em'ly", who moves in with them and charms the young David. David's romantic but self-serving school friend, Steerforth, seduces and dishonours Emily, precipitating the novel's greatest tragedy, and Agnes Wickfield, the daughter of David's landlord, becomes his confidante. The novel's two most familiar characters are David's sometime mentor, the debt-ridden Micawber, and the devious and fraudulent clerk, Uriah Heep, whose misdeeds are eventually revealed with Micawber's assistance. Micawber is painted sympathetically even as the narrator deplores his financial ineptitude. Micawber, like Dickens's own father, is briefly imprisoned for insolvency.

The major characters eventually get some measure of what they deserve, and few narrative threads are left hanging. Peggotty's brother Dan takes Emily to a new life in Australia, accompanied by the widowed Mrs. Gummidge and the Micawbers. All eventually find security and happiness in their adopted country. David marries the beautiful but naïve Dora Spenlow, who dies after failing to recover from a miscarriage early in their marriage. David then searches his soul and marries the sensible Agnes, who had always loved him and with whom he finds true happiness. David and Agnes then have at least four children, including a daughter named after his great-aunt Betsey Trotwood.


David falls for Dora Spenlow.
  • David Copperfield – The narrator and protagonist of this pseudo-autobiography. He is characterised in the book as having perseverance, but also an undisciplined heart, which becomes the focal point of the latter part of the book. After being adopted by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, he is called "Trotwood Copperfield" in deference to her wishes. Throughout the novel he has some nicknames: the Peggotty family address him as "Davy", James Steerforth nicknames him "Daisy", Dora calls him "Doady", the Micawbers mostly address him by his last name, and his aunt and her circle refer to him as "Trot".
  • 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 (a son, Edward Murdstone junior, born to her second husband), who dies around the same time.
  • Clara Peggotty – The faithful servant of the Copperfield family and a lifelong companion to David (she is called by her surname Peggotty within David's family, as her given name is Clara, the same as David's mother; she is also referred to at times as Barkis after her marriage to Mr. Barkis). When Mr. Barkis dies, she inherits a substantial portion of his estate, valued at £3,000 – a large sum in the mid-19th century (he also leaves modest annuities for David, Mr. Daniel Peggotty, and Little Emily). After her husband's death, Peggotty helps to put in order David's rooms in London, and then returns to Yarmouth to keep house for her nephew, Ham Peggotty. Following Ham's death, she keeps house for David's aunt, Betsey Trotwood.
  • Betsey Trotwood – David's eccentric and temperamental yet kind-hearted 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, and is not seen until David is older and flees to her house in Dover from London. She is portrayed as affectionate towards David, and defends him and his late mother when Mr. Murdstone arrives to take custody of David: she confronts the man and rebukes him for his abuse of David and his mother, then threatens him and drives him off the premises. Universally believed to be a widow, she conceals the existence of her ne'er-do-well husband who constantly bleeds her for money.
  • Mr. Chillip – A shy, elderly doctor who assists at David's birth and faces the wrath and anger 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 labelled "Old Clothes". He bequeaths to his wife and her family (including David) the then astronomical sum of £3,000 when he dies about ten years later.
  • Edward Murdstone – The main antagonist of the first half of the novel, he is 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 his factory in London, 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 by Copperfield's aunt about his treatment of Clara and David, 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 spinster sister, who moves into the Copperfield house shortly 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, and welcomes David as a child when he holidays to Yarmouth with Peggotty. When Emily is older and runs away with David's friend Steerforth, 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 loved her in his childhood days. On the eve of her wedding to her cousin and fiancé, Ham, she abandons him for Steerforth with whom she disappears abroad for several years. After Steerforth deserts her, she doesn't go back home, because she has disgraced herself and her family. Her uncle, Mr. Peggotty, who has been searching for her since she left home, finds her in London (the text implies that she was on the brink of being forced into prostitution). So that she may have a fresh start away from her now degraded reputation, she and her uncle emigrate to Australia.
  • Ham Peggotty – A good-natured nephew of Mr. Peggotty and the fiancé of Emily before she leaves him for Steerforth. He later drowns while attempting to rescue Steerforth (it's not clear, however, that he realises that it is Steerforth) from a shipwreck at Yarmouth. News of his death is withheld from his family to enable them to emigrate without hesitation or remorse.
