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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Creakle takes sadistic pleasure in beating boys, as David learns the next day when he and several other boys are caned for no reason. In a series of present-tense sketches, David relives the anxiety of these daily beatings. You also see their effect on cheerful Tommy Traddles, and you see that Steerforth alone is above punishment. Then, however, David shows you a vulnerable side of Steerforth. Discovering that David has read many stories and can tell them well, Steerforth, who has trouble sleeping, persuades David to entertain him at bedtime. What do you think Steerforth's hunger for stories is a sign of? David doesn't really enjoy performing on call for him-he suspects that it encourages a harmful romantic streak in him. But he's flattered by the attention.

The bad side of Steerforth's character is shown in the next long scene. On a rainy afternoon the boys are so boisterous that long-suffering Mr. Mell shouts at them in exasperation. When Steerforth insolently talks back, Mr. Mell loses his temper, accusing Steerforth of corrupting younger students. (Mr. Mell seems to be referring to David, though he doesn't say so.) When Creakle intervenes, Steerforth reveals coolly what he has learned from David about poor old Mrs. Mell. Creakle unjustly fires Mr. Mell, ostensibly because he hid his poverty, but really because Creakle has to back Steerforth. Steerforth's conscience seems to trouble him, and he quarrels with Traddles for feeling sorry for Mr. Mell. David feels bad about it too, but he keeps silent.

Soon after, David gets a surprise visit from Mr. Peggotty and Ham. Notice how much older David seems-he relates to them more self-consciously. They speak often of Emily, who they say is growing up, too, becoming a woman. Then Steerforth strolls in, and David introduces them. They are charmed by Steerforth. But on some vague instinct, David decides not to tell Steerforth about Emily. At this point in the story, do you share David's opinion of Steerforth? Why?

David is eager to go home for the holidays, and the comic talk he has with Barkis on the way sets a happy, homey tone. But as David draws closer to the Rookery, his bad memories revive. The scene appears bleak and wintry. Then the sound of his mother's singing triggers a rush of earlier, happier feelings. When he runs in and discovers she has a new baby, he's delighted. To top it off, the Murdstones are gone for the day. David spends a happy afternoon, though he notices that his mother seems thinner, more anxious, and more dependent on Peggotty.


Peggotty briefly mentions Aunt Betsey in this conversation. Remember that Dickens had to keep his characters "alive" through several installments. Betsey won't appear again in the plot for several chapters, but Dickens doesn't want you to forget who she is. --

David's mother bickers with Peggotty about the Murdstones. This is one way Dickens can bring you up to date on the state of things in that household without having David tell you outright. From the conversation you can tell that vain, pliant Clara has been brainwashed by her husband and sister-in-law. David picks up on some of this, but he doesn't find fault with his beloved mother-just as he has been unable to find fault with Steerforth.

When the Murdstones return, the mood of the house changes perceptibly. David avoids them that night, and he can hardly face going down to breakfast the next morning. But David isn't just being timid-he really is unwelcome. Miss Murdstone counts the days until he's due to leave. He isn't allowed near the new baby. He's criticized constantly, and he's made to feel conspicuous the moment he enters a room. A dramatized scene in the parlor shows you that the Murdstones are using their disapproval of David to gain more control over Clara, but David feels personally abused. If you've ever been caught in the middle of a family quarrel, you may know how he feels.


At the end of Chapter VIII, Dickens uses his rhetorical style in a series of sentences beginning with "What" and ending with an urgent exclamation point, as David lists the torments of his vacation. In the third paragraph of this series, a string of clauses each ends miserably with the phrase "and that mine." And the final paragraph piles up "what's" frequently, desperately.

It's clear that David is glad to leave when his vacation is over. But he still loves his mother, and he's bitterly sorry for her.


Dickens instinctively used cinematic techniques, though movies hadn't been invented in his time. Clara's anguish is crystallized here in a single, wordless moment-almost like a movie shot. She stands at the gate, intently holding up her baby; David's vision zooms in on her as he rides away. It's a mute cry from a doomed victim, more powerful than any speech could be.

The cold, foggy weather on David's next birthday suggests that something bad is about to happen. Weather is often an omen in Dickens' novels. David perks up when he's called to the school office, but Mr. Sharp is ominously kind. Mrs. Creakle tries to break the news gently, but David is bright enough to guess, before she's finished telling him, that his mother has died. Dickens' psychological insight helps him to trace realistically the stages of David's grief. After crying, David thinks not of his mother but of the trappings of death-her gravestone, their shut-up house, and his own role as a mourner. He even plays up his grief, enjoying the attention from the other boys.

Before he gets home, David has to stop off in Yarmouth to be measured for his mourning clothes. In contrast to the expected mood of death, Mr. Omer's undertaker's shop is a busy, merry place. Fat Mr. Omer, his daughter Minnie, and his coffin-maker Joram are quite used to funerals. Mr. Omer describes David's mother just as he'd describe any corpse, by the size of the grave, and Minnie and Joram flirt with each other as though they're on a picnic. But this seems ghoulish to David, and he assumes they're hardhearted.

There's plenty of grief at the Rookery. Peggotty attends her dead mistress almost obsessively. Even Mr. Murdstone is weeping, though Miss Murdstone is as cold and practical as ever. David describes her bitterly, but he shifts to a gentler, more sympathetic tone as he depicts Mr. Murdstone's restless, tight-clenched sorrow. In the present tense, David shows the full ritual of a Victorian funeral, a solemn religious affair. (Dickens uses no irony in writing about God, for he was a firm Christian.) It's like an old movie, silent except for the resounding words of the Lord.


David doesn't witness his mother's death, though Dickens could have written it so David got home in time to see her die. Instead he uses Peggotty to narrate the touching scenes. That way, he can keep death at a respectful distance. (Notice how he does this throughout the book.) As Clara's close friend and an adult, Peggotty can interpret her feelings better than David could. Also, by having Peggotty, with her strong, simple emotions, describe the death, Dickens can lend emotion to it without appearing too sentimental himself.

David consciously begins to idealize his mother as soon as she is dead. But oddly enough, he also pictures himself as her infant child, dead on her bosom. In a way, her death marks the end of one life for David-and the beginning of another, still to be defined.

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