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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Free Book Notes
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Dickens loved to walk the streets of London at night, and he recreates them vividly here, as David and Mr. Peggotty follow Martha. Finally, on a dark side street in a nightmarish neighborhood, Martha halts on the riverbank as though she's about to throw herself in. David grabs her arm and stops her, but she seems haunted by the river, babbling that it's the only place for her.


Martha consciously compares herself to the river, which begins pure in the country and ends polluted in the great troubled sea. Ham and Emily also are drawn to water, and the image of drowning is connected with all three of them. Drowning may also be a metaphor for emotional and sexual desire, which brings grief to these characters.

In the dark, following this brush with death, the melodrama continues. Notice how eloquent Martha's speech is (she doesn't use dialect). She reminds you of Emily's goodness and then describes the wretched life of a disgraced woman, pointing out to Mr. Peggotty that even he has spurned her. In contrast, in simple dialect he says he's changed his views, that he loves Emily and needs Martha's aid. She dramatically vows to help, but refuses to take any money, saying that the trust they put in her may save her soul.

Another mystery meets David when he gets home. The shabby, sullen stranger is in Aunt Betsey's garden, and David sees her give the man some money. He accepts it ungratefully, whining for more; Betsey cries out that he has hurt her enough already. After he leaves, David approaches her and begs to know the truth about this man. She confesses that it's her husband, who's not dead, as everyone thought.


Speaking of herself in the third person, Betsey tells David how much she once loved this man. If you're surprised to hear that she was once so romantic, note that she says she buried her feelings after he hurt her. Think back and see how this explains her behavior toward many people, including David's parents.

In the next chapter, David's own marriage is examined. He modestly describes the success of his first novel, and how that made life easier. His worldly success, however, contrasts with the disorder in his home. The arrest of their page shows how badly David and Dora are victimized, not only by their servants but also by all the local tradesmen. No longer does David blame outside sources; he tells Dora they are at fault for not being better managers. Dora reacts defensively, as she did when he criticized her before, but her sobbing isn't so effective now. He simply decides to take another tack with her.


Some readers have felt that David is acting like Mr. Murdstone in teaching his wife new habits, and that Dickens disapproves. Others think Dickens is merely mocking David for trying to change a child like Dora. David's speeches to Dora do sound a little self-righteous, but they are standard Victorian rhetoric about social duty and domestic order. Dickens portrays David's efforts to teach Dora with irony, but it's hard to tell whether David or Dora is the object of satire. (It may be both!)

Oddly enough, Dora keeps questioning their marriage. She knows what David has been trying to do, and when he confesses it, she suggestsnot for the first time-that he shouldn't have married her. She begins a question: "Are you sure you don't think, sometimes, it would have been better to have-" Some readers think she's about to say how much better a wife Agnes would be, but David doesn't pick up on it. He isn't as insightful as Dora is. He feels melancholy, and though he knows it's normal for youthful fancies to fade, he senses that his marriage lacks something that other marriages have. (This leads him to think of Agnes, you notice.) But he can't imagine life without Dora, and, in straightforward sentences he describes how he loves her. Rather than admit he's made a mistake, he tries to discipline his "undisciplined heart." Feeling guilty for being unhappy, he struggles to content himself with Dora.

By now the situation is gently tragic. Dora becomes pregnant, and David hopes motherhood will mature her, but the baby dies. Notice the sentimental language, typically Victorian in its euphemisms about pregnancy and childbirth. Dora never fully recovers, and as she notices that Jip is getting old, a sense of mortality begins to settle on her. She is sweeter and more affectionate than ever, but David reflects ruefully on another meaning of her nickname "Little Blossom," that like a flower she must wither and die.

Another mystery brews in Chapter XLIX. David receives a letter from Mr. Micawber which is so wordy and convoluted that David can hardly understand any of it, except that Micawber is in trouble and wants to talk. Traddles arrives with a similar letter from Mrs. Micawber, begging for help with the change in her husband. Intrigued, Traddles and David go to meet Mr. Micawber. He seems downcast and uneasy and responds bitterly to David's inquiries about Heep. Although he speaks in his characteristic style, he's dejected. How does this affect the comedy here? They take him to Betsey's cottage to cheer him up, but Micawber has a hard time even making punch. The rest of the party watches him restlessly. Finally Micawber breaks down and explodes into an agitated, broken speech about the fraud and hypocrisy he has witnessed. The hated name "HEEP" rises during this speech like a violent hiccup. Finally Micawber rushes out, but he sends a coherent letter from a nearby tavern, politely inviting them all to Canterbury next week where, he promises intriguingly, he will perform his "duty."

The very next night another mystery rises to a climax. On a still evening after a heavy rain (symbolic weather), Martha arrives at David's cottage and, without an explanation, leads him to town. Their destination is a dilapidated, crowded lodging house. A figure flits up the rotten stairs ahead of them, and with amazement David recognizes Rosa Dartle. Martha leads David into a small room adjoining the room Rosa went into. Through the door, David can hear Rosa's showdown with Emily. You have to follow this scene by sounds only, like a radio play. David is merely a convenient observer; he can't interfere until Mr. Peggotty arrives.

The scene between the women is wrenching and melodramatic. Rosa insults and accuses Emily, who protests with tears and anguish. Rosa has been transformed completely into a villainess, while Emily is sweet and repentant. When Emily speaks of how she loved Steerforth, Rosa explodes, "You love him?"- suggesting that her own frustrated love has fed this rage. Mocking Emily's honesty, Rosa warns her to hide herself, then steps dramatically from the room. A second later Dan Peggotty rushes in to catch his distraught niece as she faints.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-David Copperfield by Charles Dickens-Online Summary

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