  • Mrs. Gummidge – The widow of Daniel Peggotty's partner in a boat who is taken in and supported by Daniel after his partner's death. 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 with Steerforth, she suddenly renounces her self-pity and becomes Daniel and Ham's primary caretaker. She too emigrates to Australia with Dan and the rest of the surviving family. In Australia, when she receives a marriage proposal, she responds by attacking the unlucky suitor with a bucket.
  • Martha Endell – A young woman, once Little Emily's friend, who later gains a bad reputation; it is implied that she engages in some sexually inappropriate behaviour and is thus disgraced. In the later chapters of the novel, she redeems herself by helping Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She has been a prostitute and contemplated suicide, but goes with Emily to start a new life in Australia. There, she marries and lives happily.
  • Mr. Creakle – The harsh dictatorial headmaster of young David's boarding school who is assisted by the one-legged Tungay. Mr. Creakle is a friend of Mr. Murdstone. He singles out David for extra torment on Murdstone's request, but later treats him normally when David apologises to Murdstone. With a surprising amount of delicacy, he breaks the news to David that his mother has died. Later, he becomes a Middlesex magistrate and is considered 'enlightened' for his day. He runs his prison by the system and is portrayed with great sarcasm. Creakle's two model inmates, Heep and Littimer, show no change from their former scheming selves but have completely fooled Creakle into believing their repentance.
  • James Steerforth – A close friend of David who has known him since his first days at Salem House, he is a charismatic and outspoken hero of the younger boys, but he is also a snob who unhesitatingly takes advantage of his younger friends and uses his mother's power to get what he wants, going so far as to get Mr. Mell dismissed from the school after he argues with him. Although he grows up into a well-liked and handsome young man, he proves to be lacking in character when he seduces and later abandons 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. Traddles is one of the few boys who does not trust Steerforth and is notable for drawing skeletons on his slate to cheer himself up with the macabre thought that his predicaments are only temporary. They meet again later and eventually become 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, becoming a Judge and marrying his true love, Sophy.
  • Wilkins Micawber – A melodramatic, kind-hearted and foolish gentleman who befriends David as a young boy. He suffers from much financial difficulty and even has to spend time in a debtors' prison before moving to Plymouth. As an adult, Copperfield meets him again in London and gets him a job with Wickfield and Heep. Thinking Micawber is criminally-minded, Heep forces him to be his accomplice in several of his schemes, but Micawber eventually turns the tables on his employer and is instrumental in his downfall. Micawber eventually emigrates to Australia, where he enjoys a successful career as a sheep farmer and becomes a magistrate. He is based on Dickens's father, John Dickens, who faced similar financial problems when Dickens was a child.
Agnes Wickfield, David's second wife.
  • Emma Micawber – Wilkins Micawber's wife and the mother of their children. She comes from a moneyed family who disapprove of her husband, but she constantly protests that she will "never leave Micawber!"
  • Mr. Dick (Richard Babley) – A slightly deranged, rather childish but amiable man who lives with Betsey Trotwood; they are distant relatives. His madness is amply described; he claims to have the "trouble" of King Charles I in his head. He is fond of making gigantic kites and is constantly writing a "Memorial" but is unable to finish it. Despite his madness, Dick is able to see issues with a certain clarity. He proves to be not only a kind and loyal friend but also demonstrates a keen emotional intelligence, particularly when he helps Dr. and Mrs. Strong through a marriage crisis.
  • Mr. Wickfield – The widowed father of Agnes Wickfield and lawyer to Betsey Trotwood. He feels guilty that, through his love, he has hurt his daughter by keeping her too close to himself. This sense of guilt occasionally leads him to drink. His apprentice Uriah Heep learns of this from David and uses the information to lead Mr. Wickfield down a slippery slope, encouraging the alcoholism and feelings of guilt, and eventually convincing him that he has committed improprieties while inebriated, and blackmailing him. He is saved by Mr. Micawber, and his friends consider him to have become a better man through the experience.
  • Agnes Wickfield – Mr. Wickfield's mature and lovely daughter and close friend of David since childhood. Agnes nurtures an unrequited love for David for many years but never tells him, helping and advising him through his infatuation with, and marriage to, Dora. After David returns to England, he realises his feelings for her, and she becomes David's second wife and mother of their children. She has often been blasted by critics for her seeming lack of characterization (David often refers to her as an "Angel" and rarely moves beyond that description except to associate her with a "stained-glass window") but more recent research has been more favourable to her. She does in fact show the effects of being a parentified child, which helps explain her selflessness and seeming "perfection."[6]
