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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Dickens wrote David Copperfield in monthly installments, each a few chapters long. Let's read the novel section by section, as it originally appeared.


In the famous opening sentence, you learn at once that this is a first-person account. You also sense the narrator's uneasy modesty and ambivalence about himself. Suspense is set up-will he be the "hero" of this story? Why shouldn't he be? Who might be the hero(es) instead? Finally, you see the narrator as a writer, willing to let his writing answer these questions.

Almost as though he's unsure of himself, David makes a couple of false starts on his tale. First he records only the facts. Then he veers off into comical anecdotes about the neighbors' superstitions and the auction of his caul.


A caul is a piece of fetal membrane occasionally found on a baby's head at birth. Though it was considered good luck, David's birth hour was considered unlucky, so his prospects are already uncertain. A caul was said to protect against drowning; drowning will later play a significant role in the novel.

David gradually settles down into his story. He explains his father's early death and his quarrel with his rich aunt Betsey Trotwood. Then, having established the family circumstances, David launches into a direct dramatization of his birth day. In this comical scene, Aunt Betsey marches in, criticizes everything in the house, intimidates David's gentle mother Clara, and practically orders her to give birth to a girl. This sends Clara into labor. A second scene, in which Aunt Betsey treats mild Dr. Chillip the same way, confirms her character. When she learns that a boy has been born, she leaves abruptly, refusing to have anything to do with him. David is evidently not off to a good start.


David couldn't have witnessed these scenes, since he wasn't born yet. He draws them from what he's been told. But his impulse to dramatize them-and his skill at doing so-helps you to see him as a convincing storyteller.

David shifts to another narrative style in Chapter II: detailed present-tense impressions of his daily life as a child. Though he makes you aware that he is a grown man remembering these things, he also attempts to recapture his childish perspective. He sees his mother and their servant, Peggotty, foreshortened as they stoop down to him. The chickens in the yard look huge, and the hallway seems terribly long. He uses all his senses, including touch (Peggotty's rough forefinger) and smell (the mouldy air of the pantry). He also recreates a child's fancies, for example in his wandering imagination during church services.

David shifts back to the past tense with a scene by the parlor fire with Peggotty. Dickens drew upon his memory of how it feels to stay up past your bedtime, as he makes sleepy David imagine Peggotty swelling in size. He fixes his heavy eyes on nearby objects-Peggotty's thread wax, her workbox with St. Paul's on the lid, and her brass thimble. Then the little boy begins an odd conversation with Peggotty about marriage. (Notice that David's first speech in the novel centers on this main theme.) Peggotty's anxious reaction tells you that this topic is sensitive for some reason. As you read the dialogue, you can guess that it concerns David's mother, and immediately she appears with a gentleman friend. When the man compliments David's mother, David instinctively becomes jealous. David has painted a picture of a charmed childhood; now a force enters to destroy it.

David records what is happening accurately, yet he doesn't seem to understand its significance. The same is true after the gentleman leaves, when Mrs. Copperfield and Peggotty argue. You can read these scenes on two levels: what David sees and hears, and what an adult would understand is happening.

Mr. Murdstone and Peggotty begin to represent two opposing forces. David remembers seeing Mr. Murdstone more and more, while Peggotty is with them less and less. Whereas Peggotty huddles with David inside the house, Mr. Murdstone takes David out into the world, on horseback. David, who's been raised by women, now enters a man's world. Mr. Murdstone's friends at the hotel smoke cigars, drink, and joke crudely. Mr. Murdstone, however, comes off as a cold, commanding person.


David, although he doesn't catch on, is called "Brooks of Sheffield" here because he's so sharp. Sheffield is a city famous for making sharp knives. Throughout the book, David will be given new names by various characters. As someone who's searching for an identity, he tries to live up to each of these names. Consider the meaning of these names as they appear.

David adds another ominous stroke to his portrait of his mother. When he innocently repeats the men's leering remarks, she's vain, excited, and flattered. Peggotty's invitation to David to go with her to Yarmouth follows quickly. Clearly this concerns getting David out of the way, but innocent David is eager to go. Simple sentences at the end of the chapter describe his departure poignantly. Yet Dickens adds an extra level of meaning by slipping in without comment details of the behavior of Mrs. Copperfield, Mr. Murdstone, and Peggotty, suggesting the power struggle that's going on.

At Yarmouth, David is charmed by Peggotty's brother's house-a barge lodged on dry shore, with a chimney, doors, and windows stuck in. He sees it as a fairy-tale place and admires how tidy and cunning everything is inside. At the same time you can see the barge from an adult's perspective-cramped, cluttered, fishy-smelling. The first time David describes the inhabitants, Ham, Em'ly, Mrs. Gummidge, and Dan Peggotty, he shows only their outsides, as any child would. But inside the house at night, as David feels its warmth and security (he compares it to Noah's ark), these characters come alive. Dickens poses them around the fire, as if in a sentimental painting.


Dickens records the Yarmouth dialect accurately in the speech of Daniel, Ham, and Mrs. Gummidge. Emily, however, speaks standard English. Dickens often uses dialect either for comic effect or to emphasize a character's social class. Sometimes Dickens uses dialect to emphasize the simple goodness of working-class people, like Dan and Ham. In other cases, he will use dialect to show that a villain is from the lower classes. As you read, notice who speaks dialect, and consider why.

In a conversation with Mr. Peggotty, David learns the family circumstances. Mr. Peggotty has generously taken in orphaned Ham and Emily and widowed Mrs. Gummidge. Their fathers and husband were all, as Mr. Peggotty aptly mispronounces it, "drowndead."


The next day, when Emily tells David about her fear of the sea and her desire to be a lady, Dickens is setting up the elements of her tragic fate. Some readers think this is heavy-handed, but others point out how little Dickens actually has David say. Young David accepts Emily's words without comment. When she runs out recklessly on the jetty, it's the older David who reflects that it might have been better if she had died then, and this only increases the suspense. Look for more foreshadowing, especially in reference to Emily, as the novel progresses.

David speaks whimsically of his childhood love for Emily, yet he makes it sweet, too, in its innocence. The ultimate test of this household's goodness is the way it accepts self-pitying, complaining Mrs. Gummidge. It's hard for David to tear himself away, though once he's headed for home, he looks forward to seeing his mother again. When he arrives, though, everything has changed. There's a new servant at the door. When Peggotty anxiously tries to explain that his mother has remarried, David at first leaps to the conclusion that she's dead. In fact, she might as well be dead, for when he goes to greet her in the parlor, she's so intimidated by Mr. Murdstone ("Control yourself!" he warns her) that she can't relate to her son in the old way. He flees to his bedroom, but even his belongings have been moved. Chapter III (and the first installment) ends with the image of the new dog in the kennel, a dog as threatening as Mr. Murdstone himself.

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