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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Like many novels, David Copperfield shows its main character growing up. But since David is a writer, the lessons he learns are especially important for that profession. Consider this at each stage of David's development. Look for evidence in his childhood that he's destined to be a storyteller. Think about the importance he places on education and discipline. Watch for episodes where David is an observer of events, drinking in impressions of life rather than acting upon them. Think about how David's suffering deepens his art, and how his struggle to balance romantic and realistic outlooks may lead him to see all aspects of life.


This novel presents you with a spectrum of marriages. David himself is married twice and learns that romantic love and domestic happiness don't always come in the same package. Dickens looks at power struggles in married life. For example, compare Mr. Murdstone's tyranny over his wife to the Micawbers' loyal partnership. Dickens could not write openly about sex, but sexual currents run strongly beneath the surface. For example, think about Annie Strong married to old Dr. Strong, or Agnes pursued by vile Uriah Heep. Emily chooses an affair with the attractive Steerforth over marriage to Ham, whom she loves as a brother, yet David's brotherly love for Agnes appears more lasting than his attraction to Dora. Dickens shows some couples, like Peggotty and Barkis, making a go of unromantic marriages while he depicts others, like Aunt Betsey, as bitterly disappointed by romantic marriages.


Dickens emphasizes discipline as a virtue David must cultivate. Aunt Betsey goes to great lengths to teach David self-reliance. Though he lacks David's talent, Traddles shows how far steady work alone can carry someone toward success. Useful work is a joy to Mr. Dick, and it transforms Mr. Micawber. Set against this, however, are those who abuse discipline, such as the Murdstones and Mr. Creakle. Dickens asks you to consider emotional discipline as well. David's romantic nature needs to be brought under control before he can find happiness. Steerforth and Emily lack discipline, and this leads them to ruin, whereas Annie Strong saves herself by disciplining her heart. In contrast, Aunt Betsey must learn to be less disciplined and more open to her feelings.


Almost no one in this book has a complete family. There are orphans (Traddles, Ham, and Emily), only children with a single parent (Agnes, Uriah Heep, Steerforth), and only children with a single parent who later become orphans (David and Dora). Often these single parents have an unhealthy attachment to their children. Mrs. Steerforth ruins her son, Mr. Wickfield ruins himself for Agnes, Mrs. Markleham undermines her daughter's marriage, and Dan Peggotty becomes obsessed with searching for his adopted daughter. The only big, happy family is the Micawbers, and Dickens suggests that they have too many children. Dickens came from a large, poor family himself. The effect of these fragmented homes is to emphasize characters' loneliness, the fragility of the family, and the importance of forming other bonds of friendship and responsibility.


As David struggles to balance these two strains in his personality, consider other characters who relate to this theme: the romantics (Mrs. Copperfield, Emily, Dora, Steerforth, Mr. Wickfield, the Micawbers) and the realists (Aunt Betsey, Uriah Heep, Traddles, Agnes, the Strongs). Consider also how Dickens shifts between romantic and realistic viewpoints and styles.

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