  • Uriah Heep – The main antagonist of the novel's second half, Heep is a disturbing young man who serves first as secretary, and then as partner to Mr. Wickfield. The archetypal hypocrite, he appears to be extremely self-deprecating and talks constantly of being "umble", but gradually reveals his wicked and twisted character. He gains great power over Wickfield and several others, but is finally discovered – by Wilkins Micawber – to be guilty of multiple acts of fraud. By forging Mr. Wickfield's signature, he has misappropriated the personal wealth of the Wickfield family, together with portfolios entrusted to them by others, including £5000 belonging to Betsey Trotwood. He has fooled Wickfield into thinking he has himself committed this act while drunk, and then blackmailed him. Heep is eventually forced to return the forged documents and stolen capital; he is thus defeated but not prosecuted. He is later imprisoned for an (unrelated) attempted fraud on the Bank of England. He nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and of many others.
  • Mrs. Heep – Uriah's mother, who is as sycophantic as her son. She has installed in him his lifelong tactic of pretending to be subservient to achieve his goals, and even as his schemes fall apart she begs him to save himself by "being 'umble."
  • Dr. Strong – The headmaster of David's Canterbury school, whom he visits on various occasions. He is many years older than his wife, and Heep exploits this insecurity to gain power over him.
  • Anne (Annie) Strong – The young wife of Dr. Strong. She is widely suspected of having an affair with Jack Maldon – only her husband suspects nothing of either of them and, when finally convinced by his friends of the threat represented by Maldon, still refuses to believe that his wife has succumbed to seduction. It emerges that Dr. Strong's trust in his wife is justified: she has remained entirely faithful.
  • 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. He is charming but fairly dissolute.
  • Mrs. Markleham- Annie's mother, nicknamed "The Old Soldier" by her husband's students for her stubbornness. She tries to take pecuniary advantage of her son-in-law Dr. Strong in every way possible, to Annie's sorrow.
  • Mrs. Steerforth – The wealthy widowed mother of James Steerforth. She dotes on her son to the point of being completely blind to his faults. When Steerforth disgraces his family and the Peggottys by running off with Em'ly, Mrs. Steerforth blames Em'ly for corrupting her son, rather than accept that James has disgraced an innocent girl. The news of her son's death destroys her and she never recovers from the shock.
  • Rosa Dartle – Steerforth's cousin, a bitter, sarcastic spinster who lives with Mrs. Steerforth. She is secretly in love with Steerforth and blames others such as Emily and Steerforth's mother for corrupting him. She is described as being extremely skinny and displays a visible scar on her lip caused by Steerforth in one of his violent rages as a child.
  • Mr. Spenlow – A lawyer, employer of David as a proctor and the father of Dora Spenlow. He dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home. After his death, it is revealed that he is heavily in debt.
  • Dora Spenlow – The adorable but foolish daughter of Mr. Spenlow who becomes David's first wife. She is described as being completely impractical and has many similarities to David's mother. David's first year of marriage to her is unhappy due to her ineptitude in managing their household, but after he learns to accept this failing, they grow to be quite happy. Dora is simple, easily provoked to tears and laughter, and childishly fond of her annoying lapdog, Jip. She is not unaware of her failings, and asks David, whom she calls "Doady", to think of her as a "child wife." She suffers a miscarriage, and the experience sends her into a long illness from which she peacefully dies with Agnes Wickfield at her side.
  • Littimer – Steerforth's obsequious valet, who is instrumental in aiding his seduction of Emily. Littimer is always polite and correct but his condescending manner intimidates and infuriates David, who always feels as if Littimer is reminding him how young he is. He later winds up in prison for embezzlement, and his manners allow him to con his way to the stature of Model Prisoner in Creakle's establishment.
  • Miss Mowcher – a dwarf and Steerforth's hairdresser. Though she participates in Steerforth's circle as a witty and glib gossip, she deeply feels the shame associated with her dwarfism but it leaves her few other career options. She is later instrumental in Littimer's arrest.
  • Mr. Mell – A poor teacher at Salem House. He takes David to Salem House and is the only adult there who is kind to him. His mother lives in a workhouse, and Mell supports her with his wages. When Steerforth discovers this information from David, he uses it to get Creakle to fire Mell. Near the end of the novel, Copperfield discovers in an Australian newspaper that Mell has emigrated and is now Doctor Mell of Colonial Salem-House Grammar School, Port Middlebay.
  • Sophy Crewler – One of the daughters of a large family, Sophy runs the household and takes care of her younger sisters. She and Traddles are engaged to be married, but her family has made Sophy so indispensable that they resent Traddles for taking her away. The pair do eventually marry and settle down happily, and Sophy proves to be an invaluable aid in Traddles's legal career.
  • 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 Jorkins — The rarely seen partner of Mr Spenlow. Spenlow uses him as a scapegoat for any unpopular decision he chooses to make, painting Jorkins as an inflexible tyrant, but Jorkins is in fact a meek and timid nonentity who, when confronted, takes the same tack by blaming his inability to act on Mr. Spenlow.

