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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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In Chapter IV, Dickens proves he was a master of child psychology before the science had even been established. David's mother comforts him behind her husband's back, but when Mr. Murdstone joins them, she gives in to his insistence on "firmness." Later, she hugs David in the dark, but she does it furtively. David, too, learns to lie, to tell his stepfather that the smudge on his face is dirt, not tears, in order to escape a beating. After the openness and generosity he found at Mr. Peggotty's house, David feels Mr. Murdstone is mean and harsh indeed.


Dickens uses many techniques to "tag" characters. One way is to give them names that sound like their qualities. (Murdstone is a perfect example-the name sounds murderous and hard.) Another is to repeat phrases throughout a character's speech, like Mr. Murdstone's "firmness" or Mrs. Gummidge's "a lone lorn creetur." A third technique is to associate the character with objects. As Mr. Murdstone's sister is introduced, notice how many metallic objects surround her. Like metal, she is cold, hard, and heavy.

At the dinner table, Mr. and Miss Murdstone skillfully work together, manipulating Clara until she bends to their viewpoint. David feels a new spirit pervading his life. Compare the church scene in Chapter II with his gloomy visits now. David explicitly compares his grueling lessons with Mr. Murdstone to the pleasant ones he used to share with his mother. He dramatizes his lessons by using the present tense, catching every wave of miserable emotion that blocks his learning.


The one thing that saves David is reading books he finds in the attic. These were the books Dickens himself read and loved best as a child. An early love of novels is a clue that David is destined to be a writer.

One day Mr. Murdstone brings a cane to the lessons, and the threat of being beaten drives everything else from David's mind. (Note Mr. Murdstone's sadistic touch-he makes up absurd story problems about canes.) Though David has become sullen and passive, at this showdown his fighting spirit rises, and in the physical struggle he instinctively bites Mr. Murdstone. Dickens understood how natural a child's sense of guilt is. After he's been beaten and locked away, David feels like a criminal, the more so because he is treated like one. Like a life force, Peggotty breathes hope to him through the keyhole. But when David is sent away to boarding school, his mother is not allowed to say goodbye fondly. She's been persuaded he's wicked-and he feels he is, too.

Comedy blossoms in Chapter V, as a welcome relief from the Murdstones. Peggotty's sly, defiant, button-bursting farewell is comical. So is David's dialogue with the inarticulate wagon-driver Barkis, with his mysterious message for Peggotty, "Barkis is willing." The waiter at the coach-stop inn is also comical, with his friendly way of swindling innocent David out of his lunch. Nevertheless, the waiter's gruesome story of what happened to a boy at David's school (though he's probably just teasing David) plants a seed of worry in David's mind. At this point, what do you sense David is heading for?

The other coach passengers are satirized merrily, too. During the trip David imagines the lives in the villages they pass through (again, a writer's instinct). He sees London in terms of storybooks and, abandoned briefly at the coach office, he invents various fates for himself. The schoolmaster who finally picks him up isn't particularly friendly. But as that man visits his poor old mother, who so obviously loves him (even admiring his wretched flute-playing!), Mr. Mell becomes a sympathetic character.

Salem House looks desolate to David. It's square, plain, and empty of life. The boys are still on vacation-David's been sent here early as a punishment.


Dickens gives you a description of the schoolroom which indirectly paints a picture of routine school life. It begins realistically with the layer of papers scattered over the floor, and ends in exaggeration as he imagines the skies raining ink on the room. In between are several unexpected details. The schoolroom pets suggest how bored and lonely the boys are. Dickens captures the peculiar smell of the room, too, pulling together images of school uniforms, smuggled snacks, unhealthy dampness, and stale air. --

The detail that really defines the school is the sign David is forced to wear: "Take care of him. He bites." This is cruel and unusual punishment indeed, and it haunts David, taking over his self-image. In the dreary days that follow, David's fertile mind is filled with melancholy memories of home and apprehensive images of the other schoolboys, drawn imaginatively from names he's read carved in a door.

When school begins in Chapter VI, David discovers the rotten source of authority-Mr. Creakle. In his quarters (comfortable compared to the boys' rooms), the headmaster sits like an angry tyrant. His whispering voice is fierce with repressed energy, and the one-legged porter Tungay repeats what Creakle says in a louder voice, to heighten its bullying power. The boys, however, are better than David imagined. Traddles is kind, and helps make David's sign a simple joke. James Steerforth, clearly a leader and a hero, also saves David from shame, though at the same time he gets control over David's spending money. Even naive David is a little suspicious of Steerforth's offer, but the party that princely Steerforth throws with David's money is a genial, delightful affair. That night, David gets the inside story on sadistic Creakle, malicious Tungay, and the underpaid teachers Mr. Sharp and Mr. Mell. Steerforth's privileged position becomes clear, too. Before they go to sleep, Steerforth asks David if he has a sister. What does this suggest to you about Steerforth's character?

David is clearly attracted to Steerforth, as he watches the older boy, graceful and handsome in his sleep. Nevertheless, the older narrator drops a hint about the cloud he should have seen hanging over Steerforth-an ominous foreshadowing to end this installment.

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