Film, TV and theatrical adaptations[edit]

David Copperfield has been filmed on several occasions:


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

  • 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).

Major editions[edit]

Title page of a copy of the first book edition by Bradbury & Evans, signed by Dickens
  • 1849–1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans, Publication date 1 May 1849 to 1 November 1850, Serial (first publication)
  • 1850, UK, Bradbury & Evans, Publication date 14 November 1850, Bound (first book edition) 624 pages,[1] 38 plates
  • 1858, UK, Chapman & Hall and Bradbury & Evans, Publication date 1858, Hardback, 'Library Edition' 515 pages
  • 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' works) 781 pages
  • 1990, USA, W W Norton & Co Ltd ISBN 0-393-95828-0, Publication 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, Publication date 24 February 1994, Paperback
  • 1999, UK, Oxford Paperbacks ISBN 0-19-283578-5, Publication date 11 February 1999, Paperback
and many others


  1. ^ a b McCrum, Robert (30 December 2013). "The 100 best novels: No 15 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)". theguardian.com. The Guardian. Retrieved 24 March 2015. 
  2. ^ Dickens invented over 14 variations of the title for this work, see "Titles, Titling, and Entitlement to", by Hazard Adams in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 7–21
  3. ^ "Autobiographical Elements in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield". By The Book. The Knowledge Network. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Preface to the 1867 Charles Dickens edition
  5. ^ The grim reality of hand-to-mouth factory existence echoes Dickens's own travails, in a blacking factory when he was just a boy.
  6. ^ http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2010/09/unwilling-angels-charles-dickens-agnes-wickfield-and-the-effects-of-parentification.html


  • Jeffers, Thomas L. (2005). Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave. pp. 55–88. 
  • David Copperfield (Major Literary Characters series). Edited and with an Introduction by Harold Bloom. 255 pages. 1993 New York: Chelsea House Publishers
  • Graham Storey: David Copperfield – Interweaving Truth and Fiction (Twayne's Masterworks Studies). 111 pages. 1991 Boston: Twayne Publishers
  • Approaches to Teaching Dickens' David Copperfield. Edited by Richard J. Dunn. 162 pages. 1984 New York: The Modern Language Association of America
  • Barry Westburg: The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens. See pages 33 to 114. 1977 DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press
  • Catcher in The Rye, J.D. Salinger; Penguin 1951
  • Black Books -TV Series/DVD – Assembly Film and Television/Channel 4, 2002; Episode 2, Series 1 – 'Manny's First Day.'
  • The University Society, Inc., New York (no date). Seven volume set, "The Works of Charles Dickens," illus. by Barnard, Cruikshank and many others.

External links[edit]

Online editions